Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell & Chin Han
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: July 2018
Running Time: 102 mins
Synopsis: FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran Will Sawyer now assesses security for skyscrapers. On assignment in Hong Kong he finds the tallest, safest building in the world suddenly ablaze and he’s been framed for it. A wanted man on the run, Will must find those responsible, clear his name and somehow rescue his family who are trapped inside the building – above the fire line.
Any film that features a solitary hero trapped in a high-rise building and outnumbered by machine-gun toting bad guys as he attempts to rescue hostages will inevitably draw comparisons to Die Hard, and Skyscraper is no exception to that rule. Where the film attempts to differentiate itself from its iconic predecessor is in its lead character, Will Sawyer, who is a veteran FBI hostage negotiator who lost his lower left leg in an incident that led to his retirement. More optimistic than Bruce Willis’ John McClane, the character of Sawyer embodies Dwayne Johnson’s energy and his gentle giant persona, but ultimately lacks the same level of charisma that resulted in four Die Hard sequels. Similarly, this film’s antagonist is no Hans Gruber and is arguably less of a threat to Johnson than the raging inferno that threatens to wipe out everyone in the building.
Aimed at a younger audience than Die Hard, the film moves the focus away from fights and violence and instead has Johnson attempting numerous death-defying stunts as he attempts to rescue his wife and children. This subtle shift helps give the film its own identity and the most inspiring sequences are those moments where Johnson is leaping off cranes, hanging by his own foot or narrowly avoiding a turbine blade. There was one moment where Johnson almost loses his grip as he climbs up the crane to find an entry point that made my wife audibly gasp with shock, which is a testament to how engrossed she was in the film. The setting of Hong Kong was also a refreshing change from the usual US locations, and while it might have been a choice dictated by budget and marketing, it again helped to distinguish Skyscraper from the pack.
Dwayne Johnson is easily this generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, commanding screen presence with that intimidating frame whilst also exuding charm and likeability. He has a wholesome image, perhaps a hangover from his wrestling days as The Rock, so he seldom plays those grittier anti-hero roles, which might be the secret to his long-lasting popularity. I just can’t imagine him shouting “Yippee Ki Yay, Motherfucker” as he takes down criminals without compunction. Skyscraper feels like the perfect vehicle for Johnson as it allows him to have his own “Die Hard” movie but without alienating his core teen fan base.
Neve Campbell is a surprising choice as leading lady, considering her ‘scream queen’ background and her quiet movie resume since 2011’s Scream 4. She manages to build her part away from the typical damsel-in-distress, and even has her own fight sequence (against another woman) that forms a crucial part in saving the day. Sawyer’s two children are also well-cast, albeit verging slightly on child actor syndrome – the daughter (played by McKenna Roberts) is the stronger of the two and gets more screen time as a result. The other familiar face in the film is Chin Han, who played Lau in The Dark Knight and was abducted by Batman from a skyscraper in Hong Kong. He really doesn’t have much luck with skyscrapers, does he? He has a bigger part in this film, managing to keep the audience guessing as to his motivations and allegiances.
Some of the elements of the film were very predictable, but there were some genuine twists and turns in the script too. While some characters were clearly telegraphed to be bad guys, there was greater ambiguity surrounding some and the motivations behind the skyscraper takeover are kept mysterious for the first half of the film to keep viewers on their toes. The action set-pieces are what viewers will remember about this film long after it has finished and Skyscraper crafts some genuinely heart-stopping moments, including the iconic “crane jump” that made up the bulk of the promotional materials for the film, including the Blu-Ray cover. The film sets up most of these set-pieces early on the film, placing plenty of Chekhov Gun’s about the place to be fired in a cacophony of gunfire once the action begins. The grand finale inside the Pearl atop the skyscraper is a direct reference to the legendary hall of mirrors fight scene in Enter the Dragon but with a modern twist that seems a bit over-the-top at first, but results in a satisfying ending. It was strange to see a homage to that scene in a film that already owed a lot of inspiration to both Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, but it worked well as a climactic battle.
It’s unfair to judge Skyscraper too harshly on its similarities to other films as it does make an active effort to change-up the formula. Johnson’s innate charm shines through every second he is on-screen and it manages to be every bit the thrilling adventure as that other skyscraper movie, albeit with some of the rougher edges smoothed off. The direction by Rawson Marshall Thurber on those dramatic action set-pieces is breath-taking and elevates the film far above any other Die Hard clones out there. The sequence where Johnson is hanging off the skyscraper by his artificial leg almost gave me vertigo, and I’m glad the movie focuses more on the natural danger associated with the burning building instead of opting for the typical “bad guys in a building” scenario. Great fun and filled with some truly exhilarating action set-pieces, Skyscraper is a Die Hard for a new generation.