Skyscraper is an action movie, and that’s the most you can really say about it. It lacks even the briefest spark of imagination, and while it may celebrate not being based on pre-existing material or being a sequel, it hides so deeply inside the action genre that it never finds a personality of its own. It’s daring only in the sense that our marketplace has become flooded with adaptations and franchises so by that virtue, Skyscraper is unique only in its relation to current trends rather than anything within the film itself. The movie is largely a waste of Dwayne Johnson’s talents, and it actually shows the shortcomings of having him as an everyman lead. Rather than finding a unique angle on the action genre, Skyscraper never plays to its strengths, instead just throwing a bunch of CG at the screen and hoping for the best.
After a rescue mission went south and lost him his leg, Will Sawyer (Johnson) has started a small security company, and landed a major contract to evaluate the Hong Kong skyscraper The Pearl. Run by powerful businessman Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the Pearl is about to open its residential area, but matters go awry when the building is attacked by terrorists led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller). With Will’s wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two children trapped inside the burning building, Will must fight his way in to save his family, which inevitably leads him to trying to stop the terrorists.
The character of Will Sawyer doesn’t really work for a similar reason to why Johnson’s character in San Andreas didn’t really work. In this type of character, Johnson is the model of self-reliance, which also leads to a bizarre kind of selfishness. On the one hand, he has a clear and altruistic motive: save his family. But the way he goes about his mission is always on his own. He doesn’t try to get help, he doesn’t try to recruit people to his cause, and he’s only looking out for his family. He’s a hero, but in the most limited sense, risking his life for a personal cause rather than the greater good. It’s fine that he wants to save his family, but it would be like Die Hard if John McClane had only thought about trying to save his wife. He’s trying to save all of the hostages, and Skyscraper simply ducks the issue by saying “The only people in the building are the Sawyer family, Zhao, and Zhao’s security guards.”
The Die Hard comparisons are inevitable, and sadly, they constantly work against Skyscraper. Sawyer can’t be an everyman hero like McClane because Bruce Willis, especially in the original Die Hard, doesn’t have the physique of someone like Johnson. Johnson is a superman of sorts, and that’s why we love him in the physics-breaking world of the Fast & Furious movies. But if you cast him as “Normal Joe with a Military Background” in Skyscraper, the situation doesn’t feel as desperate. You can kick the crap out of him, but he’s still built like Dwayne Johnson, so there’s not as much of an impact, especially in a PG-13 setting (although there are certainly some brutal, bloodless kills in the film). The movie is at its best when Johnson can do some feat of strength like holding a bridge together through sheer brawn.
Even if you set aside that Johnson is the wrong kind of actor for this story and that his character doesn’t really do him any favors in the hero department, Skyscraper is largely a joyless affair. Given writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s background in comedies (he previously directed Dodgeball and Central Intelligence), it’s surprising that Skyscraper is so humorless. Although you don’t want to diminish the stakes of a family trapped in a burning building, there’s still room for comedy given the outsized circumstances. But the only character who really gets to shine is surprisingly (and welcomingly) Neve Campbell’s Sarah, who is self-reliant, clever, and arguably could have just been the solo star of this movie given her character’s skillset. Sarah is the one who gets us to cheer for her actions and intelligence whereas Will reminds us that Dwayne Johnson is surrounded by green screen.
The age of “casual magic” is felt acutely in Skyscraper where for all of Will’s daring-do, none of it has any weight. While Dwayne Johnson shouldn’t be held to the Tom Cruise standard of actually hanging off a building, there never seems to be much risk involved in the staging of the action scenes. Every time the camera “looks down” from Will’s POV, we know he’s not really looking down at anything. He’s hanging off a CG building, diving through CG flames, and dodging CG turbines. And that may be the reality of the business, but Thurber never makes us feel like there’s really any danger. Johnson’s imposing physique and the nature of CG-filled movies have removed any threat, so it’s really just a movie going through the motions.
Skyscraper is the action movie at its most generic, but not at its most fun. It should be a movie that gives us larger-than-life action with a fanciful building and Johnson’s charisma, but instead it gives us neither. Instead, we’re just passing the time as we can see every move telegraphed from a mile away (the first act may as well be characters pointing out rooms and areas that will come back in the third act). Rather than providing the comfort of an old-fashioned action movie, Skyscraper just feels stale.