Skyscraper is a combination of films that have been done before – 1974’s The Towering Inferno and 1988’s Die Hard, two films that are merely connected by their towering set piece; a brand new, state of the art skyscraper (the technology that welcomed John McClane was as revolutionary as the state of the art security system developed by Paul Newman’s Doug Roberts). Other than that, their peril and dire circumstances are separated by genre; one adventure, the other action. Each works exceedingly well at creating an isolated world of terror and thrills, even if one comes from the barrel of a loaded gun. Skyscraper looks to ask the question of whether or not those two films could co-exist, and the answer is yes, though it isn’t without its faulty towers.
Opening with a hostage situation, Skyscraper introduces Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), a war vet turned FBI negotiator who fails a mission to save a family, losing his left leg below the knee in the process. Aided by a prosthetic, Will now assesses security systems for company buildings (he works out of his garage, a factor that makes Will an underdog, despite his Herculean frame). His supporting wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), a Navy surgeon – they met in the operating room – and their two kids, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) are the only family to reside in the living quarters of the tallest building in the world; a new, high-tech skyscraper in Hong Kong called The Pearl. In traditional action proclivity, a muscle-bound villain named Kores Botha (Rolland Moller, Denmark’s answer to Jean Reno) hijacks the building, setting fire to the 96th floor in order to obtain a coveted item held by financier, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Lang).
If Irwin Allen, the “Master of Disaster” who produced The Towering Inferno (along with The Poseidon Adventure [’72]) has told us anything, it’s that if you build it, they will destroy it. Allen’s cinematic skyscraper, The Glass Tower, takes almost 3 hours to burn, inviting smoldering Hollywood names to the cast such as Fred Astaire, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner, Jennifer Jones and Susan Blakely along with the films two leads, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman (who fought over top billing, in the end sharing the same screen credit). It’s a hot cast in an even hotter situation, though it too often favors thrills over actually caring about its characters; something Skyscraper firmly dismisses.
Dwayne Johnson, his brooding brow and cavalry sized lats, plays Will as more of a shoulder than a bicep. He’s a man whose life was saved, not by his wife’s surgeon hands (though that too), but by their kids and her loving support. He needs them just as they need him, comically shown through Sarah’s persistent need for Will to fix her cellphone (it’s as simple as turning it off and on again). And as powerfully built as Will is, he’s a man that needs that support, and the film doesn’t stray from showing that, which for an action film is as advanced as the tower that looms over us. It’s this necessity for the ones who do make you strong that immolates at the heart of Skyscraper, and it’s ultimately what drives the entire film.
That isn’t to say the focal point for many won’t be the outrageous set pieces, or the gravity defying stunts, because lets not kid ourselves; it’s the posters of Dwayne Johnson leaping incredible bounds or hanging from a jagged ledge that draws us in.
These are stunts that, like the Burj Khalifa set in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol [’11], will elicit a very real, very guttural response; it’s why we keep coming back to cinemas. We jump from seeing Will frantically escape the clutches of the Hong Kong police – he’s declared a wanted criminal before he even reaches the skyscraper – to being Will as he perilously scales a crane in order to get inside the flaming set piece. Having seen Ghost Protocol in IMax, a vertigo inducing experience for the ages, I can safely say that Skyscraper obtains sheer thrills that aren’t often achieved. When we aren’t looking out past the flames and into the horizon of a city that’s not often used in modern day Hollywood cinema, we’re hovering over Will has he hangs outside a window, deftly clinging to his prosthetic leg; this is armchair gripping, adrenaline pumping cinema and it deserves to be experienced on the big screen.
Once Will defies all odds and gets inside the skyscraper – footage blown up on a massive outdoor television with gathering crowds cheering him on (they are us) – director Rawnson Thurber’s adventure film shifts focus to the armed heist that’s taking place between the 96th floor and the 210th. Except unlike The Towering Inferno, there aren’t countless lives at stake to keep the adrenaline pumping. Instead, Will trades in his underdog status for a big dog bite, kicking into Die Hard [’88] mode in order to save his family.
He slams, punches, body-checks and bashes his way through henchmen, doing what Dwayne Johnson began on the WWF back in 1996. Except the theatrics and elation of the ring are never quite replicated, nor is the triumph of overcoming odds, at least not in the way John McClane does, running barefoot over shattered glass as a New York City cop against Los Angeles odds. Thurbur’s action works in counterpoint to his adventure, which pulls back to encompass not only his hero but that of his heroes surroundings. When Will must duke it out with gun-toting goons, the choreography seems as unstable as the burning floors of the skyscraper, as the camera feels too restrained, too rigid to capture the fluidity of the fight.
Luckily, the fist fights and fire fights (both kinds) are interspersed with Sarah’s struggle to protect her children and rise above the towering flames. She’s a Navy Surgeon having served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, which through the thick smoke of action film sexism, makes her the equal woman are. When she runs into one of Zhao’s associates turned accomplice (a smarmy Noah Taylor), she guards her young like a ferocious lioness, roaring to life with the aid of surgical scissors. It’s a moment that, had it not been a 10:50 a.m. showing, would have elicited a triumphant cheer from the audience. Neve Campbell plays Sarah like an older, seasoned Sidney Prescott from Scream [’96], using her final girl survival skills to make sure you know that she is far from the wife archetype that too often bogs down women in male dominated action fares.
But that’s because it’s more than just an exhaustive action film that runs the gamut of bombastic machismo. Despite the films impressively dizzying structure at the center of its stock story, the real architectural beauty is in its unconventional ability to care about its characters; a hot point of contention for The Towering Inferno, which literally throws its characters out the window with little care. While the heist elements often disturb the solid thrills that radiate from both the heat and the heart of the film, Skyscraper‘s adventurous spirit ignites the screen, offering up that perfect blend of humidity escaping summer fun. And like Sarah’s cellphone, maybe the disaster picture just needed to be turned off and on again in order to once again be explosively entertaining.
If you don’t own Die Hard or The Towering Inferno, make sure and click the links to add them to your collection!