July 2021

Skyscraper (2018)

DIRECTOR: Rawson Marshall Thurber

CAST: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, Roland Moller, Chin Han, Hannah Quinlivan, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Elfina Luk, Pablo Schreiber


Among the myriad lesser Die Hard knock-offs, Skyscraper falls somewhere in the middle, an adequately involving diversion in the moment that doesn’t leave a strong impression once all the stunts and pyrotechnics are over.  A mash-up of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, it feels like something that would have been at home in the 1980s starring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose career Dwayne Johnson often seems to be attempting to emulate) or Sylvester Stallone. 

The paper-thin, logically questionable plot exists as little more than a skeletal framework to string action sequences together, but it involves security expert Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), who has been brought to the newly-constructed tallest building in the world, the 4,000-foot high Pearl in Hong Kong, to do a security assessment for its owner, ambitious billionaire business mogul Zhao (Chin Han) and his nervous investors.  Of course, wife (Neve Campbell), plucky daughter (McKenna Roberts), and asthmatic son (Noah Cottrell) are also conveniently tagging along so they can up the suspense by being placed in harm’s way.  During the Sawyer family’s stay, the Pearl is taken over by a generic crew of mercs/assassins/terrorists (the movie isn’t super clear on the specifics, but does it really matter?) led by Kores Botha (Roland Moller), who stage a fire halfway up the tower, disable the automated countermeasures, then drive the fire upwards, leaving Sawyer’s family and Zhao himself trapped going up.  It seems Zhao has something Botha needs, and he’s willing to go to extreme (and logically dubious) lengths to force him to hand it over.  Meanwhile, Will himself is stuck outside, and undergoes a police chase and commandeers a crane to break in.  From there, of course, commences your standard-issue Die Hard-esque running around taking on henchmen and interfering with the nefarious scheme, except Will has a handicap John McClane didn’t….a prosthetic leg with a bad habit of breaking off at inopportune moments.

Skyscraper adds pinches of variety to its basic Die Hard cocktail by giving Dwayne Johnson a prosthetic leg to hobble around on, and a souped-up sci-fi-esque megatower (our introduction to the Pearl teases some cool visuals, including an indoor park, which alas go underexplored in lieu of standard-issue scurrying around in stairwells and corridors).  Some action sequences, including one in which Sawyer dangles precariously from his loosely-connected prosthetic leg, are far-fetched but momentarily exciting, and the climax in a funhouse-esque hall of mirrors, is kind of nifty, and it allows for a satisfying turnaround moment.  The movie feels pre-packaged for a Chinese audience, set in Hong Kong with a Chinese supporting cast, including a couple superfluous cops (Byron Mann and Elfina Luk) who don’t provide much besides some unnecessary exposition; one wonders if it will fare better among Asian audiences.

Alas, a major aspect that gave Die Hard a spark that Skyscraper lacks was the cast and characters, and the watered-down shallow knock-offs here are nowhere near the same level.  Dwayne Johnson is adequate as the stalwart, nigh-indestructible Will Sawyer, but the stoic Johnson lacks the charisma and wisecracking panache of Bruce Willis’ John McClane (I’ve by now seen Johnson in enough films to come to the conclusion he’s more fun in action-comedies than he is when playing straight like here).  The bad guys are an underwhelming bunch.  Their plan doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, and as is often the case in these kinds of flimsy scripts, surely there are more efficient and less ostentatious ways of going about getting what they want.  Roland Moller is a generically big brutish-looking thug who looks and acts more like a henchman type than a Hans Gruber-esque mastermind, except he’s got his own lethal henchwoman, played by Hannah Quinlivan.  Noah Taylor, with his oh-so-British villainous sneering, actually seems like he might have better “bad guy” potential; alas we barely get the chance to find out before he makes a disappointingly throwaway exit.  Chin Han (whom some might remember from small roles in The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is the mysterious businessman who’s obviously hiding something, while Neve Campbell is largely relegated to the thankless role of the imperiled wife, although she does get to have a smackdown with Hannah Quinlivan.

At the bottom line, Skyscraper is an adequate diversion for bored and undemanding action fans, featuring some pyrotechnics, some hand-to-hand fights, and Dwayne Johnson’s bulging biceps but lacking snappy dialogue or a strong villain, and those are qualities that leave it firmly a mere shallow pretender to Die Hard‘s throne.

* * 1/2