Does anyone go to a movie starring Dwayne Johnson for anything remotely resembling realism? Perhaps more than any other movie star on the planet — perhaps even in movie history — he’s perfected a mix of unbelievable physical strength, goofy humor and an inherent heroic, all-American decency that works whether he’s in the hard-charging “Fast & Furious” series or a kid-friendly adventure romp like the “Jumanji” reboot.
The one major debacle of his career in the past five years or so was when he inexplicably turned the insipid 1990s TV series “Baywatch” into a raunchy R-rated action comedy. But he quickly course-corrected himself with the $400 million hit “Jumanji” and the absurdly inventive monster movie “Rampage,” and he’s topped himself in terms of ludicrous fun with this weekend’s blockbuster “Skyscraper.”
Clearly modeled after the original “Die Hard,” mixed with “The Towering Inferno,” “Skyscraper” reunites Johnson with Rawson Marshall Thurber, the writer-director of his terrific 2016 action-comedy “Central Intelligence.” In it, he plays Will Sawyer, a security expert who travels to Hong Kong to assess the safety level of the world’s largest skyscraper as it’s about to open.
Will received the job from a friend who used to be on a team of federal agents under his command. Their teamwork abruptly ended years before when (as seen in the film’s intense opening sequence) a fugitive set off a bomb that blew off one of Will’s legs and scarred his friend — a former colleague who is actually setting up Will as revenge for ruining his life.
It turns out that the skyscraper’s developer, billionaire Zhoa Long Ji (Chin Han), has stirred the ire of a mercenary named Kores Botha (Roland Møller), who extorted millions from him. Zhoa placed tracking software on his purloined millions, compromising the operations of the three international crime cartels that Kores worked for, and now Kores is out for revenge by both setting the seemingly indestructible skyscraper aflame and seizing Zhoa’s main tracking device.
Kores sees Will’s presence as the perfect distraction, and frames him to look like he caused the destructive fire. In addition, Will’s wife (Neve Campbell) and two young children are staying above the flame-engulfed 96th floor — meaning Will not only has to save the building from destruction and his reputation from ruin, but also rescue his family, all at the same time. And don’t forget, he’s doing it all while wearing a prosthetic leg that keeps coming off at all the wrong times.
Sound convoluted? It is, and that’s just half the twists involved in Thurber’s utterly ridiculous screenplay. But again, does it matter to the kind of mass audience looking to a film like this for carefree summer fun?
“Skyscraper” takes elements from zillions of action blockbusters and disaster movies and mixes them together in a combination that feels familiar in all the right ways yet preposterously original on its own terms overall. There are not many movies that could rely upon their hero scaling a 100-story-tall crane using only his bare hands, not to mention finding 15 unique ways to use a prosthetic leg in fight scenes.
Thurber and Johnson impressively balance the silliness with scenes in which Will’s injuries— which also include a forearm slashed by a big knife and a six-inch shard of glass he has to pull out of one of his massive pecs — render him surprisingly human and vulnerable. It’s clear that they’re emulating Bruce Willis’ powerful scene in the original “Die Hard” in which he pulls countless pieces of broken glass from his bloody bare feet, thinking he’s going to die from his injuries, and Johnson has developed into a strong enough actor to make his big emoting scene affecting.
Yet for all its mix of insanely over-the-top action and vulnerable moments, “Skyscraper” doesn’t quite reach the status of timeless action classic because of its sheer implausibility. “Die Hard” had a fundamental grittiness at its core, a real sense of life-and-death stakes amplified by the fact that Willis was still largely unknown as a movie star and could thus make audiences truly feel his pain.
On the other hand, Johnson is both literally and figuratively the world’s biggest movie star. He may wince well and show a depth of conviction in his concern for family, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that he will survive.
Judging from the wild applause and cheers of the audience at Monday night’s advance screening in Hollywood, it may not matter. In these uncertain times, people want a hero they can be certain will come through for them, and on that front “Skyscraper” handily delivers.