After going through a pretty significant boom in the ’90s, the “Die Hard on a _____” action subgenre fell out of popularity, and it’s a bit weird to see a film like Skyscraper come along and find ample nostalgia value in evoking those films’ heyday.
Let’s be crystal clear here: This is nowhere near the best example you can find of it — it doesn’t have the strong character work or writing of Die Hard and its best sequel, Die Hard with a Vengeance, nor the sociopolitical outrage and one-liners of something like Passenger 57 and it definitely isn’t as unhinged as Peter Hyams’ excellent Sudden Death — but it is solid enough to provide a moderate amount of old-school thrills and some occasional wit amongst the modern blockbuster bombast. It’ll make your palms sweat and you might even throw up if you see it in 3D, but that’s just the risk you take when you see a movie about The Rock dangling off of a fucking super-crane as he tries to rescue his family from a giant fiery building. I can tell you that you will not be bored for a fucking second.
Anyways, Skyscraper is about Will Ford (Rocky Maivia), a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader turned building risk analyst, who is recruited by one of his old team members (Pablo Schreiber) to examine the safety features of the world’s tallest building, right in the middle of Hong Kong. I’d say that Ford was scarred by his experiences in the FBI, but the movie doesn’t really give a damn about his PTSD or anything else — him losing his leg and causing the death of a family because of his hesitation on his last mission is more of a meet-cute for him and his wife (Neve Campbell), a Navy surgeon — but anyways his entire family (including his two kids) are living in the building, which is a CGI wonder full of lush parks and its own energy resources. He’s betrayed by his pal while they’re away from the building, who is actually working for a gang of “terrorists” led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller), who wants something that the building’s owner (Ng Chin Han) is hiding from him. Anyways, Ford’s family is trapped in the skyscraper as the terrorists set it ablaze, and he’s got to get back in the building to rescue them before they’re burned to death or murdered by the crooks.
Having read what you just have, you know that this isn’t the smartest movie ever made. Indeed, there’s a about as much narrative contrivance here as your average supermarket-shelf paperback. It’s not particularly well-shot or thought-through, and it goes to some unflatteringly silly places as it progresses that are unexpectedly predictable. You’ll be astonished to find out that it’s only around 90 minutes long and, in fact, Skyscraper flies by, which excuses a lot of its bullshit and prevents it from being totally egregious. I wish all dumb action movies had the pacing that this film does, because you can’t be completely distracted by stiff writing if you’re being whisked from set-piece to set-piece. The few moments that do pump the breaks usually involve the villains, who aren’t very compelling. You can tell they wanted to go for the Gruber-style reveal, complete with their own Ellis (as played by Game of Thrones’ Noah Taylor), but there’s nothing graceful about its application here. Watching Møller attempt to enact his plan is snore-worthy, but, again, the film never gives it the chance to set in.
All of the crap is caulked over by Dwayne Johnson’s capable performance (whom I will take over Steven Seagal any day, with apologies to Vern), who has developed an interesting type over his last couple of films and continues that newfound tradition here. He’s a broadly appealing actor who is able to be both impossibly earnest when dealing with his on-screen family (he has a nice relationship with Campbell, who I was genuinely happy to see here), while also being able to sarcastically lampoon the more ridiculous aspects of his role and the genre at large, such as when he’s required to MacGyver his way over to a platform between two giant fucking wind turbines in order to deactivate something-or-other. It’s a high-wire act that’s as captivating as any of the actual stunts — teeter too far to one side and you’re a wide-eyed and earnest Jean-Claude Van Damme without the grounding contrivances of his early work, teeter too far to the other and you’re Bruce Willis in the latter Die Hard films, lazed to the point of seeming psychopathy. “Hero dad” he may be, but it’s an oddly refreshing take in a genre that occasionally gets overwhelmingly broody.
It helps that the physical stunts aren’t bad, as well, being well-crafted by frequent comedy director Rawson Marshall Thurber (whom Johnson worked with on Central Intelligence). My theater yelped with excitement when Rocky scaled the super crane, which tapped into some bit of sensory empathy within our lizard brains, and screamed even further during the turbine sequence, and I’ve got to say that they’re totally compelling. The final action-sequence, in which Enter the Dragon and a number of other films featuring deceiving mirrors are referenced, is cleverly staged if not technically perfect, and the ending that the film builds to is worthy of the “fuck-yeah” fist-pumping that will may occur in your theater.
Skyscraper isn’t the strongest or the smartest action film that you’ll see this year, but it is a satisfying experience at the summer multiplex, one that I’m sure will also delight HBO viewers in the years to come. It’s something you’ll stumble across on pay cable and stay with, even if you were planning to watch that baseball game on ESPN, mainly because you just can’t look away, and we need that kind of movie floating around in the world today: The gentle, competent surprise.