PLOT A former FBI agent must rescue his family from a burning building.
CAST Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Roland Møller
BOTTOM LINE The Rock delivers the perfect summer movie in this unabashed “Die Hard” knockoff.
Dwayne Johnson plays a wanted man trying to rescue his family from a burning high-rise in “Skyscraper,” a cheerfully derivative and hugely enjoyable piece of entertainment. An alternative title for this big-budget spectacle might be “The Fugitive Hardly Dies in the Towering Inferno,” so blatantly does it steal from several box-office hits. Amid all this rehashing, though, comes one idea that is startlingly original: Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer, is an amputee.
Thanks to a fairly intense flashback that opens this film, we learn that Sawyer, a former FBI agent, lost much of his left leg in a hostage situation that ended badly. What we’re watching isn’t just a fun-and-fluffy blockbuster, but something highly unusual: a Hollywood action-hero with a disability.
Not that the movie makes a big thing of it. The best heroes have an Achilles heel – snakes for Indiana Jones, vertigo for Jimmy Stewart’s ex-cop Scottie Ferguson – and so writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (of Johnson’s hit comedy “Central Intelligence”) invents one for Sawyer. It’s a humanizing device: The moment we see Sawyer, now a security consultant, pull on his prosthetic and swallow his daily pain pills, we instantly feel for him. It’s also a tantalizing set-up: How is a guy with one leg going to do all the superhuman things we came to see him do?
We get our answer in the film’s excellent first fight sequence, in which a foe sends Sawyer’s leg skittering across the floor. Though hobbled, Sawyer improvises and prevails, something he’ll do again and again as he figures out the plot he’s been drawn into: A mercenary named Kores Botha (Roland Møller) has set fire to the world’s tallest building – a shimmering CGI fiction known as The Pearl – in order to extort valuable information from its architect, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Meanwhile, Sawyer’s family is trapped above the fire line. (Neve Campbell plays Sarah, the ER doctor who saved and naturally married our hero; McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell play their kids.) It’s worth mentioning that “Skyscraper” takes place entirely in Hong Kong, surely a harbinger of Hollywood’s China-driven future.
As “Skyscraper” raises the stakes, its situations become increasingly, wonderfully implausible. At one point, Sawyer scales the building’s exterior using suction-cups made from duct tape. The reason we suspend disbelief is not because of Sawyer’s tremendous strength but because of his vulnerability. “Skyscraper” may be a landmark film, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like one. What it feels like is a great time at the movies.
Tall buildings have served as jungle gyms for cinematic heroes and monsters for decades. Here are four examples that predate “Skyscraper:”
KING KONG (1933) At the time, few buildings represented human ingenuity better than the Empire State Building. In this iconic film, it’s scaled by a massive ape. Symbolism, anyone?
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) Set in a fictional San Francisco high-rise called The Glass Tower, this classic disaster flick was the year’s top grosser and won three Oscars. The all-star cast included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, O.J. Simpson, William Holden and Fred Astaire.
DIE HARD (1988) Clearly a major inspiration for “Skyscraper,” this thriller stars Bruce Willis as cocky cop John McClane, who charges into a Los Angeles high-rise where his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) is among the hostages held by terrorists (led by the great Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber). Still one of the definitive blockbusters.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) In this episode, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — a dizzying sequence shot with IMAX cameras.