Why Isn't 'Skyscraper' a Better Dwayne Johnson Vehicle?

'Skyscraper' Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson may be many things, but ‘Skyscraper’ shows a blockbuster everyman isn’t one of them.

It seems the only handicap of being Dwayne Johnson is that everyone expects you to be, well, Dwayne Johnson. The actor is a larger-than-life figure on the screen; we accept Johnson as a video game avatar or a minigun-wielding supercop because he’s spent the past decade building up a body of work that suggests he is more machine than mortal. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that Skyscraper would offer more of the same for its star: Herculean acts of strength and a series of action sequences that would feel cartoonish if we hadn’t already given ourselves over to Johnson completely. Instead, we’re treated to a glorified everyman, and this disconnect cuts straight to the heart of what makes Skyscraper a bizarre misstep in the actor’s career.

Johnson’s appeal as a leading man isn’t that hard to suss out; in fact, the internet is littered with articles attempting to break down the formula to Johnson’s onscreen personality. Earlier this year, The Ringer released a five-step breakdown of what makes for an engaging Dwayne Johnson movie, including a law enforcement background, a witty sidekick, and lots and lots of baby oil. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight attempted to quantify Johnson’s career by breaking it into three distinct categories of quality: that of The Rock, that of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and that of Dwayne Johnson. In the latter piece, Walt Hickey argues that the single most important thing about Johnson is his lack of natural talent. Everything that Johnson has accomplished in Hollywood, he’s accomplished through hard work and endless repetition, shedding his humanity to become something bigger and more evolved on the screen.

And that may be true, but the idea of Johnson as a self-made man is the polar opposite of what he brings to the screen. Johnson plays giants among men – in the case of his Hercules adaptation, he even plays an actual god – who stans out even in movies meant to show off the male physique. Johnson is the most impressive male specimen in movies like Pain & Gain and the Fast and the Furious franchise; the sheer bulk of his presence necessitates actors like Mark Wahlberg and Vin Diesel, themselves musclebound movie stars, to utter throwaway lines of dialogue acknowledging his size. When angling for comedy, Johnson’s size becomes a foil for his comic relief, allowing them to marvel at his size as Johnson plays the joke with a bit of good-natured laughter. You can’t simply cast Johnson in an action movie and treat him like he’s a man of the people. He practically is the elephant in the room.

Which is what makes Skyscraper‘s decision to have Johnson play it straight the entire movie all the more bizarre. Johnson is allowed some of his signature banter – one particular line about duct tape is destined to show up in the majority of reviews – but this version of Johnson is neither overly quippy nor self-consciously swole. For the most part, Skyscraper would have us believe that Will Sawyer – a man who, when sitting on a Hong Kong police motorcycle, appears as if he has crammed himself onto an undersized Vespa – might as well be any former military officer with a loving family and a struggling home business. Sure, Sawyer performs acts of strength – half the film has him hanging off various ledges as he attempts to break into (and then survive) the Hong Kong superstructure – but these are the kind of beats we expect from any action movie, not one headlined by Dwayne freaking Johnson. Skyscraper casts Superman and demands that he only acts as Clark Kent.

This kinda begs the question: can you cast Johnson in a generic action movie or do you have to build a project around his strengths? In anyone else’s hands, Skyscraper would probably exist as a spiritual sibling to this February’s Hurricane Heist, but the presence of Johnson means that the movie possesses the shine and marketing campaign of a Hollywood blockbuster. There’s no doubt that Johnson can turn a middling film into a summer success, but can he make Skyscraper something worth watching? Johnson brings charisma and instant likability to the role, but caught between his own star power and a half-baked action movie – with no signature Johnson largesse to elevate the set pieces and no clever writing to let the actor’s hero side shine – we’re left with something of a half film. Skyscraper may be a totally acceptable starring turn for Johnson, but this isn’t 2009 and Johnson no longer needs movies that will solidify his star power. He needs vehicles, movies written and developed with him in mind, and Skyscraper just doesn’t seem to understand what it has in its leading man.

None of this is to suggest that Johnson cannot play more traditional Hollywood leading men as he gets older and his physique changes, but Skyscraper seems to sell the actor short right when he’s still in his peak. It’s not a terrible movie – Johnson and co-star Neve Campbell make sure of that – but it is a disjointed one, a movie that promises something it paradoxically seems reluctant to deliver. Here’s hoping Team Johnson realizes the error of its ways before our biggest star begins to fade.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.