The Air Up There: Thurber Fails to Elevate Everything in Derivative Action Popcorn Flick
Flying too close to the sun we know as Die Hard, Skyscraper crashes down to earth thanks to significant narrative limitations which barely scratch the surface of our expectations. Seemingly outfitted for the considerable charm of leading man Dwayne Johnson, who, as always, delivers the brand we’ve become accustomed (perhaps even addicted) to, Rawson Marshall Thurber’s second collaboration with his actor (following the 2016 comedy Central Intelligence) might have been more enjoyable if it only had a brain. Ruefully, it arrives in the eye of the summer tent pole storm, and as such, has the distinction of being the only major Hollywood studio film during the month of July which is not a sequel, prequel, or remake. However, its similarities to a certain Bruce Willis action franchise hardly allows it to be the glaring beacon of originality mainstream American cinema is so desperately in need of (if ideas were humans, the Hollywood studio system reflects an inbred gene pool as varied as the flagging days of the Habsburgs). Still, this will have to suffice as fresh blood.
Beloved family man Will Sawyer (Johnson) has received an opportunity which seems too good to be true. Following a dangerous hostage situation which saw him lose a leg, the ex-FBI operative turned security consultant managed to start over thanks to a romance with his combat surgeon wife (Neve Campbell). Now, with their preadolescent twins (one of whom is asthmatic, natch) in tow, Will’s small, self-made business, has been tapped by Hong Kong developer Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) to protect the world’s tallest skyscraper. Known as “The Pearl,” the structure is three times as high as the Empire State Building, but Zhao hasn’t allowed residents into the upper half, while the public expectantly waits for him to reveal the contents of the mysterious orb at the top. Immediately after being interviewed for the position, Will Sawyer discovers someone had sinister plans necessitating his involvement with The Pearl.
It’s difficult to assign fault to Dwayne Johnson for the insipidness of Skyscraper. He is, after all, the only revitalizing factor of the continually popular and logically unsound Fast and the Furious picture shows—the problem isn’t with his ability to provide presence. He’s got the warmth and trustworthiness of an old-school Hollywood icon mixed with the brawn and exaggerated masculinity birthed out of the age of excess and thus feels like the likeliest composite of a Henry Fonda or a Gregory Peck lodged in the vessel of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the arguable universality of Johnson’s appeal doesn’t make up for the Thurber’s formidably dumb script, calibrating every single scrap of dialogue or superficial character tic as a predictable springboard for the unfolding narrative (how to use an iPhone, for instance, from an otherwise intelligent and more-than-capable female character is perhaps the most untoward example of this).
Thurber, who is still best known for his Ben Stiller collegiate-minded comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) and an ill-conceived attempt at adapting Michael Chabon in 2008 with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, has since wobbled around in formula heavy studio comedies benefitting from featured A-list actors in formula heavy but otherwise “original” concepts (We’re the Millers; Central Intelligence).
His attempt at a high-profile action epic, though assisted by some international flair thanks to its Hong Kong setting (and at least allowing a squadron of throwaway supporting characters to converse in their own language) is so perilously cornball it’s laughable, despite even succeeding at several intensely staged moments which would have once been hailed as “nail biting.” And while it’s a joy to see Neve Campbell as Johnson’s bedrock, she’s given little do beyond being mildly resourceful until one outburst of action unity which hints at something which could have been a bit more Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the Jolie-Pitt version, of course).
The bad guys and what they’re after hardly matters, but the introduction of three white characters, including Pablo Schreiber (“Orange is the New Black”), Brit character actor Noah Tyler, and Danish actor Roland Moller (Land of Mine; Atomic Blonde) are presented with such villainous importunity and which such cartoonish menace, they only succeed in lessening whatever tension Skyscraper actually succeeds with.
Laughably violent (how multiple people mercilessly being gunned down continues to justify a PG-13 rating is the most troubling aspect of the film) and the fate of its troubled nuclear family never in doubt, Thurber succeeds in making Dwayne Johnson’s earlier 2018 title, Rampage, which is adapted from a video game, all the more comparably dynamic and invigorating.