‘Skyscraper’ Inferno is More Like a Dull Flame

Skyscraper
Directed and Written by Rawson Marshall Thurber
2018/USA

Hollywood does cheesy in one of two ways; either creatively or lazily. Creatively bad movies are the perfect synthesis of screenwriter, director, and cast striving to find the most outlandish solution to each narrative crisis. They throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen, and the kitchen sink usually has wings.

And then there are the lazily bad movies…

Lazily bad movies are content to rely upon the stupidity of their premise to generate a few cheap thrills. It doesn’t take much ingenuity to throw your hero into a ridiculous situation and then laugh when he falls down. The new Dwayne Johnson dude-stuck-in-a-burning-building thriller, Skyscraper, falls firmly on the lazy side of Hollywood cheese.

Even the name is lazy. Skyscraper. Why not call it something really scintillating, like “Building” or “Fire!” Undoubtedly pitched as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper fails to match the epic magnitude of these classics in nearly every possible way. It settles for being an action vehicle for Johnson, and providing just enough moments of jaw-dropping silliness to prevent its outright condemnation.

This movie doesn’t need any backstory, but it gets plenty of it. Ten years ago, FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson) made a poor call during a hostage standoff. The resulting explosion cost him his leg, his career, and possibly his nerve. “I haven’t touched a gun in 10 years,” he confides to an old FBI buddy. Unless, of course, you count the guns on his massive arms.

It’s difficult to comprehend the time, energy, and calories that Johnson must expend on a daily basis to maintain his massive physique. To his credit, he applies the same vigor to his acting craft. Though he’ll never be confused with a master thespian, there’s never a moment when you don’t believe his performance. Johnson has the presence of a movie star while still remaining oddly relatable. Despite the obvious physical comparisons, Johnson’s acting appeal has more in common with George Clooney than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence [2016], We’re the Millers [2013]) has wisely hitched his wagon to the Johnson gravy train. He expertly incorporates Johnson’s inherent likability into Skyscraper’s unnecessarily complicated plot. Sawyer, his FBI days now a distant memory, runs a small consulting firm that assesses building safety. He uproots his family — wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), their young son, and their daughter — to take a job in Hong Kong as a safety consultant for the world’s tallest building, The Pearl.

The Pearl is basically 220 floors of architectural nonsense. It includes thirty-odd stories of botanical garden, its own wind turbine to generate power, and a penthouse ‘panic room’ for its eccentric owner (Chin Han). Oh yes, and it’s impervious to fire…unless a fire actually breaks out.

The machinations of the absurd plot may serve only as an excuse to trap Johnson inside a burning building, but this plot is still inexcusably clunky. There are double-crosses, mafia syndicates, and false accusations that turn Sawyer (briefly) into a fugitive. By the time Johnson is battling the raging inferno, a solid hour of listless dialogue and pedestrian action sequences has dulled us into a stupor. And there’s foreshadowing — lots of foreshadowing.

The first act of Skyscraper is like a screenwriting class in how not to handle foreshadowing. Literally, every line of dialogue, action taken, or seemingly random object portends something to come. It’s painfully lazy writing, and given the director’s comedic pedigree, it’s shocking how little fun or humor there is to be had. Or maybe it isn’t a shock; have you seen We’re the Millers? But enough with all the boring script analysis. “How is the action?” you ask.

The reply depends upon whether a few creative bright spots are enough to compensate for the overall laziness. A quick dissection of two scenes — one good and one not so good — will clarify if Skyscraper is the movie for you.

Scene One: The Rock needs to get back into the burning high rise — his lady and kids are in there, man! He scales the side of a massive construction crane, extends an arm toward the building, and then swings the winch until it finds purchase on the other side. Just as he’s about to cross, the winch detaches, leaving a gaping chasm between our hero and the burning building. What does he do? Why, he runs in slow motion and launches himself across the impossibly large space, of course. Approximately how many times have we seen this in action films? Enough times to know with 100% certainty that he will make the jump. Skyscraper has far too many scenes with a high predictability index.

Scene Two: Our hero must scale the outside of the skyscraper armed with nothing but duct tape and a crazy dream. When the tape fails (shockingly!), he’s thrown like a ragdoll toward oblivion until his rescue rope gets snagged around his prosthetic leg. When the leg finally detaches from his body, Johnson is left clutching the mechanical limb as he dangles helplessly from the burning building. This is what we paid to see — creatively bad schlock at its best.

For all of its flaws, Skyscraper does a surprisingly good job with the ‘thankless wife’ role. Rather than bumbling into peril and waiting for her husband to arrive, Neve Campbell’s Sarah can handle herself in a (fire) fight. She figures some things out and saves the day on several occasions. Good for her!
Still, Skyscraper falls into the same trap plaguing most Hollywood action movies: too much plot and not enough creative action sequences. Johnson does good work, and there are a few moments of inspired nonsense, but it won’t have you forgetting Die Hard any time soon.

J.R. Kinnard is a film critic and aspiring screenwriter living in Seattle, Washington. He’s also a chemist by trade who works in an environmental laboratory. You can find his film reviews at PopOptiqSound and Motion Magazine, and CutPrintFilm. His personal blog, Apropos of Nothing, features his thoughts on film and music. You can find him on Facebook at jrkinnard, and on Twitter @jrkinnard.

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