Once it catches on fire, at the base of the titular skyscraper, a crowd forms. They are there at first to watch the calamity. Then, on a mission to save his family, trapped halfway up, above the blaze Dwayne Johnson busts through the police cordon, climbs a crane, and launches himself into the burning building. News helicopters chart his ascent.
From that point, nobody on the ground – the crowd, the police, the gangsters behind the whole affair – are interested in the disaster. All eyes are now on the heroically stacked man defying all its odds. Occasionally we’ll just cut down to them, filming it no their phones, watching him on televisions. Mouths agape telling us how in awe we should properly be.
It often is hard to be though. We’ve all seen this shit before, it’s like collision between Die Hard and The Towering Inferno that’s stole its best moments from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and John Wick: Chapter 2. It has a feel to it certainly, but it’s hardly an original one. It’s the same skin as is worn by all these Dwayne Johnson vehicles.
His newest improbable guise is Will Sawyer, ex-FBI hostage rescue man turned insurance company safety inspector for the largest building ever constructed. The man moves fast apparently. This dude’s bit is that he had to leave the FBI after being caught in an explosion that necessitated the amputation of the lower half of his left leg. That’s it. That’s his bit. That’s what he do. Everything else about him is a variation upon the honest decency the man radiates so effortlessly on screen.
I’d invite you to read the writings of disabled people on how the character represents them, and how it plays into wider themes of the portrayal, or its absence, of disabled people on our screens. Here’s two to start off with: Kristen Lopez writing for Slashfilm, and Katy Sullivan for Deadline.
Yet the film makes it its thing. In a sea of concepts lifted wholesale from other properties, it is the choice that it makes to define itself. The film’s compassion is clear to see, it is right there in its intent. I perhaps wish the filmmakers could have approached it with more consideration.
But outside of the spectacle it feels like everything put together so sloppily. The script shoots off its ambiguous references to the Triads. Noah Taylor arrives as a shifty British man, there’s a camp Belgian, a hard-nosed Eastern European, and a cropped hair, leather-wearing, almost-wordless Chinese co-conspirator. All the stereotypes are here for the taking. You couldn’t construct a international team of mega-arsonists without at least a few.
If there is something that sets them apart from the rest I guess, it might be the monumental stupidity of their plot. I don’t want to spoil the unfolding reveals but suffice to say the basic outline of it is they’ve created a hostage situation, where both they and the hostages are caught in a burning building with very little chance of escape. There’s something more than a little rum about the whole affair.
I mean, let’s be fair the writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a strong founding in comedy. There’s a lot that could have been pulled out of the ridiculousness of this whole situation. The whole thing is so serious though. It allows itself some laughs I guess, it’s not a totally dour picture, but there is a sense of fun that is sorely lacking.
Maybe everyone is grimacing too hard. Maybe they’re taking the threat too seriously. The most we get out of anyone is a wearied sigh while the brush the soot off their trousers before lurching into the next calamity. I don’t wanna see that, not in this joint, not in one where the lead (secure in his masculinity) praises the virtues of duck tape. He keeps a roll of it on his person at all times. It solves just about every problem that he comes across.
That detail feels like it’s one from a different movie than the one where he gets involved in a cramped and brutal kitchen knifefight. I don’t want it to feel like the film is unsure of its identity, it feels like it has a pretty good hold on what it wants to be.
It just isn’t though. It’s not inventive, or extraordinary, or idiosyncratic enough to get there. It’s a half dozen better movies distilled into one uncompelling package.
Skyscraper is currently screening in UK cinemas.
Image courtesy of Universal