Watching Skyscraper is a mental exercise in which you’re trying very hard not to think “Die Hard did it better!” Well, Die Hard did do it better, though that somehow feels unfair. Even the later Die Hard films couldn’t do Die Hard like Die Hard did. Expecting Skyscraper to top that is a tall order.
Except that director Rawson Thurber did, indeed, acknowledge the movie’s Die Hard influences, which means that we have to put them up against certain standards. Sorry, I guess?
So, the plot: Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is a former FBI agent and security analyst to The Pearl, a self-sustaining city rising upwards to 200 floors, in which his family is staying as part of a test run. The villain, played by Roland Møller, takes over the structure and sets half of it on fire, all to smoke out something that The Pearl’s owner, billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), is keeping.
Already you can tell the Die Hard foundations on which Skyscraper is built upon. First, you have the tall structure (and symbol of mankind’s hubris). Then, you have the billionaire with the MacGuffin the villain needs. You have the hero and his need to rescue a loved one. Add a semi-reasonable cop figure outside of the building and some instances of over-the-top sequences, and you basically get the instant noodle version of a Die Hard movie. All you need to spice things up is to add a Rock.
Add a Rock to a city, and he becomes the mega-structure
The filmmakers did add some dashes of pepper, some twists of the lime to the formula. The megastructure, for one, is a self-sustaining city that extends upwards, complete with its own wind turbines (which will factor into the plot, naturally). Will Sawyer is disabled – he wears a prosthetic leg that no doubt complicates things. As the security analyst to the building, he has the home ground advantage over his assailants. And, instead of one person to save, Sawyer has to rescue his whole family – wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), and twin children (McKenna Grace and Noah Cottrell). Also, the building is on fire. The broth thickens!
It’s the sum of its whole parts that makes the movie feel bland, like a recreation of a recipe copied from the wrong book. For all of its promising setup – the futuristic megastructure, the unstoppable fire and Sawyer’s knowledge of the building’s systems – few of its set pieces feel refreshing or exciting. For the most part, Sawyer doesn’t outwit his better-armed adversaries, but merely charge through his obstacles through sheer improbability. Sometimes the solutions seem immensely convenient, like how Sawyer was able to find just the right amount of rope taken from curtain rails before some derring-do. It feels like he has cheat codes on.
The movie doesn’t even spend nearly enough time in the titular skyscraper itself, which is a waste of the building’s ostentatious potential, what with its many floors and features. Other aspects feel half-baked. The film starts with Sawyer, in his FBI days, failing to act upon a hostile hostage taker, losing his men and his leg in the process – a plot point that added nothing to the movie’s themes and narrative, outside of serving as reason for having Sawyer navigate the building with a prosthetic leg (to the film’s credit, it does become an asset).
The Pearl, the forgotten star of the film
Then there are the cops observing the building from the ground, one of whom is Byron Mann (Ryu from the 1994 Street Fighter movie!), who all have very little to do and feel like just part of the Hong Kong scenery, where the film is supposedly set in (most of it was actually shot in Vancouver).
What you end up with is a film where the parts that added to the Die Hard formula feels underdeveloped, and the parts that were subtracted becomes sorely missed. What worked in Die Hard is the ingenuity of a very disadvantaged hero trapped in a building that essentially closes out his options – aspects Skyscraper could’ve expanded upon, but didn’t.
Yet the movie isn’t without its thrills. Some sequences, in particular the oft-promoted scene of Dwayne Johnson needing to scale a construction crane to leap into the building, did elicit gasps and involuntary seat-grabbing. You’ll feel the sense of height and the perils that come. Director Rawson Thurber, who directed Johnson previously in Central Intelligence, did at least ensure that the set pieces are competently shot.
And even if the movie comes up short, Dwayne Johnson remains an entertaining man to watch. It’s hard to buy his huge presence as the underdog hero, but his charisma and screen presence is certainly welcoming in a movie that plays it safe. He’s not the only person carrying the film (on his broad, broad shoulders) though – Neve Campbell gets a few moments to shine, straight up eviscerating the damsel in distress trope.
It’s mama bear time, at least until papa comes along
Skyscraper is entertaining enough. Viewed without the spectre of Die Hard waving at the audience, it may even be more than passably solid. I guess it’s sort of like soup that tastes part way like what you ordered. It’s not hard to swallow, just not very satisfying.