Synopsis – A father goes to great lengths to save his family from a burning skyscraper.
My Take – Released back in 1974, The Towering Inferno, a film about a high rise building on fire, set a benchmark template for succeeding disaster films on how human emotions regarding survival and quality special effects could work well together, while the 1988 John McTiernan directed film, Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, one of the best films of all time, showcased how an action film could be more realistic and believable. It’s been decades, and yet the two films still dominate pop cultural references. However what would happen if you could mash up both these films in a single feature led by arguably one of the biggest film stars of the world?
Well you get this Rawson Marshall Thurber directed film, which is basically, another action venture specifically designed to star The Rock, the one guy Hollywood can rely on to play the stock American hero type and yet be contagiously entertaining throughout. Here, collaborating with his Central Intelligence (2016) Helmer for his third film in just seven months, Johnson once again makes the plainly ludicrous almost believable, by ramping up the action to ridiculous levels, and toning the violence down to a PG13 rating to pull in a younger demographic. This is the kind of film that renders bad trailers but the actual product is underrated. Yes, it’s quite gripping and unexpected compared to its awful trailers, and as advertised a summer action blockbuster that is absolutely bonkers and absolutely worth a watch especially if you are a fan of Johnson.
The story follows Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), a former FBI agent, who following a hostage situation gone wrong ten years ago that also cost him his leg, is now running his own small Security Assessment business. However, opportunity knocks when his former teammate Ben (Pablo Schreiber), assigns him a gig as a fire/security expert for a fictional 3,500-foot 200-storey edifice, the high-rise named The Pearl. The multi-billion dollar wonder that towers over the Hong Kong skyline, boasts a king-size indoor garden complete with a waterfall as well as a giant sphere atop its frame, while its lower levels are open for consumer shops and other residents, but the assessment is needed in order to obtain the needed permissions to open the higher levels, for which Will is called in.
Upon meeting Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the billionaire owner of the building, Will is able to impress him and is given a tablet customized to his facial ID which will allow him to remotely access all of the building systems. Unfortunately with the tablet in his possession, Will is soon running for his life from a group of deadly individuals as well as the police who believe Will is behind the mysterious fire and system outages that have hit the Pearl in his absence as all the computer safeguards have been disabled by a group of armed individuals, led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller). Things complicate when Will finds out that his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), a combat surgeon and twin children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell), are stuck on the 96th floor from where the fire started. In a race against time, Will must face big odds, fire, and the dizzying heights of the building in order to save the day and rescue his family.
Given its simple plot, the film plays out as one would expect with plenty of death defying stunts, one liners galore and ample acrophobia but the heavy prologue and the ferocious takeover of the building has an unexpected intensity that’s refreshing. Director Thurber, knows exactly what kind of film he’s making, and jumps into the grand staging of cornball action dramatics with zeal. That goes a long way throughout, as the film has a general sense of care about its objectively absurd plot swings and death-defying stunts. Given that the film draws so heavily on so many of its high-altitude thrill-ride predecessors, there’s a playful sense of escalation that makes the film more than a little preposterous, and a hell of a lot more fun for it. Sure, it has ripped off Die Hard in more ways than I can count, but hey when you got Dwayne Johnson running around the building, trying to save his family from a group of paramilitary bad guys and escape from the burning building, the adrenaline rush will keep you on the edge of your seat until the closing credits.
Inspired by the action films of the 80s and 90s, director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn’t astound but gets the job done here, if released back in the day, this film would have become a high point. Yet, it almost seems cliché to call a film like this one fun, but that’s the best word to describe this film without sounding negative. It’s about as derivative and generic as action films come, but it pulls everything off pretty well, making for a solid watch. Any self-deserving action film junkie will know right from the start that these two distinct features will be the basis of the film’s major set-pieces – the garden boasts one of its most nail-biting moments where Will fashions a makeshift bridge out of a piece of wood for his wife and son to cross above an entire field of vegetation engulfed in flames; and the sphere is the scene for a virtual reality hall-of-mirrors climax that to Thurber’s credit is actually quite imaginatively designed and executed. Nevertheless, the best sequence would be arguably Will’s attempt to jump from the arm of wobbly tower crane into an open broken window of the building’s burning 96th floor.
Never mind the physics of that, or the sheer logic-defying precursor of Will scaling a 100 storeys or so on the construction crane within 10 minutes – watching Johnson pull it off is still as stomach-churning, edge-of-your-seat exhilarating and viscerally satisfying as it gets. Plus, making him an amputee, a rare thing for a lead in action film, gave the film a different dynamic. The fact that he was a complete hero that will do anything for his family proved that even if you have a disability you can still kick ass. Even more incredible is how Will manages to do all that with part of his left leg missing, the consequence of a harrowing operation gone wrong which is also conveniently used to explain how he met his spouse Sarah.
As manipulative as that bit of prosthetic may be in garnering more sympathy for Will’s circumstances, there is also no doubt that Thurber puts the detail to good use – one sequence has him fighting on a one leg that recalls Johnson‘s old wrestling days; another has him detaching the metal in order to hoist himself up from the side of the building; and yet another sees him use it to jam a pair of titanium doors before they close. It’s by far the most nifty uses of a prosthesis that we’ve seen; that, and duct tape actually, which according to the film’s logic, is sticky enough to help you scale the building’s exterior and handy enough to use as bandage. Cinematographer Robert Elswit captures a handful of genuinely alarming, palm-sweating perspectives throughout the film. Every time Johnson is in, on, or near the edges of the building, Elswit frames him as a small being in massive expanses, dwarfing even the muscular Johnson in so many frames.
It’s a film custom-made to induce severe vertigo in audiences, particularly on bigger screens, and director Thurber makes a meal out of these scenes. However, the most innovative idea was the room with the mirror screens which is foreshadowed early on so that you know a climactic battle will take place there. You also get a good sense of scale when we get to see the gardens during the building tour before all Hell breaks loose. This film is also a perfect example of impressive film theater worthy special effects, and surprisingly stays on the realistic qualities franchises often ignore. What also really stood out to me were the numerous times that my mind was sure green screen technology was used to portray the precarious heights but I was able to truly believe what I was seeing was really happening. Perhaps a little corny at times, the film really invested well in high definition sound to rattle the theater as the chaos of the crime unfolds. Excessive computer-generated images are the key to bringing the inferno to life, but is still beautiful rendered to design a building that will only be fiction for a short while.
Where the film really falls down is the script. Sure, the 80s/90s action essence is there, however director Thurber‘s script doesn’t fully utilize it. It just takes itself too seriously. The cheesy one liners are present but the abundance of exposition results in the dialogue becoming functional rather than developed. Also the absence of a memorable villain does affect the after taste as the Roland Møller‘s Kores Botha who despite starting off strong and menacing ends up becoming a caricature of every other stand antagonist out there. Also there is the icy Asian Lady (Hannah Quinlivan), who despite her swift usage of martial arts and weaponry comes out as comical.
However, known of that matters, as the only character who counts, is the actor formerly known as The Rock, as his likeability, is the biggest key to the film. Dwayne Johnson is easily the most hardworking actor in Hollywood right now, but let’s face it, he’s pulled his weight – literally and figuratively, mind you – to make what would just otherwise be dumb B-films a whole lot more enjoyable. Johnson’s soulful but rugged approach to the action leading man works much better here than it did in the equally ridiculous but far grimmer Rampage. Neve Campbell makes a surprisingly solid supporting act, who more than holds her own against the baddies. Although in a clichéd role as waiting mother, she’s worth seeing in a better, meatier role. Singapore superstar Chin Han is also good in his supporting role, so is Pablo Schreiber and Byron Mann. While Roland Møller is alright, Noah Taylor and Hannah Quinlivan ham. On the whole, ‘Skyscraper‘ is a fast paced, loud and dumb popcorn flick that works with Dwayne Johnson‘s unique brand of star charisma.
Directed – Rawson Marshall Thurber
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 102 minutes