Dwayne Johnson is one of the most intense and badass action stars working in Hollywood right now. His heroes tend to be larger-than-life figures who always seem on top of any given situation, but the 46-year-old wrestler-turned-actor has decided to change things up by delving into everyman territory with Rawson Marshall Thurber's Skyscraper. As far as Johnson is concerned, the movie mostly works due to his endlessly charismatic performance, but the film's derivative, paint-by-numbers story still prevents it from becoming anything more than B-movie popcorn fun.
Taking place in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, Skyscraper centers its story on Dwayne Johnson's Will Sawyer. A former FBI hostage rescue specialist who put down his weapons to start a security company after an IED claimed his leg during a mission several years earlier, Will is brought in to assess the safety and security of The Pearl -- the newly-constructed tallest building in the world. However, things go horribly wrong when terrorists invade the facility and take his wife (Neve Campbell) and children hostage in an attempt to destroy the building. When the authorities assume his involvement in the incident, Sawyer finds himself on the run from the police. Plus, he has to find a way back into the building to rescue the ones he loves before the whole thing comes crashing down.
The hype surrounding Skyscraper has primarily hinged on the ever-present notion that it's a Die Hard homage, which actually feels like a bit of a misnomer. The DNA of John McTiernan's action classic is definitely there, and while there is an ensemble of villainous characters for Will Sawyer to battle throughout the movie, Skyscraper is actually far more of a disaster movie than a straight-faced action romp. In fact, for the bulk of the film, the DNA of The Towering Inferno is far more prominent than that of the first-ever John McClane adventure.
It's in these Towering Inferno-esque sequences that Skyscraper shines. Rawson Marshall Thurber does an excellent job of conveying the scale of the building, and there are some scenes (such as one involving Sawyer scaling the building with duct tape on his hands) that genuinely induce vertigo at times. This is where the movie fires on all cylinders, and where audiences will find themselves on the edges of their seats.
These moments are helped by an against-type performance by Dwayne Johnson as Will Sawyer. For a man of his size, strength, and larger-than-life persona, Johnson effectively conveys this character as a skilled (but not invulnerable) survivor who barely scrapes by in the face of danger. Because of this, we get one of Johnson's best performances in recent memory, and his chemistry with Neve Campbell's Sarah (she's the other significant standout here) helps anchor the otherwise insane film in a place of real emotion.
Sadly, the film's set pieces (and Johnson's strength in those set pieces) are not indicative of the quality of the story, which feels like a mishmash of action and disaster movie clichés that were thrown together. There are so many moving pieces in terms of villainous characters and their motivations that nobody ever really gets a chance to stand out, and some of the most interesting character beats (such as the arc of Pablo Schreiber's character) are cast off quickly and mostly forgotten. The result is a movie full of one-note henchmen, with nobody ever really rising to the level of iconography enjoyed by Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber or Alexander Godunov's Karl from Die Hard.
The issue here largely stems from the fact that Skyscraper doesn't seem that interested in its main story. There's an entire conspiracy plot involving billionaire Zhao (Chin Han), but the skeleton of that story never matches the intensity or the intrigue of the daredevil moments that get Sawyer back into the building. Couple that with a series of telegraphed plot twists that audiences can see coming from a mile away, and it lends the sense that Skyscraper arguably doesn't trust its audience to follow along with the story that it's trying to tell.
Those issues eventually bleed into the action, as well. For all of the praise that we can heap upon the platforming scenes involving Sawyer just trying to survive, the fights and gunfights (it's worth mentioning the fact that Sawyer himself never fires one) largely fail to get our blood pumping in any significant way. There's one showstopper hand-to-hand scene toward the beginning of the film, but after that, the traditional action became background noise because I didn't fully care about the plot driving it forward. A lot of cool ideas settle into place (such as a sci-fi take on the hall of mirrors fight in Enter the Dragon), but they ultimately feel like ideas that were thought of before the story was fully cooked.
With all of that said, Skyscraper deserves credit for providing audiences with an original ensemble of characters and a story that is not based on any pre-existing pieces of intellectual property. Sequelitis continues to loom as a significant concern for many moviegoers, and Skyscraper should serve as a decent panacea for that issue. It thrilled me at times, but it also left me wishing that as much effort had gone into the story as had gone into the action beats.
All in all, Skyscraper isn't as good or exciting as the films that it pays homage to, but it's a refreshing change of pace to see a competently-made original summer action movie. Even with its paper-thin story that feels like it went through several different rewrites throughout the film's development, the movie remains anchored by a charismatic lead performance by Dwayne Johnson and a handful of solid set pieces.