Mash together “Die Hard” with “The Towering Inferno,” add an extra helping of absurdity to the mix, and you have the recipe for “Skyscraper,” which can only be described as a live-action cartoon that can only be justified in terms of providing a massive adrenaline rush. The formula certainly worked at the boxoffice for Dwayne Johnson before, and probably will this time as well; but though one can appreciate a Looney Tunes short, this would-be summer blockbuster clocks in at more than an hour and a half, and that’s way too long for nonsense of this kind. The Warner Brothers featurettes, moreover, were funny; this lumbering behemoth is a pretty humorless affair, except for the unintended laughs the ludicrous excesses and general cheesiness are likely to provoke.
You have to hand it to the makers, though. Knowing that a big chunk of the target audience will be found in China, where this sort of mindless spectacle has become a major draw (especially since the dialogue can be completely disposable—indeed, the line that’s spoken most often is “Turn around!”—always delivered by someone to a person he has a gun trained on), they’ve situated the action in Hong Kong (though doing the actual shooting in Vancouver), and filled many of the under-the-title roles with Asian actors. So even if the picture were to whiff in America, its revenues abroad should cover the costs.
The plot contrived by director Rawson Marshall Thurber is an extremely simple one. Will Sawyer (Johnson) is a security expert who has lost a leg in a bungled SWAT-like rescue attempt shown in a phony-looking Minnesota-set prologue, but gained a wife as a result of the tragedy—the ex-military nurse Sarah (Neve Campbell) who saw him through rehab. They have darling twin kids (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) , and the whole family is ensconced in a lovely Hong Kong apartment in The Pearl, the world’s tallest building, which is about to be opened for business by steely-eyed mogul Zhao (Chin Han). On the recommendation of old FBI buddy Ben (Pablo Schreiber), Will’s been tapped to perform the final security check on the Pearl.
Things quickly go awry as—we soon learn—no one can be trusted. An army of thugs led by nasty Kores Botha (Roland Møller) bypasses the building’s elaborate security systems to set it afire, trapping Zhao and his entourage in the penthouse. The reason, we learn, is to compel the businessman to hand over a list of the sleazy investors Zhao had persuaded to put money into the venture, whose names he now plans to reveal unless they stop pressuring him. (A more ridiculously elaborate scheme could hardly be invented; surely a simple kidnap-and-torture would have worked just as well—in fact better, as it turns out.)
In any event, despite the suspicions of the singularly inept Hong Kong cops (headed by stone-faced Byron Mann) that Will might be involved in the plot against Zhao, our intrepid hero escapes them, climbs a tall construction crane beside the Pearl, crashes his way into the building and undertakes to save his wife and kids. His farfetched feats are applauded vociferously, when they occur on the building’s ledges as they often do, by a crowd of observers down on the street, who are periodically shown cheering him on (obviously to encourage the audience to respond in similar fashion). No points for predicting how things turn out.
It’s hard to believe that such a smoldering lump of action hokum could have been cobbled together by Thurber, who penned the clever “Central Intelligence” and tapped into Johnson’s gift for self-deprecating humor so well in it. His script is not only riddled with plot holes but plagued by a total lack of suspense, with the villainous character of one person, for instance, obvious from the first moment the slimy-looking actor appears onscreen, though it’s supposed to come as a shocking revelation near the close. He also made a terrible error in inserting a pointless sideshow involving a bunch of high-tech mirrors atop the Pearl, which are apparently there only to allow him to stage a flamboyant battle scene at the close where the combatants don’t know where each other really are. It’s a pity the gambit was done much better in “John Wick: Chapter 2,” let alone “The Lady from Shanghai.”
The failure of that culminating sequence isn’t just the result of lazy screenwriting, though; its sloppiness is also proof of Thurber’s inadequacy as an action director. He’s done reasonably well in the past helming smaller-scaled comedies, but the big moments of danger and derring-do here fall flat, being poorly conceived and clumsily choreographed. Robert Elswit’s unimaginative cinematography and the almost desperate editing of Mike Sale and Julian Clarke don’t help, of course, nor does the generally chintzy CGI work that’s integrated with Jim Bissell’s plastic-looking production design (including, of course, the Pearl itself). But the ultimate responsibility lies with Thurber, who must also have approved Steve Jablonsky’s utterly generic score.
Thurber might also have chosen—and used—his cast more ably. Johnson goes through the standard action-hero paces with his accustomed likability, and has a few good moments with his prosthetic leg (clearly a device meant to make his deeds even more remarkable, though it actually just italicizes how incredible they are). But he’s duller than usual here, with his fights scenes messily staged and shot and his interaction with the kids sappy. And while it’s nice to see Campbell back in circulation after too long a hiatus, her fight scenes are no better than Johnson’s, and she’s reduced to mere damsel-in-distress mode too often. (One can’t help but giggle in the scene in which she must walk across a wooden plank to save her son, still wearing her high-heeled, fashion-plate boots.)
The remaining performers are instantly forgettable. Møller makes a boring villain, not a patch on Alan Rickman’s memorable Hans Gruber or any of the other wonderfully over-the-top bad guys in movies of this ilk, and Hannah Quinlivan, as his slinky henchwoman, vies with Mann in trying to get through their scenes without moving a facial muscle.
“Skyscraper” is such a bust that you might well wonder whether Thurber first wrote it as a spoof of the genre—a kind of “Airplane!” on the stairwells—but then recast it as a straightforward action flick, perhaps at the behest of his investors. If so, they treated him no better than Zhao’s did.