Pulling off a big dumb movie is surprisingly hard. It requires a confidence in tone, an internal logic no matter how silly the concept and leading stars committed to their material. Dwayne Johnson has sort of made a career out of big silly movies. High concepts, low brains, big hearts and of course little in the way of swearing or sex. But even the man some have called ‘Franchise Viagra’ has stumbled. Just this year there was the interminable Rampage, which was very much evidence of how badly big dumb movies can turn out to be just dumb. Cringeful dialogue, thin characters and performances that were wildly inconsistent across the board. However now we have Skyscraper, a Die Hard rip-off but one that manages to strike the balance just right.
Johnson plays former FBI Hostage Team Leader Will Ford, whom after a tragic hostage situation turns violent has his leg amputated and his abilities compromised. We catch up with him a few years later, happily married (to the Naval Nurse who helped save him played by Neve Campbell) with two adorable children, and now making ends meet as a security advisor for skyscrapers. Now you can see where this is heading can’t you? Called upon by an old FBI buddy, Will is charged with reviewing the safety of The Pearl. A giant skyscraper, the world’s tallest, in the heart of China. Built by a mega rich businessman played by Ng Chin Han, and about to open its top residential half to the public. In fact Will’s family join him and are first to take up residence in the new apartments, unbeknown to anyone else. Soon enough armed men are storming the building, the tower block is ablaze and Will finds himself wanted for it. But when he realises his family is trapped inside he is determined to rescue them.
As setups go Skyscraper is utterly ridiculous, but focused and delivered with careful efficiency. We know immediately who to trust, who to boo and the relationships between them. Johnson and Campbell in particular build a believable and affectionate family unit, even if there is perhaps one too many mentions of how much Johnson loves them. It is also refreshing to see an age appropriate relationship rather than the young and sexy female partners leading men are usually paired with. Campbell also gets to be the one who fights back, and not some damsel in distress, which she owns with fiery gusto. Although her final act battles with how to use an iPad undermine her smarts shown previously and come across as hilarious when instead it should be the thrilling denouement.
Being a brisk 100 mins long also means no time is wasted getting the chips in place and the action started. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), who also writes, escalates things nicely, and knows how to set things up ready for later pay offs. Sure these things are staggeringly obvious, but played with such conviction by the solid cast that you cannot help but be swept along. Johnson has made no bones about the fact that Skyscraper is a loving tribute to the 80s/90s high concept action flicks, notably Die Hard. References are loaded throughout and yes it does hit some familiar beats that the Bruce Willis classic touched on. However whereas Die Hard mixed burly violent fights with high minded sophistication, Skyscraper is merely a surface level cover, yet is no less fun for it. The villains are a wet blanket for sure, no Alan Rickman level overseer here, instead we get Roland Moller as a generic heavy, whose overall plan comes across as far-fetched even in a film in which a one legged man leaps from a crane onto a burning building. Centring on a mysterious Macguffin that when revealed feels a little anti-climatic.
We are not here for highfalutin stories though, we are here for gloriously stupid set-pieces and Skyscraper has them in spades. The aforementioned crane jump, which despite the marketing is not as crazy as you’d expect, is just the start and Thurber shoots them with clear geography and tangible tension. His high-rise is nicely developed, using an effective mix of in-camera and CGI footage. It is a little guilty of using that storytelling shorthand of having futuristic technology being the escape clause of tough situations, with the final fight looking cool but done so via some pretty far-fetched holographic panels (this’ll make more sense when you see it). It is a measure of a fun film that despite the ridiculous setting there were times when I felt genuine tension as to what was going to happen.
Key to that, and key to the whole films success, is of course Dwayne Johnson. Never has there been a more committed and likeable performer in Hollywood (well maybe Tom Cruise), and here he is no different. A warm endearing presence, and adept at the occasional zinger, although Thurber is careful not to over-populate the wisecracks, he is believable as a father and as a loving husband. Refreshingly, and taking a page out of the Die Hard book, Will Ford is not a superhero. He gets beaten, shot, stabbed and generally struggles. Sure he is capable in a fight, but he is no Fast & Furious style beast. Any attempts to be superheroic, like say leaping off a crane, are accidental and usually pretty brutal on his body. This allows a genuine sense of fear to creep in that he may not succeed, that the bad guys could win. Coupled with his false leg and you have a hero with genuine vulnerabilities, despite the fact he is still built like a wall. The vulnerabilities are all in his head, a basic but effective glimpse at disability amidst the $100 million destruction. It is proof that Johnson is not afraid to tamper with his image and stretch himself.
Of course Skyscraper is not about to be the next Dark Knight or even Die Hard, but there is nothing wrong with a film being confident in its goals and determined to give the audience a damn good time. It may be big and dumb, but it is the good kind of big and dumb. And still way better than that film about the roided up giant gorilla.
Verdict: Skyscraper is old school fun. Wears its influences heavily but does so with genuine warmth, palm sweating action and a hero not afraid to show his weaknesses.