Johnson Keeps The Action Lit But ‘Skyscraper’ Smolders

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Dwayne Johnson must elude nefarious forces to rescue his family in Skyscraper.

Skyscraper

Written and Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, and Roland Møller

102 Minutes

Reber’s Rating – C+

Every mover and shaker who’s ever had it good in the action film genre has that one blip on their filmography that is so atrocious you can’t help but watch with glee. Each actor, even though their hats hang gloriously in the Action Film Hall of Fame, only make these obnoxious movies watchable thanks to their mere presence and trying to have a tinge of fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger has 1986’s Raw Deal, admittedly a must-watch for me every time the film airs on Encore. Sylvester Stallone has 1993’s Cliffhanger. (Okay, he’s also got Demolition Man and Tango & Cash.) Bruce Willis has Last Man Standing – and the laughably predictable Striking Distance. (What, the serial killer whodunit reeks so bad the film becomes damn entertaining.) I won’t even bother mentioning Steven Seagal. But every single actor, whether bound by muscle or mouth by trade, waddles through muck once in a while to cash a paycheck. Hey, a guy’s gotta eat and provide for his family after all.

Yet Dwayne Johnson has seemingly had a very strong string of hit after hit for years without having to break much of a sweat. The former WWE wrassler, who I’ve been a fan of since his rise in the mid-90’s, has found his niche at connecting with audiences and just continues to surge with his ability to command the screen. Yeah, he started off with the likes of The Rundown and Walking Tall but both were gooey popcorn fare that were captivating. Even his rebound film Faster has a rough grit that managed to wow crowds, a simple stare saying all the words necessary to convey thirst of revenge. Of course then came the Fast and Furious movies, plus a slew of other hits with Warner Brothers. Up until now Johnson hasn’t had to worry so much about dropping a clunker on crowds. The man can’t do anything wrong.

That is, until now.

Skyscraper, his second film of the year following the surprise blockbuster Rampage, isn’t just the type of movie where you check your brain at the door. No, what you need to do is remove your brain while still in the confines of your car. Lock your cranium in the trunk, someplace safe. Though Dwayne Johnson yet again shines as the headliner, not even his status quo can save this movie from fizzling out before igniting again in the second act. This thriller tries to be The Towering Inferno meets Die Hard meets (insert any heist movie), trying too hard to neatly etch a check mark next to each rule in the unwritten Rules Of Action Filmmaking. Sure, I enjoy a brainless thriller here and again, but when plot is sacrificed to scurry the action along I find myself muttering the words that spell disaster.

“…are you freaking serious?” Yes, those words, but the wrong expletive.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the various works of writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber. Then again, he’s also more of a composer of comedy than he is of action. His previous works are modern marvels of yucks, from the absolutely absurd Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (which has become a runaway cult classic) to the sidesplitting uproarious We’re The Millers. Even recently with Central Intelligence. his action/comedy hit with Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, Thurber has a comfortable calling that keeps him busy. However, here credited as both writer and director, I feel like Thurber maybe missed the point. Skyscraper is Thurber’s first foray into the action genre and clearly has the right attention to detail to direct a capable thriller. However, on the subject of his screenplay? That’s a whole other story, a tone-deaf disjointed mess that is unquestionably unbelievable and containing flashes of promise but lands flat on its back too frequently to develop outright.

The idea of a 220-story gleaming tower in downtown Hong Kong envisioned by a cybertech entrepreneur? Okay, sounds like disaster waiting to happen, but fine. The sort of wowing features and technology built into The Pearl to make the structure a self-sustaining marvel for residential and commercial purposes? Alright, I’m intrigued. Having Dwayne Johnson work against type works astoundingly well too, a former FBI Hostage Team leader who loses a limb in the line of duty. A former kick-ass-and-chew-bubble-gum type of guy, Johnson’s Will Sawyer shirks from a life of adrenaline and action to settle down with wife Sarah, the Navy surgeon who saved his life, and their cutesy twins. As the film opens all four are staying inside The Pearl, Sawyer readying to provide his assessment of to the towering skyscraper’s security. Without his thumbs-up, The Pearl can never open its upper tier for residential living. Okay, up to this point, I’m still invested and anyone else should be.

Unfortunately from there Skyscraper becomes too much of a Die Hard-wannabe. The 1988 classic is the grandfather of the modern action thriller, no one should ever need to question this fact. No film studio should ever want to attempt their hand at remaking John McTiernan’s game-changer. Yet here we are, a grizzled man of machismo matching wits with terrorists high atop the bustling streets of a major city. Many other films may have copied the formula and ran off on their own tangents but to be a near carbon copy three-quarters of the time? Inept police below think Sawyer is responsible for setting the blaze inside The Pearl – yet he’s climbing a crane to jump back inside? A deadly Asian hottie is a whiz with a gun and computer programming. The lead villain commands a team of faceless mercs trying to recover a Macguffin from the rich revered CEO. Our hero trying to keep his family safe from harm no matter the cost, even scaling the skyscraper. Wait, I feel like I’ve seen this film before – twice actually. Is this Die Hard and Live Free or Die Hard twisted together like a Philly soft pretzel?

I admittedly can’t fault Rawson Marshall Thurber for this all-too-brief 102 minute thrill ride altogether. Somewhere in a Universal fault lies deleted footage that would make Skyscraper a more rewarding winner. Yes, Thurber should know better than to clone the film that kick-started the genre thirty years ago. Skyscraper moves at such a torrid pace that the ability to keep track of characters is bewildering. One minute Johnson is reminiscing with Pablo Schreiber, playing a former teammate with his own scars. Suddenly an insurance guarantor is doubting The Pearl’s ability to hum along at full speed. The next a skinny Millennial hacker is speaking gobbily-gook about being the only one who can control The Pearl’s systems. The scenes have no real connection between them, leaving plot holes so massive you’re easily tripped up into a puddle of confusion. You can sense that Universal forced this film to be watered down to become a generic actioneer just to make a buck, rather than release Thurber’s full vision into theaters. The reasoning of Roland Møller, chewing up each scene sensationally as foe Kores Botha, setting ruin to The Pearl could have made for a somewhat enjoyable time at the theater too.

The words are could have. Heavily editing completed, Skyscraper is  grounded with a plot that is awfully predictable and frustratingly obvious in its plodding. Møller has made for a great villain on screen as of late, especially as the Russian muscle in last summer’s Atomic Blonde, and manages to steal the spotlight as much as he’s able. Chin Han too beams with every chance given to explain Zhao Long Ji’s motivations in The Pearl’s construction. Most of the dramatic flair, however, is dumped in favor of getting Johnson from point A to B to C, foregoing those precious moments of breath to fill out Thurber’s story. Secondary characters are given momentary lines just to show the audience that he/she is either an antagonist or protagonist. Characters disappear so quickly you never develop any real bond with anyone who isn’t Dwayne Johnson. At least the family dynamic with Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell doesn’t feel forced but quite natural, the giant soothed by a woman with a heart of gold. Still, I want to know what happens in those grey areas. I want Skyscraper to feel complete. Instead, the stereotypes simply just bog down any attempt to save the film’s race towards denouement.

Johnson playing against his stereotype is actually the best bright spot of the film, not counting the dizzying stunts that make me fearful of climbing a looming skyscraper in the future. His Will Sawyer doesn’t drop quips in deadpan, doesn’t swat off pain when injured, and surely doesn’t embrace weapons. That moment in time that led to his injury dogs him like a nightmare, his handicap a permanent reminder of a time long ago. He’s tossed that life aside to focus on his family, to make himself over to become a more rounded husband and father. Sawyer’s eyes bulge when looking 100-plus stories to the blacktop below, one ill-timed move leading to his demise. As much as I love Dwayne Johnson portraying a badass, seeing him actually play a more human and emotional protagonist is refreshing. His very presence, like his fellow action stars before his rise, makes Skyscraper tolerable enough to endure through the credit sequence.

Skyscraper sets out to complete an easy enough task – engage audiences for under two hours, leave the heat and humidity outside in the blazing sun, and showcase Dwayne Johnson lay waste to baddies in his way. If that’s what you at least half expected, then you’ll have fun with this little ditty. There’s far better action rides to strap in and enjoy at the box office right now, sure, but none contain the charismatic charm of Dwayne Johnson. I only wish that Universal wouldn’t have delivered such a sloppy and heavily-edited thriller to theaters. Audiences are smarter than what was distributed to theaters and deserve a real director’s cut on home video to show us just what Rawson Marshall Thurber wanted to achieve in the first place.