People do ridiculous things in movies all the time. In “Skyscraper,” terrorists purposefully set a 240-story building on fire in order to get at a flash drive locked away in the billionaire’s penthouse on top. That seems like an awful lot of trouble for a heist, and yet, it’s nothing compared with the extravagant lengths Dwayne Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer — a security consultant with a prosthetic leg and the world’s strongest finger muscles — will go to, to save his family, who are trapped inside.
Ridiculous is the name of the game in “Skyscraper,” an eye-rolling action movie delivered with a straight face by “Dodgeball: An Underdog Story” director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who recognizes that no one wants to watch a realistic rescue story (“Cat Saved From Tree,” say, or “Backdraft”) when they can have “The Rock’s Wife and Kids Nearly Burned to a Crisp in Blazing Building.” On the scale that ranges from implausibly entertaining to entertainingly implausible, “Skyscraper” comfortably falls toward the compulsively over-the-top end, generating thrills by straining credibility at every turn, relying on Johnson’s invaluable ability to engage the audience while defying physics, common sense, and the sheer limits of human stamina.
This is the kind of movie where, to break back into the burning building, Sawyer pulls himself up 100 or so stories on a construction crane and leaps across a 40-foot chasm to an open window, somehow finding the upper-body strength to pull himself through the crumbling ledge (all of this takes less time than it did for the monsters in “Rampage” to scale far shorter structures). Maybe they were all studio plants, but the audience at a Los Angeles press screening erupted into applause after that scene, and at least two other equally outrageous set-pieces, which just goes to show that suspension of disbelief doesn’t stand in the way of appreciating stunts previously confined to mind-benders like “The Matrix.”
To backtrack a bit, “Skyscraper” opens with a hostage situation in which former FBI operative Sawyer fails to anticipate a grisly twist, losing his leg and several teammates in the process but gaining a combat-surgeon wife (Neve Campbell, too little seen these days but nicely used here) who happens to be on duty when they bring him in. A decade later, Sawyer has switched jobs, building such an ace reputation as a security consultant that he’s hired by Hong Kong developer Zhao Long Ji (Singaporean star Chin Han) to protect “the Pearl,” billed as “the safest super-tall structure” in the world, three times the height of the Empire State Building.
Where other buildings aspire to scrape the sky, the Pearl punches through the other side, looming two-thirds of a mile high. Plus, it’s pretty, rejecting straight lines in favor of organic curves — like a cross between Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral (still only half-built) and those long wooden staffs the wizards use to fight in “The Lord of the Rings,” complete with pearl-shaped globe at the top (which houses an elaborate virtual-reality space custom-designed to deliver an exciting finale). Conveniently, Zhao hasn’t started to sell the residential upper half, which is just as well, since it would house about 10,000 people, and it’s much simpler for Sawyer to focus on rescuing just the three members of his family, and maybe his boss.
Thurber’s script introduces a twist in which the cops think that maybe Sawyer is responsible for the fire (not that it matters), along with a handful of double-crosses that it mistakes for “surprises,” but mostly, it’s the kind of thing that could have been written in crayon by 12-year-olds — who, let’s be honest, make up roughly half the target audience. The other half are Chinese viewers, which no doubt explains why the movie takes place in Hong Kong and stars a predominantly Asian cast (though most of the primary roles go to Westerners), since Universal is clearly counting on the Chinese market to generate most of the film’s business. It should be noted that none of the film lensed in Hong Kong, shooting primarily in Vancouver instead, though it’s all the screen time given to the CG building that makes the more impressive illusion.
Maybe fire and gravity work differently in Hong Kong. One certainly gets that impression as Thurber manipulates such forces to suit various stunt sequences, although his general tactic is to keep things moving so quickly that audiences don’t stop to question such liberties or the obvious logical gaps along the way — as when villainous Kores Botha (Roland Møller) uses Sawyer’s daughter to manipulate her hyper-protective papa-bear father into overriding the doors to the building’s impenetrable panic room (surely it would be easier simply to save his daughter than it is to climb along the outer wall of the building, jump the turbines, and hack the subroutine panels).
Remember, through all of this, Sawyer is missing a leg, which makes it that much more insane to watch him running and jumping and karate-kicking, while Botha and his army of heavily armed bad guys make like Hans Gruber on Christmas Eve. And yet, as that allusion suggests, “Skyscraper” belongs to a tradition of lean, larger-than-life action movies that have all but disappeared from megaplexes, along with the careers of stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis. Johnson is both a throwback to that era and a significant upgrade, armed with nothing but brute strength and a roll of duct tape, seemingly capable of feats that would have been laughable coming from any other star (technically, no one can do what Sawyer does, though we are willing to buy it when he tries). This is escapism, pure and simple, and though the structure is rickety, by enlisting Johnson, Thurber ensures that his “Skyscraper” is built on solid Rock.