Sunday, November 25, 2018
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Pablo Schreiber, Roland Møller, Byron Mann, Hannah Quinlivan, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell
Running Time: 102 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Judged exclusively by its trailers and commercials, you'd be forgiven for thinking the latest Dwayne Johnson action spectacle, Skyscraper, could be the silliest, most ridiculous big budget cash-in yet for the industry's highest paid actor. And the given some of the questionable creative choices he's made over the past five years, that's really saying something. With his movies further widening the gap between actual quality and box office dominance, we have to believe his success is entirely due to his drawing power and innate charisma, as considering the notion those projects did anything right other than give him top billing is a possibility I'm not quite ready to face.
This time, by diving headfirst into its fun premise and embracing it, Skyscraper becomes Johnson's first legitimately worthwhile project in some time. But since the trailers weren't exactly wrong about what's delivered and critics gave him their usual thrashing, it's a mystery why moviegoers stayed far away. Or at least why they decided to this time, since we know what we're getting from him and it never seemed to bother anyone much before.
While it would still be a stretch to declare this Johnson's trip out of his comfort zone, it's at least at the service of a solid story that manages to play within the rules and boundaries of its own universe, as over-the-top as those may be. Drawing some inspiration from the likes of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, it also happens to be a lot of fun. Johnson may not have "needed" this and can't keep doing these types of movies forever, but until he's ready to flip that switch and truly be taken seriously, this helps prove he's capable, putting his natural strengths as an actor to good use.
Johnson is U.S. Marine war veteran and former FBI Hostage Rescue Team Will Sawyer, fitted with a prosthetic after losing one leg below the knee in an explosion years ago. Now, he works as a security accessor, with his latest account being "The Pearl," the world's tallest skyscraper built in Hong Kong and funded by wealthy Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Working with Zhao and his friend and fellow ex-FBI agent Ben Gillespie (Pablo Schreiber), Sawyer's in the process of insuring that the building's fire and security systems are a go when he unwittingly becomes the target of international terrorist Kores Botha (Roland Møller).
Eventually gaining control of Sawyer's tablet, Botha and his men start a fire on the building's 96th floor and disable the extinguishing system. But knowing that his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and two twin children, Georgia and Henry (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are trapped inside, Sawyer formulates a plan to get above the fire and rescue them. But between being chased by police and targeted by Botha's henchmen, it'll be a race against time, and a rapidly raging inferno.
Once you completely let yourself go and buy into the premise, much of the material works, as does the manner by which writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (2016's Central Intelligence) translates it to the screen. The flashbacks to Sawyer's time in the FBI and the event that took his leg effectively set the stage early for a Johnson action hero that actually has some degree of physical vulnerability, giving him some slightly different notes to hit this time around. It also leads to more than a few clever situations involving the prosthetic limb, which is rarely forgotten about in the heat of the action, despite some of Sawyer's more superhuman feats.
If the conceit of the protagonist's diability seems right out of Screenwriting 101, those involved still deserve credit for making it work and appear substatially less silly than it appeared in previews. Like most everything here, it's CGI, but it's effective, as there were very few instances where the visuals stuck out like a sore thumb or seemed laughably inauthentic. Compared to most entries of its ilk, many of the bigger set pieces hold up well, and at just over an hour and a half, I'd be surprised if anyone would be looking at their phones waiting for it to end. In an era of bloated, nearly three hour cinematic endurance tests, its brevity becomes a relief that can't be understated. And even with very few surprises in the way of plot, there's still something to be said for executing a relatively straightforward story well.
As Sawyer, Johnson is his usual charismatic self, and if that doesn't come off as the most effusive of praise, it's only because he seems to have settled into a rather predictable zone that's likely a side effect of having become such a gigantic star over the past couple of years.The poor returns for this outing could be viewed as less of a reaction to this material than the result of audience burnout from his lesser projects. This at least gives Johnson the opportunity to showcase his action chops and sense of humor in a situation that falls just on the right side of ridiculous, even allowing him to inject an occasional infusion of credibility to the proceedings.
It's worth admiring the completely unexpected, but inspired casting of Neve Campbell as Sarah Sawyer in one of the very few instances of a male action star being paired with an actress who isn't half their age. The character isn't an afterthought either, as her history and relationship to him provides a level of involvement that wouldn't otherwise exist in lesser action spectacles. Unfortunately, what's missing is a truly memorable villain, replaced instead by your run-of-the-mill foreign terrorist baddies that seem ripped from a straight to cable 90's thriller. The only interest in them comes from their relationship to the meglomaniacal billionaire Zao, whom Chin Han plays with his cards close to the vest, providing some doubt as to his true motivations.
There's a visually sensational sequence toward the end of this film that seems to have been altogether ignored by both critics and audiences. In fact, it's so strong that it nearly justifies the project's entire reason for being, even while making you wish the rest of it was as inventive. It's a climax and pay-off to a projection technology introduced by the Zao character, culminating in a hall of mirrors reflection sequence that's notably impressive, regardless of how anyone feels about the story containing it. It's tough to watch that and claim Skyscraper offers nothing, even while continuing to hold out hope for the day when it feels uneccessary to grade Johnson's movies on a curve.