There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who celebrate a movie in which America’s most beloved hero, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, leaps from a crane to a building engulfed in flames, and those who don’t. I don’t want to know any of the latter.
Writer-Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s SKYSCRAPER doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does add much-needed flair, fire and feminism to a genre overlooked since John McClane surprised his wife at a Christmas party. It’s an engaging, explosive thrill riot meant to be seen on the big screen – and it’ll induce many a palm to sweat. This is high-concept hijinks with heart.
Former FBI agent and amputee Will Sawyer (Johnson) has been hired as the safety and security expert for the recently-constructed “Pearl,” the tallest building in the world. But just as the top half of the tower is about to be cleared for residency, a criminal syndicate led by baddie Botha (Roland Møller) hijacks the building and ignites a fire. And of course Will’s family – Naval surgeon Sarah (Neve Campbell), and twins Henry (Noah Cottrell) and Georgia (McKenna Roberts) – are still in the building when it goes up in flames. It becomes a race against escalating odds to save his family from the blaze – and clear his name as a suspect.
Many will compare this to DIE HARD and THE TOWERING INFERNO. It’s evident that Thurber has designed the proceedings as a loving homage to those classics without being an outright mash-up. On the occasion, he flips the script: Instead of placing the marital relationship on a rocky foundation, he sets up the family as a loving, supportive one. Thurber goes to great lengths to spotlight Sarah as an equally capable, intelligent and caring counterpart to Will. They save each other an equal number of times, which is a blessing to see true feminism in a movie set in a monumental phallic symbol.
Perhaps what works best is that there’s not an ounce of fat. Thurber works within the parameters of the genre in hugely entertaining ways. The two McGuffins (a tablet and a computer drive that looks like a kazoo) are integral pieces to this plot’s puzzle. Gone are any manipulative devices like a pushy score (which goes largely undetected during pivotal moments) or shoe-horned narrative contrivances.
It’s invigorating that everything shown is for a purpose. The brisk pace keeps things snappy, leaving no room for boredom. Character drive is always at the forefront of the action – a genuine feat in a movie some might easily (and unfairly) dismiss. The rules of the world (i.e. how the building functions) are logical and coherent, even if some of the spectacular stunt sequences err on the knowingly ludicrous side. Listen, I wouldn’t want those popcorn moments to be anything less than bombastic in this kind of movie. That wouldn’t be right for the tone.
What makes the film work is a commitment to the heightened reality (pun intended) of things like the crane jump and rappelling into a wind turbine (Burj Khalif-whaaaat?!). When you have a charismatic protagonist like The Rock – a man who broke casts off his arms by merely flexing (in FURIOUS 7) – it’s imperative to utilize him accordingly. We can certainly suspend disbelief (pun intended) when he holds a bridge steady with those same jacked-up arms.
While the aesthetics aren’t by any means awful, and look great for the most part, some sequences could’ve used a smidge more craft and care. Fights in close quarters lack ever-so-slightly in visual cogency. It may be due to time constraints, but the ENTER THE DRAGON-influenced “Cave of Mirrors” inside the Pearl would’ve exceeded expectations if it were done on a practical set instead of a heavily green-screened one. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 raised the bar in that regard.
Thurber has found an awesome way to make audiences cheer for the everyman action hero again. Serving up fun, popcorn-fueled fare, SKYSCRAPER glimmers as a towering throwback of an action film. Lighting a fire under the butts of other studios to return us to the blockbusting genre’s heyday would be its greatest legacy.
SKYSCRAPER opens on July 13.