Dwayne Johnson saves. It’s sort of his signature thing, really. An informal list of people, places and other miscellany that the man still known by many as “The Rock” has protected, defended and/or rescued: a young Polynesian woman, part of the Egyptian empire, ancient Greece, San Francisco, fellow video-game avatars, the World Wrestling Federation, the professional secrets of tooth fairies, a gang of internationally wanted outlaw street racers, Kevin Hart (numerous times), an albino gorilla, humanity, several franchises, the concept of the action hero specifically and movie stardom in general. (Things he has not saved: the reputation of plaster casts as a durable item and that Baywatch flick.)
He has crack comic timing, a preposterous amount of screen presence, acting chops – see: Pain and Gain (2013) – and a body that suggests he may have spent some time inside a gym. But the keystone of his persona is the ability to suggest that he’s somehow a salt-of-the-earth everyman and a pumped-up superhero, the kind of guy who’d have a beer with you in between steering busloads of orphans away from danger with his bare hands. And nothing inspires a Johnson character to channel both of those things at once than the need to save his family. Put his wife and/or kids in harm’s way and watch the man spring into action. He will risk life and limb. He will punch and kick and, if need be, throw a prosthetic leg at you. He will take a bullet. And push comes to shove, Johnson will painstakingly climb to the top of a massive construction crane and elude a Hong Kong SWAT team in order to sprint-leap into the 100th floor of a 225-story tall building. Which, it should be mentioned, is on fire and full of terrorists.
That’s the money shot of Skyscraper, his summer blockbuster that’s one part disaster flick, two parts Die Hard and all parts international market-friendly star vehicle – you could have named this movie Holy Shit The Rock Just Free-Jumped Into a Fucking Flaming Skyscraper at an Incredible Height! and it would be 100-percent accurate. By this point in the story, we’ve already seen Johnson’s former FBI agent Will Sawyer botch a hostage negotiation, lose his leg and gain a Navy surgeon wife (welcome back, Neve Campbell). And as we’ve picked up the thread a decade after that incident, we have witnessed our broken man on the rebound, having relocated his spouse and their young kids to the Asian metropolis to take a job. Sawyer is going to be the security consultant at the Pearl, the world’s largest building that houses a “city in the sky,” complete with apartments, a terrarium, gigantic wind turbines and a dome that houses the digital equivalent of a hall of mirrors. (If you think all of these elements will not come into play at some point: Do not pass go, do not collect $200 and go directly to Motion Picture Narrative 101 jail.)
Except there are a few things standing in between newfound professional/domestic bliss – for example, a somewhat shifty best friend (Pablo Schreiber), a mysterious item in the possession of the building’s billionaire owner (Chin Han) and a team of bad guys led by the requisite Euro-accented sadist (Roland Møller). For reasons that are too convoluted to go into here – let’s just say it involves an iPad, a close-quarters brawl and after-hours Panda feeding time at a zoo – Sawyer finds himself on the run from the law while his family is trapped in a towering inferno. So up that crane he goes, monkey-bar-swinging thousands of feet up in the air and causing any acrophobics in the audience to start experiencing extreme vertigo.
These sequences, with Johnson dangling and jumping and hanging off the edge of a variety of nosebleed-altitude ledges, are clearly Skyscraper’s highlights. You know it, the star knows it and writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence) definitely knows it, milking every grunting close call and slipping-finger grasp for all that it’s worth. Then, once Sawyer gets inside and starts to negotiate his way through the floors while tangling with the military-grade muscle-for-hire, the movie mostly settles into a somewhat generic MacGyver-meets-John-McClane groove. It used to be that you could take this tried-and-true template and sell it by changing the locale: Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a boat, possibly with a goat, etc. Now, you elevator-pitch it with a name brand: How about Die Hard Starring The Rock? Why not just time-warp today’s biggest movie star into a Nineties action movie and see what happens?
What you get is, regrettably and rather surprisingly, something that’s a lot less exciting than the sum of those particular parts. When Johnson is not fighting gravity and winning, things have a tendency to go from sweaty-palm–inducing to facepalming, especially when the movie starts dropping him into CGI flamescapes and some increasingly one-dimensional digital sequences. (It’s one of those FX-heavy epics that somehow feels overblown and super-chintzy at the same time.) He’s also playing his physically wounded, emotionally raw character with a high degree of self-seriousness, in what feels like a bid for dramatic gravitas – a decision that would be laudable if he’d maybe picked another vehicle to do it in. Yes, his mostly po-faced determination to keep his wife and kids safe give his hero some motivational heft. But stripped of his cocked-eyebrow charm, Johnson’s performance simply comes off as humorless in a movie that keeps getting inherently more ridiculous. Right note, wrong song. This is the sort of thing that requires classic Rock, not an experimental but-what-if-I-maybe-acted-like-this-was-Sophie’s-Choice? Rock.
We’ve barely mentioned the determined police inspector (Byron Mann), the hit woman (Hannah Quinlivan) with bangs so severe she’d give Jane Lane hair envy and the billionaire’s personal insurance broker (Noah Taylor) whose name we swore was Villain V. Villainy. (IMDb.com assures us that’s not the case, but we’re still not convinced.) That’s because the film barely notices them either, happy to trot them out for a brow-furrowing or a glare or a few gunshots before shoving them aside until the next time-killing interlude. And while Thurber gives Campbell a character that’s anything but a quivering damsel-in-distress – this woman kicks ass with the best of them, and it’s genuinely great to see the Scream star back onscreen – he’s also the sort of director who mistakes cut-up chaos for fight scenes and sound and fury for actual set pieces. There’s little to recommend Skyscraper past the mere thrill of seeing Johnson do what he does, and what he’s doing here can be filed under “too much + not enough.” The star can singlehandedly save a lot of things. Just not quite this.