Given how many franchises Dwayne Johnson has been recruited to enhance and/or revive (G.I. Joe, Fast and Furious, Jumanji, Rampage, etc.), it’s probably only fair that the guy gets to headline his own original blockbuster launch. Calling Skyscraper “original” might be a bit of a stretch, though, even if it’s not directly based on any source material. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber owes a heavy debt to Die Hard and the many, many Die Hard imitators for Skyscraper, which adds a bit of The Towering Inferno to the formula, and aims for those all-important international box-office dollars by setting the action in Hong Kong.
That’s where security consultant Will Sawyer (Johnson) is evaluating the integrity of the Pearl, a new skyscraper so big that it’s three times the height of the Empire State Building and even dwarfs Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the real world). Billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) just needs Will’s go-ahead to open up the residential portion of his building, which has already been open for retail on its lower floors. On the day that Will is set to sign off, a group of criminals led by the Hans Gruber-esque Kores Botha (Roland Møller) breaks into the building and starts a fire that is shockingly not immediately put out by the Pearl’s allegedly foolproof fire-suppression systems.
And wouldn’t you know it, Will’s military doctor wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and his two adorable kids just happen to be the only people in the residential section when the fire starts, while Will is across town being double-crossed by his supposed best buddy (Pablo Schreiber), a fellow former FBI agent who got him the Pearl job. Oh, and Will is now wanted by the cops, thanks to a convoluted frame job by the criminals. Can he get to the 96th floor of the Pearl, rescue his family, stop the bad guys and expose their scheme against Zhao?
Well, of course he can—he’s The Rock. Despite Johnson’s seemingly bottomless well of charisma, it’s still pretty much impossible to see him as an underdog, and Will’s superhuman feats of running, leaping and fighting have more in common with the cartoonish John McClane of the later Die Hard sequels than with the genuinely outmatched McClane of the original. Even giving Will a prosthetic leg (he had to have half a leg amputated after a hostage rescue went wrong 10 years earlier) doesn’t do much to slow him down, and the disability only becomes relevant when it’s needed to artificially increase the tension or for a bit of comic relief.
As the action gets increasingly absurd, most of the suspense and excitement dissipates, since it’s clear that neither Will nor anyone he cares about is actually in danger. The special effects are strong enough to create several genuinely vertiginous moments (and the Pearl itself is a gorgeous piece of design), but the stakes still feel low, even when Will is sticking himself to the side of the building with duct tape instead of the high-tech gloves that Tom Cruise used to climb the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Thurber started out working in comedy, gradually adding more action to his movies with We’re the Millers and then Central Intelligence (also starring Johnson), but Skyscraper is almost completely devoid of wit, and the character development is sketchy at best. This is another installment of The Rock Must Save His Family, with a burning building instead of an earthquake as in San Andreas, and while Johnson has gotten really good at that, it might be time for him to try something else.