It was about 50 minutes into Skyscraper—after approximately four explosions, two knife fights, five gun battles, and one all-too-brief sighting of The Rock’s immense, tattooed pectorals—that I sighed internally at the empty, unoriginality of Hollywood, gave up on the movie almost entirely, and turned instead to my Haribo gummy bears for entertainment, my greatest remaining hope being an additional man-boob sighting.
We had already reached the movie’s absurdist set-piece—260-pound Dwayne Johnson leaping improbably from a construction crane to a 240-story building—and I felt nothing, aside from a vague sense of disillusionment at the spiritless result of the summer blockbuster machine whose anesthetizing effect applies, apparently, even to big-ass explosions and fights betwixt hot-ass men.
But then suddenly, nearly an hour in, I started to cry. Actual tears—two of them—slid down either side of my face as my chin crumpled into a Danesian mess. This hollow movie, which had briskly distilled its character development into a couple stock moments of emotionality prior to all the gunfire and man-grunting, had suddenly pivoted toward intense family drama. I was finally feeling real feelings—but not the feelings I’d expected from the movie: namely, giddy escapism, wry amusement, and, most of all, horniness.
The setup for Skyscraper feels constructed from a Netflix-level understanding of Johnson’s multifaceted fanbase, which includes WWE-holdovers, as well as slobbering thirty-something moms like myself. His character, Will Sawyer, is a former FBI operative who 10 years prior misread a tense hostage situation, which caused him to lose a leg. Now he has a prosthesis—a fact relentlessly conveyed throughout the movie, because prosthetic legs count as both character building and progressive politics in Hollywood. He’s happily married—to Sarah, played by Neve Campbell, a surgeon who treated his leg injury—with two kids. When he’s hired to do a security assessment of a record-breaking 3,500-foot-tall building in Hong Kong known as The Pearl, he brings the whole gang along to China, because he’s that kind of dedicated family man.
But, of course, things go terribly wrong. Some bad guys with vaguely European accents set fire to the building and overtake the security system that Will had just a-OKed—whoops—all while his family is stuck inside. The Rock to the rescue!
After unimaginative, drawn-out run-ins with comic-book-esque henchmen and clueless local police, he ultimately scales the aforementioned crane, hurls himself through the air toward one of The Pearl’s broken windows, and—SPOILER ALERT—doesn’t die. Then he must find and save his wife and kids, who are roaming the building trying to escape the smoke-filled air, as his young son struggles to breathe. This is where Skyscraper finds some emotional redemption, but also where it prohibits itself from being any kind of enjoyable whatsoever, because there are kids in peril.
That brings me to my crying, which began when Will’s wife, Sarah, is attacked by the creepiest of all the bad guys and one of her kids desperately yells, “Mooommm!” That’s all it took. Maybe it was that children being separated by bad guys from their parents is now all-too-real in this country, a fact that these days comes to mind every time I sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to my own son before bed. Or maybe it’s just that I had been subjected to relentless special effects chaos for nearly an hour straight and needed some goddamned relief. What certainly seems true is that Skyscraper allows you—perhaps requires you—to project your own feelings onto its emotionally undeveloped canvas.
That lack of heart is where Skyscraper most spectacularly fails to live up to its promising Die Hard-esque setup. In case you’ve neglected to see the best action movie of all time: Die Hard is the 1988 film in which Bruce Willis’ John McClane, a chain-smoking New York City cop, cannily outsmarts and escapes terrorists in a high-rise office building—including by crawling through air vents and using a firehose to bungee jump from the exploding rooftop. Johnson’s Will—a happily married man and lovingly engaged dad—is cast dramatically apart from Willis’ iconic McClane, an absentee father who is estranged from his wife and just can’t seem to get his shit together, the dummy. And yet, somehow, against all odds, Will manages to be less likable than McClane—because he’s less human. This is strictly the failing of the script, because Johnson is immensely more likable than Willis—and most humans on this earth, for that matter.
Skyscraper, with all its expeditious handling of character and backstory in favor of boom-bang-pow, leaves no room for Johnson’s signature raised brow, gleaming eyes, and hearty laugh. Johnson is at his absolute best when he plays himself with an absurdist, self-aware sensibility—a kind of macho drag that might not be politically defensible yet makes my insides go uhnnn. But Skyscraper takes itself all too seriously. It renders Johnson as an empty avatar of family-guy heroism—an improvement upon Die Hard’s absentee-dad heroism but still patriarchal as hell—which ends up feeling objectifying in a not at all sexy way.
There are feeble laugh lines and gags tossed here and there—fleeting glimpses of warmth—but they fall flat. Inexplicably, the film tries to make duct tape an inside joke with the audience after Will uses it to bandage a wound while cracking, “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape.” We later see him scaling the side of the building with duct tape wrapped around his palms, while saying aloud, “This is stupid.” It is, indeed, but acknowledging it as much doesn’t make it funny. More questionably, his prosthetic leg is used as both a weapon in a fight and to prop open a fast-closing door at a crucial moment. At one point, while suspended upside down outside of the building, he falls out of his prosthesis and ends up clinging to it for dear life. Is this supposed to be a crack-up scene or a touching display of a man saved by his disability? Unclear. These moments—like a lot about the movie—feels tonally off.
Mostly, the movie is Serious Rock Acting Serious. He’s not bad at it, it’s just that it’s no fun—and a movie like Skyscraper is, above all, supposed to be fun. It’s certainly not supposed to make you ugly-cry.