After sitting through Dwayne “No Longer The Rock” Johnson’s third film in less than a year, Skyscraper, you won’t believe a man can fly – Christopher Reeve as Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent got there first forty years ago and he was wearing spandex and a cape – but you’ll believe Johnson’s one-legged character, Will Sawyer, can leap tall buildings (not leap over, however) to save his family from a burning mega-skyscraper and the rando, vaguely European terrorists who started the fire to steal an ultra-high value MacGuffin. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before from one of the hardest working performers in Hollywood (three films in seven months, with another half-dozen on the way over the next two or three years), but for Johnson’s super-fans, it’ll be more than enough to overlook Skyscraper’s paper-thin, second-rate plot – a mash-up of Die Hard, The Towering Inferno and every action-film cliché in between – forgettable, throwaway villains, a plot and setting deliberately geared toward Asian-Pacific audiences, and mediocre action scenes lathered in CGI spectacle.
An unnecessary prologue sets up the why and how (insert yawn here) of how Sawyer, a former Marine-turned-FBI-hostage-rescuer loses his leg on a botched mission, ending his career, but starting him on the next stage of his life, marriage to a former combat surgeon, Sarah (Neve Campbell), father to preteen twins, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), and a new career as a fire-and-safety security consultant. That career change leads Sawyer and his family to Hong Kong and the “Pearl,” the largest, human-made building, half-open to the public (and also half-closed to the public). With the Pearl’s billionaire owner, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), eager to open the Pearl fully, he hires Sawyer to convince his insurers the building won’t go up in flames or collapse on itself. All of which Sawyer dutifully does, thanks to the old FBI friend, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), who helped Sawyer get the gig in the first place.
Of course, everything goes sideways practically from the get-go. An ultra-super-tablet, keyed to Sawyer’s biometrics (facial recognition software) becomes the first target for mercenaries led by the ruthless (by PG-13 standards) Kores Botha (Roland Møller). Botha wants the tablet. Sawyer has the tablet. Sawyer’s family inadvertently gets in the way of Botha getting the tablet, in part because Botha’s plan involves starting a 10-alarm fire on the same floor where Sawyer’s family are currently residing. Sawyer, however, isn’t with his family. He’s hundreds (and hundreds) of floors below them, leading to that slo-mo, superhuman leap from a massive crane into the burning skyscraper featured prominently in all of the trailers and TV ads (all this moments after climbing the crane one handhold and foothold at a time). And that’s long before Sawyer has to step and slide his way across the world’s thinnest ledge to disable and/or recover a literal plot device.
Your suspension of disbelief will be tested, if not outright shattered, by what happens in Skyscraper, Johnson’s second collaboration with Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence). Thurber also wrote Skyscraper, though using the word “wrote” suggests a level of originality or imagination that Skyscraper rarely shows story wise. Even when he’s not opening borrowing – or pilfering, if you’re feeling less charitable – plot elements from Die Hard or The Towering Inferno, he’s borrowing elements from … Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (the mirror fight) and Live Free or Die Hard (aka, Die Hard 4), including Xia (Hannah Quinlivan), a leather-clad, female assassin with inerrant, videogame aim who strikes a “look at me, I’m super cool” pose seconds after she’s gunned down a room full of innocent computer techs (see, e.g., Maggie Q’s character from Die Hard 4). Since it’s PG-13, it’s completely bloodless and thus, perfect for the entire family. To his credit, Thurber doesn’t completely sideline Sarah. She gets a few moments where she gets to prove she’s almost as resourceful and resilient as her husband (until the third act effectively sidelines her).
Action wise, Skyscraper delivers a near seamless blend of CGI effects and practical stunts, though everything looks almost real, but not quite real enough to be convincing, especially during the second half when external shots of the Pearl on fire fail to pass the real-world test. Still, when a sweat-and-grime-stained Johnson’s running or hobbling around trying to save his family, you almost want to give the whole enterprise a massive benefit of the doubt. Johnson’s rep as the “hardest working performer in Hollywood” didn’t happen by accident. It’s been earned over almost two decades of single-minded dedication (Johnson’s daily workout routine and caloric intake are second to none) and it shows in the determination and commitment Johnson gives to an underwritten, checklist character like Sawyer. One day, Johnson will choose a role equal to his talents, skills, and drive. That day, however, isn’t today.