‘Skyscraper’ Review: Hits Both the Highs and Lows of Disaster Movie Fun

It’s Die Hard in a highris–err, in Hong Kong!

You’d be forgiven for thinking the new film Skyscraper is a sequel to 2015’s San Andreas as Dwayne Johnson is once again thrown into action trying to save his family from dangers thousands of feet into the air. The big difference here, though, is that rather than be a cartoon action hero Johnson’s character is surprisingly human. Casual jokes about the film being a Die Hard riff aside, he’s playing a man who looks imposing and acts heroically but who also faces mental and physical challenges familiar to so many of us. The movie grows increasingly silly even as it gets more serious, but suspenseful action beats, a compelling performance from Johnson, and the sight of Neve Campbell kicking ass help make it an entertaining climb into hell.

Will Sawyer (Johnson) left the FBI’s hostage rescue team behind after a bad call cost some people their lives and him his leg. Ten years later he’s husband to an army surgeon named Sarah (Campbell), father to two young children, and presenting for a job in the world’s tallest building. The Pearl is the brainchild of billionaire Zhao Long-ji (Chin Han), and Will’s tasked with declaring the upper residential floors safe for occupancy. Until then his family are the sole residents aside from Zhao himself.

Everything goes smoothly… until it doesn’t, and soon Will is fighting not only for his own life but for his family’s as well. A fire is started on the 96th floor trapping his family above, and with both the police and a group of armed thugs standing in his way he’s forced to think outside the box in order to save the people who matter most to him.

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) isn’t exactly the first name you think of when it comes to big, CG-heavy action movies, but he proves himself something of a natural with Skyscraper as he crafts a tale with engaging characters and even more captivating set-pieces. Even more impressive, he’s the sole writer on this summer blockbuster-to-be and the film clocks in at under 100 minutes — two factors that have grown increasingly rare in recent years.

There’s plenty of convention and contrivance at play here as characters feel familiar, “surprise” traitors aren’t the least bit surprising, and if you’re paying attention Will’s final “obstacle” is clear from very early on, but the cast delivers with the right blend of charm and emotion all the way through to the crowd-pleasing finale. (The crowds being both on the screen and in the audience.) Their contribution can’t be understated as the film’s dialogue exchanges grow goofier as the minutes tick by with our villains talking about their ridiculous and laughable plan as if it’s neither of those things, and the less said about the nonsensical high-tech hall of mirrors the better. It’s all quite silly at times, but in the film’s world it’s played serious.

Action-wise we’re treated to a pretty stellar brawl in which Will’s leg comes detached, some other scuffles in the back half, and a handful of bigger set-pieces involving the burning building. One standout sequence sees Will scale a crane in an attempt to enter the building above the fire line, and it’s more captivating than it has any right to be. Unrelated, but kudos to Thurber as well for using his single allotted “fuck” in a PG-13 movie for a line that truly menaces rather than simply for laughs.

Johnson’s played the hero before many times, but as delightful as his performances are he’s never felt like an “everyman” facing difficult odds. That changes here. He still cuts an imposing and impressive figure, but between the salt ‘n’ pepper beard, the loss of his left leg below the knee, and the mental struggle he faces involving guilt and self-doubt he feels far more fragile than we’re used to. The film avoids laying it on thick — there are no flashbacks or overwrought dialogue beats — and instead lets Johnson’s face do the talking. (You know what I mean.)

Campbell shines just as brightly, and not just because she’s a rare age-appropriate partner for our male hero. (Take note Hollywood.) Her character never feels like a prop and instead gets to deliver some heroics of her own in addition to holding her own in a pair of fights. The rest of the cast including Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, Roland Møller, Hannah Quinlivan, and others each carry their parts with energy and personality.

Skyscraper makes a good argument for duct tape and reboots as being the fix for many a situation, but its primary resource is determination. People determined to do good… do good. Those who don’t? Well they get tossed off the goddamn roof.

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