There’s a pivotal moment in “Skyscraper” that finds Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) forced to crawl across the exterior of a giant building, using only mounds of duct tape wrapped around his hands. “This is stupid,” he sighs, marking a rare confessional moment in a movie struggling to engage its own ludicrous premise.
A wannabe “Die Hard” on steroids that makes “The Towering Inferno” look subtle, Johnson’s latest super-sized action vehicle is so eager to please it scores a few points off its daring hijinks, but nothing that can rescue it from a workmanlike quality that trades self-awareness for bland gravitas. The second vapid blockbuster in Johnson’s 2018 oeuvre following his inane “Rampage,” it’s a movie so dumb that it can’t reckon with its own stupidity, no matter how much Johnson fights to keep it together.
“Skyscraper” starts in an unlikely place: The Rock is broken. A muscular FBI hostage-rescue leader, Will faces a sudden tragedy in the field that takes him out of the business and lands him a prosthetic leg. Years later, he’s rebooted his career as a security specialist, when an old peer from the army (Pablo Schreiber) hooks him up with a seemingly promising client: Brilliant architect Zhao Long Zhi (Chin Han) has constructed a state-of-the-art tower called The Pearl in the center of Hong Kong, tricked out with so many futuristic designs that “Skyscraper” may as well be sci-fi.
Urged on by his supportive wife (Neve Campbell, in a mostly thankless supporting role), Will delivers his PowerPoint at the skyscraper — where he basically says “your security is fine,” terrible advice considering what comes next — before touring its ambitious (and pointless) feature, a top floor with a screen covering the walls and floor that can transform the room into any backdrop. It’s a neat visual and a rather obvious excuse to set the stage for a visually inspired climax, but we’ll get to that.
Just when Will’s ready to return to his family’s room on the hotel floor of The Pearl, a whole bunch of complications arise at once: Will gets double-crossed, winds up with the cops on his tail, and a scheming villain of mysterious origins sets a floor of the building on fire — disabling the smoke detectors in the process. Will spots the thin line of fire crawling up the building (a very cool visual), and goes rogue, shimmying up a crane and into the building in a bid to save his family.
You read that right: Johnson scales half the length of the building in a matter of minutes, swings across some monkey bars as the ground shrinks below his feet, and careers an impossible distance through a broken window. As if to underscore the sheer fantasy of this sequence, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber cuts to a crowd below, riveted as they watch the stunt unfold on a giant television screen. It’s a wry commentary on the movie’s fundamental appeal: Behold the most outrageous action antics of the summer, at least until the new “Mission Impossible” comes along.
“Skyscraper” manages to hold some interest for the sheer cartoonishness of its high stakes, but once Will’s in the building it moves forward in humorless fits and starts, never finding an agreeable groove. Will darts through the building as a heartless mercenary (Roland Moller, scowling and shooting stuff on cue like a well-oiled host on “Westworld”) moves along with his scheme to corner Zhao and extricate some information from him. No spoilers here, but needless to say, it’s such a weak MacGuffin the movie might have been better served by not explaining it at all.
Movies like this can get away with all the levity they want, so it’s odd that “Skyscraper” tends to evade jokes at its own expense. Thurber, who directs from his original screenplay, has done a decent job with action-comedies “Central Intelligence” and “We’re the Millers” in the past, so it’s something of a surprise that he would conceive of such a lifeless spectacle. (Then again, one can’t discount the paycheck factor, especially in a movie so blatantly engineered to hold appeal in the ballooning Chinese market.)
The real auteur of “Skyscraper” is Johnson, and judging by the amateurish routine of “Rampage” earlier this summer, his mandate is to keep dumbing things down so nothing can upstage his muscular antics. Gone are the days of “Southland Tales,” when an ambitious Rock on the rise seemed to display a pure desire to explore riskier projects; these days, he gives ambivalent audiences what they want.
Fortunately, “Skyscraper” calls for less acting than running and jumping through various dark rooms engulfed by flames and shattered glass. Like “Rampage,” it’s a cinematic variation of an arcade game — something that seems like a Johnson motif. It’s more of a baffling project for cinematographer Robert Elswit, a Paul Thomas Anderson regular who does a fine job with the camerawork here but could be applying his skills in far worthier places.
The movie builds to that aforementioned climax in a roomful of digital mirrors, with gun-wielding characters chasing reflections of each other around a shadowy room ad infinitum. It might be a blatant homage to Orson Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai,” but it might also be aping “John Wick: Chapter 2,” which contains the same hat-tip in a far more exciting sequence that builds on the source material with greater innovation.
Viewed as a whole, “Skyscraper” isn’t so much a catastrophe as a discardable miscalculation. But there are glimmers of potential, none more prominent than Neve Campbell. Despite the regrettable decision to cast her in the role of a stereotypical second-fiddle wife and mother, she lands a handful of moments where she takes control of the conundrum and even saves the day. There’s just enough there to hint at the possibilities if the actors had switched places. (The idea of Campbell developing a new career as an action star is worthy of serious consideration.) After the fantastic misdirection in “Mad Max: Fury Road” that found Charlize Theron emerging as the bigger hero than Tom Hardy, hope springs eternal. But Johnson’s star power has never been more ubiquitous, and “Skyscraper” belongs to him.
Any press kit includes the cliched question of what attracted an actor to a project, and the answer boils down to some variation of “smart script.” For Johnson, the appeal seems to stems from the script’s absence, and he needs to break from that routine. He has the extraordinary charisma and physical strength that make up for a multitude of faults, but at some point in every major actor’s career, quality starts to make a difference. “Skyscraper” plays out like a metaphor for diminishing returns — Johnson keeps climbing, higher and higher, until there’s nowhere left to go but down.
“Skyscraper” opens nationwide on July 13.