It’s hard to define exactly what sets a great B-movie apart from a bad one. After all, the line is razor-thin, and there are always various cultural contexts and filmmaking trends that can swing a sound concept in either direction. Most people know the latter when they see it; for every Die Hard there are a dozen Olympus Has Fallen, for every Independence Day scores more like Geostorm follow. Some audiences will never turn down a well-calibrated piece of summersploitation, as the hunt for a so-bad-but-I’ll-watch-this-on-cable-for-years future classic always sounds its horn right around this time of the year.
In that spirit, director Rawson Marshall Thurber and current apex Hollywood hunk Dwayne Johnson offer Skyscraper for consideration, an absolutely ridiculous blockbuster spectacle aimed squarely at the sort of audience whose ears perk up at “absolutely ridiculous.” Skyscraper exists near the zenith of high concept premises: The Rock has to get into and then back out of a 200+ floor Hong Kong “super-tall structure” and save his family. From that, one can understand all the simple things they might need to have locked down. The Rock will get into that building in ridiculous fashion, he will do anything to save his family, and he will perform Paddington’s hard stare directly into the eyes of at least one menacing but never genuinely threatening Eastern European heavy.
This time, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an ex-federal agent who left his special-ops lifestyle behind when a hostage incident gone wrong led to Will losing one of his legs from the knee down. A decade later Will finds himself in Hong Kong, now a leading specialist in the field of high-grade security systems, hoping to land a contract overseeing The Pearl, a state-of-the-art mega-skyscraper, which master architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) insists is completely fail-safe. The building contains everything from a sustainable waterfall and greenhouse to its namesake tree-topper, a massive 360-degree dome at the very top of the building, filled with tends of thousands of high-definition screens and capable of projecting virtually anything. But as is the fate which so often befalls super-tall structures in action movies starring A-listers, terrorists with mysterious goals soon siege the building. For Will, that represents his worst nightmare, as his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twin children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are now also trapped inside with the armed mercenaries. There’s only one thing for a man like Will to do at a time like this: conquer the skyscraper and save his family.
Thurber, who last collaborated with Johnson on the sleeper hit Central Intelligence, knows exactly what kind of film he’s making, and jumps into the grand stagings of cornball action dramatics with zeal. That goes a long way throughout Skyscraper, as the film has a general sense of care (for the most part) 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. Did you come in thinking that it’s Die Hard in an even taller building? Johnson has a plethora of dryly sarcastic reactions to mortal peril in store for you. It’s a higher Towering Inferno? Thurber opens the fire vents and sends flames racing up the sides of the building to make that point as explicitly literal as possible. You enjoy Cliffhanger? Johnson’s dangling from even more stuff, somehow.
Skyscraper‘s knowing sense of transparency about its own corniness turns it into exactly the right kind of summer outing, a tight 93 minutes of consistently well-executed overstimulation that takes itself seriously enough to avoid total self parody while also going out of its way to avoid insulting its audience’s intelligence. This ends up having the curious effect of diminishing a lot of the film’s shortcomings as it’s playing out, at least to a point. Some of the aggressive editorial choices suggest a longer movie culled down to raw materials, and while the film’s brute efficiency is refreshing in terms of pacing, it also means that any characters outside of the film’s central quintet are shorted on their screen time. Byron Mann shows up just to glower as an instinctive detective, and the villains are largely cutouts of cutouts through no fault of the performers. Yet every time these aspects of the film begin to float to the surface, Johnson narrowly avoids falling out of another window, and the film begins sprinting forward anew.
If the filmmaking isn’t always as structurally sound as the titular building, which spends a lot of the film’s runtime on fire without ever collapsing, Skyscraper at least has the benefit of looking every bit like the multi-million dollar endeavor it is. 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 Thurber makes a meal out of these scenes. Some of the hand-to-hand action isn’t quite so visually confident (the film is immersed in the modern plague of quick-cutting fistfights muddying the action), but when the film goes big, it consistently delivers. That’s true of the film at large, which answers the question of what a feature-length movie built around the aesthetic of Tom Cruise’s Burj Khalifa gambit from Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol would look like, and it’s particularly true of a climactic hall-of-mirrors sequence that hits the perfect sweet spot between fun and distractingly implausible.
Skyscraper carries itself with more than a bit of a wink, and it’s to the film’s benefit. 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, and Campbell meets him as a sharp ex-military surgeon who’s always a step ahead of everyone else with a quarter of the information. That wink is welcome here, though, because Skyscraper‘s aims are simple, and in keeping them there, it frequently manages to exceed them. Did you want an over-the-top summer action movie? This one even has a little style to spare. Do you like when your action movies are both serious and a little playful? Look no further. Did you want Dwayne Johnson to fight some terrorists in a burning building? He goes after one of them with a goddamn sword.