Movie posters tend to exaggerate or downright lie, but I promise that the image on the Skyscraper poster of Dwayne Johnson hanging by one hand from a fiery tower with the city spread out 220 floors beneath him is actually in the film. It is in the film approximately 87 times. The Dwayne is rarely not hanging by one hand from a fiery tower with the city spread out 220 floors beneath him. On those rare occasions, it’s his wife and/or one of his twins doing the hanging while the Dwayne is holding onto them so fiercely you can smell the lactic acid pouring from his boulder-sized biceps.
The Dwayne’s upper body — notably trapezius muscles like twin anvils — does most of the work because he’s playing a character with only one whole leg, the other having been partially blown off by a bomb a decade earlier. This makes him an ideal hero for a vertical action movie, and also makes it possible, while he hangs, for filmmakers to put different things on the green screen behind him — Hong Kong, an African tundra, the San Andreas fault, a giant gorilla, Vin Diesel — and also shuttle various supporting casts in and out of the studio. I’ll bet the Dwayne spends three-quarters of the year in front of a green screen with no idea what’s supposed to be happening in back of him. They could put his future campaign commercials there.
In Skyscraper, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, he’s playing Will Sawyer, a former Gold Star Marine and FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader turned cybersecurity genius who has pledged never to handle a gun since the face-off with a murderously despondent father that cost him his leg. The explosion, though wreaking havoc on many men, women, and children, was a blessing in that it introduced him to his wife, Sarah, a Navy surgeon who happened to major in East Asian Studies at Annapolis, which proves handy in a film set entirely in Hong Kong. (Sarah is played by Neve Campbell, though one person I know thought she was Jennifer Garner while another was sure she was Kate Mara. I was delighted it was Neve Campbell.) The dad who set off a bomb under his kids was one kind of father, whereas Will is the kind who’d literally climb the tallest tower on Earth to keep a bomb from going off under his. If you’re thinking, “Heh-heh, he’s misusing the word ‘literally,’” I can assure you that I have never been so literal-minded in my life.
Will’s no-gun pledge lasts ten minutes by the way, because things in Skyscraper go downhill — meaning sky-high — fast. If there’s a critic who doesn’t mention Die Hard, we need to revoke his or her hack-reviewer’s license, because topping that beloved Xmas classic was plainly on everyone’s mind. John McClane had no shoes? Will Sawyer will have one leg! The Nakatomi Tower was really tall? “The Pearl” will be really, really, really tall — three times as tall as the Empire State Building! McClane had to worry about his wife? Will will have to worry about his wife, daughter, and son with asthma — who spends half the movie wheezing in the smoke! McClane had to calculate the effect of a rooftop explosion? Will will have to use his cybersmarts to reprogram the building’s security system — after leaping through churning wind panels 150 floors up while sticking to the windows with duct tape!
Much has been written about the impact of Chinese taste on what Hollywood spews out nowadays, and here the desire to please Chinese audiences is all over the screen. Chin Han plays Zhao Long Ji, whom my press notes describe as “the dashing billionaire visionary who conceptualized the Pearl.” Dashing he is, but what’s alleged to be “the safest tall tower in the world,” looks as if its architect was Tim Burton. Byron Mann is the hyperintelligent Inspector Wu, who, unlike his colleagues, does not think Will is a co-conspirator in the plot to take down the Pearl — perhaps because saboteurs tend to run away from burning towers rather than climb them to rescue their families. Hannah Quinlivan is the sleek, icy, badass Kung Fu Killer, Xia. The chief villains are Western, though, among them Roland Muller as “Koras Botha,” a gloater with the same last name as South Africa apartheid’s last prime minister — the better to sneer at Will’s mixed-race kids. Noah Taylor once more does his impersonation of the love child of Boris Karloff and Ygor.
Skyscraper is one of the stupidest movies I’ve seen since San Andreas, but I enjoyed it a great deal — more than San Andreas, certainly, as well as Rampage and Baywatch and most other Dwayne Johnson pictures. On the downside, the action peaks too early with an intense fight between Will and a surprise villain, and the film could have used more blood: I don’t need insane, John Wick-ian splatter, but to get a PG-13 with a body count this high someone had to pull the tourniquet too tight. But my notebook is full of anxious squiggles as well as lines drawn tensely down the page. I didn’t see it in 3-D, but my vertigo was bad enough. Almost any shoot-out set high enough in the sky will make you a little crazy. With 3-D this would be barf-bag territory.
I must also admit a weakness for Dwayne Johnson’s voice. Its pitch is uncannily like Barack Obama’s, so that whatever his political leanings in the real world I could think of him as Obama blown up with an air hose — and go on to imagine him throwing all sorts of villains off tall buildings, some of them gold-plated.