Chances are you’ve seen the truncated version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s latest action escapade a half-dozen times; the three-minute trailer for Skyscraper has played before every big movie release since February. It tells you everything you need to know about the story: Former FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson) has to enter a burning, state-of-the-art Hong Kong skyscraper known as the Pearl to rescue his family, who are trapped above the fire line some 90 stories up. There are also terrorists causing a ruckus. The police suspect Sawyer is one of the terrorists. Oh, jeez!
The question is whether it could maintain a 90-minute runtime when even the trailer wore a bit thin. It does; if you go in expecting something special or surprising you’ll be disappointed, but it’s unlikely anyone seeing Skyscraper is showing up to have their minds blown. No, they’re showing up to see the trailer highlights played out in the context of a story. Johnson jumping off a crane or using duct tape to climb the outside of a building. And to tell you the truth, there’s nothing quite like attending a really stupid movie with an audience primed to have a good time.
It’s a ’90s throwback action goodie-bag: everything you like thrown together, along with the earnestness Johnson brings to all of his roles. Like Rampage earlier this year, Skyscraper is all about Johnson. Will Sawyer? The name only matters in expository sequences. This version of his self-made archetype is a little less confident, more averse to firearms and an amputee who lost a leg after a tragic accident that also ended his law enforcement career. A variation on a theme: Johnson is, as always, an eminently likable, reliable hero who cares about his family and is capable of insane physical feats.
Family is the main motivator and Skyscraper cements Johnson’s role as America’s 21st-Century Action Daddy. The script, though, makes an effort not to rest its heroism firmly in the dad camp, as wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twins Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) actively work to save themselves and each other. Johnson’s usual depiction of familial strength tends to feel more progressive than the classic action archetypes, making sure to include his women co-stars as equals rather than objects. However, the movie still feels somewhat reserved and calculated.
That is because Skyscraper is so self-serious and determined that it lacks a sense of fantasy, of romance. It’s kind of dissatisfying as a result. There’s nothing to the storytelling: shot ugly, with a story told rote and to the point. At the heart of the problem is Johnson’s persona, arguably similar to a lot of the Marvel superheroes in that they rarely engage in romantic stories. They have characters and love interests but often lack something sweeping to hold onto after the credits roll. What are these movies about? What are they supposed to leave us with? Even the most masculine (toxic?) action movies in the past catered to a sense of fantasy, for good or ill. Die Hard has inspired countless imitators for a reason. Skyscraper won’t.
“Welcome to heaven,” says Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the creator of the Pearl. We never feel like we’re there with them.
This is a long and odd way of explaining that Skyscraper, for all the human interest in the script, simply feels inhuman, a blockbuster that is viscerally entertaining but emotionally empty. Structurally, no better example of this is the third act, which creates a needlessly complicated environment for the otherwise simple scenario presented by the movie’s premise. Going too big is a common problem that the current action standard-bearer, Marvel, has been trying to escape for the last three years and seven movies; it’s too bad others of the genre can’t follow their example.
Johnson knows what he has, though, and he wants to use it for good. His action empire is beloved around the world, and Skyscraper shows tremendous love toward its setting of Hong Kong. The city and its people aren’t just window dressing; most of the supporting cast is populated by Chinese actors and they’re portrayed as Johnson’s fellow heroes and helpers. It’s notable, and not a small effort.
At this point, seeing Skyscraper feels like a religious exercise, a culmination of prolonged advertising-and-social media experience. It is the distilled essence of the persona Johnson has crafted over the past few years and, in a way, a standout example of what it takes for a movie of this kind to succeed. It’s a crowd-pleasing seat-filler that will no doubt make a lot of money and a good 90-minute trip to the theater. But in the classic summer sense, it’s one you’ll forget as soon as you leave and remember only when you see its copies pile up in a $5 Walmart bin.