Cinematic Releases: Skyscraper (2018) - Reviewed

Does the world need another Die Hard? After all, we've had a perfectly serviceable one for 30 years. In fact, we have three, and some would argue four (we don't speak of A Good Day to Die Hard.)  Joking aside, Die Hard is more than just an average '80s action epic. It became the blueprint for what action movies would become for the next decade. Once upon a time "Die Hard on a..." was enough of a pitch to get you a three-picture deal with Paramount. The reason for that is that more often than not, it works. Audiences love watching movies where the put-upon everyman must acquire the MacGuffin and save his loved ones, with only his wits, a lifetime's worth of luck, and whatever weapon he happens to find handy. Action movies may have gotten darker and grittier as the millennium ended, but it's nice to see that after three decades, the Die Hard formula lives on.

Dwayne Johnson, who manages to fit the everyman charm of John McClane into the physique of John Rambo, is probably the closest we have to a bona fide throwback action star. Hollywood is full of serious actors giving action a try, and action stars looking to spread their dramatic wings. Not Johnson. He knows exactly what kinds of movies he likes to make, and he makes a ton of them, and they in turn make a ton of money. What happens when you take the world's most bankable action star and fit him into the Die Hard formula? More likely than not you get Skyscraper, a popcorn movie extravaganza with an almost nostalgic feel.

Johnson is Will Sawyer, a security advisor at the Pearl, the soon-to-open tallest building in the world. Just before the ribbon is cut, a foreign terrorist with an axe to grind against the building's billionaire owner shows up with a team of techie thugs, things explode, and Sawyer must rescue his trapped family at any cost. Skyscraper is boilerplate high concept action, a conceit which the film not only cops to, but gleefully revels in through most of the film's lean, mean 102 minutes. 

Skyscraper may be a bit short compared to the two-and-a-half-hour superhero epics that open every month or so, but it packs a lot into that run time. We don't get a true action sequence until about 15 minutes into the film, but once it starts it literally never stops. That isn't hyperbole. The action ramps up and keeps going and going, rarely slowing down enough to let the audience breathe before the next big action set piece. There are times when Skyscraper gets a bit too drunk on its own adrenaline, and you actually start to miss those draggy exposition scenes that clog up so many otherwise taut modern action films.  Skyscraper honestly could have benefited from a scene or two like this, not so much for story purposes (it's never really hard to follow what's going on, even with so many things happening at once), but to provide some much-needed levity after yet another anxiety-inducing scene of Dwayne Johnson dangling half a mile over Hong Kong, supported only by his steely resolve and duct tape.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, previously known for comedies like Dodgeball and We're the Millers, makes his big-budget action debut on Skyscraper. You'd never know he's a rookie action director. The film looks great, with bright popping colors and visuals we just don't see enough in these days of dark, gritty action and muddy, muted colors. Thurber makes it his personal mission to never let the audience underestimate the scale of what's happening, with plenty of ground-floor-to-penthouse tracking shots of the monolithic burning tower, juxtaposed with Johnson clinging to it for dear life. This reviewer didn't see the film in 3D, though it's not like one would need to in order to appreciate just how big and treacherous this building is. We know that it's not likely that Johnson will fall thousands of feet to his death, but man, does Skyscraper want to make us believe he can.

It's hard to criticize the shortcomings of Skyscraper, as most of them aren't the fault of the movie itself but its slavish adherence to action movie formula. There are questionable motives, one-dimensional villains, and more than one "Oh come on!" over-the-top action moment that barely skirts the line of ridiculousness. Basically, everything you'd expect from this type of movie.  Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the point of view of the individual viewer; what scratches a movie-going itch for one viewer may just be a whole lot of loud nonsense for another. There are many who argue that you shouldn't have to shut your brain off to enjoy a film, but those who are willing will have a lot of fun with Skyscraper.

Much of what people still love about the original Die Hard was that it still feels fresh and exciting, like something we'd never seen before. It is fun and well-paced, and just self-aware enough to be confident in its greatness without being too cocky. The diminishing returns of its brethren are all over the map; for every Speed there are dozens of ill-conceived misfires that tried and failed to put formula over function. Skyscraper fits cozily in with the former. Skyscraper coasts on the nostalgia of the greats, making it feel at times familiar in the best ways.  It's a movie you've seen before, and will certainly see again, but that won't (or at least it shouldn't) stop you from munching your way through a bag of popcorn while marveling at its non-stop action in a packed theater full of others like you.  You won't find anything particularly groundbreaking in Skyscraper, but you'll probably have the kind of great time at the movies that we don't seem to have enough nowadays.

--Mike Stec