The Dwayne Johnson vehicle Skyscraper, the latest of the now-innumerable “Die Hard on a [fill in the blank]s,” seems at first like another completed lap in the genre. Mirroring 1996’s Skyscraper in both setting and absurdly broad-chested hero (then Anna Nicole Smith), the film comes back around to throwing the erudite terrorists and their hostages into a high-rise. But, as is not so thinly veiled, it’s actually making a larger loop back to its origins. This isn’t just Die Hard but “Die Hard in China,” a film that moves its entire Die Hard production facility to Hong Kong for a cheap imitation sure to make some international bank (or a least get some unwitting sales on Amazon).
Johnson stars as Will Sawyer, a veteran and FBI agent who, as seen in a prologue highlighting his latter career, was involved in a hostage situation he wrongly handled too softly. His sentimentality cost him a leg from below the knee, but it at least led him to his military-surgeon wife (oh, hey, Neve Campbell’s back!) and their kids. (Don’t worry: if you come in late, that entire origin story is recapped about 15 minutes later.) Fast forward a decade, Sawyer is heading up a security company that seems to be composed of just him. Also, now everyone but him speaks entirely in exposition.
Anyway, at this point, an FBI friend from Sawyer’s raid-gone-wrong (Pablo Schreiber) just got him a job inspecting the security on The Pearl, a new Hong Kong SKYSCRAPER that’s far-and-above the tallest in the world. It looks like a giant animal penis with a ball-bearing being shoved in its urethra, but it’s what’s inside this monument to furry sounding’s orb that’s particularly magical: a planetarium filled with thin spires of inexplicably lifelike screens, essentially an artful hall of mirrors reflecting anyone who enters. It’s also a quite apparent Chekhov’s gun of a simulacrum finale sure to ape Conan the Destroyer. That it somehow also includes Conan’s sword is the real surprise.
After some highly-explained over-preparation, Sawyer delivers a presentation that consists of a single Powerpoint slide: the Pearl has ticked all four (4) of Sawyer’s criteria for a building! They’re clear to finally open the upper, residential section of this dragon dildo of a building! But don’t celebrate just yet, because here comes the dollar-store Die Hard we should have suspected wasn’t genuine when it was so cluttered with Chinese characters. And this time, the terrorists are after a storage drive created by a production designer that has clearly never seen a drive but has seen Stargate and Iron Man.
Like the in-development complex at its core, Skyscraper‘s construction is apparent, gratuitously expensive, and predictably, deeply flawed. And like the dress shirt kept stretched across Johnson for (surprisingly) all but a brief scene, Skyscraper can scarcely hide its strained seams. Deleted scenes (a constantly foreshadowed asthma attack, for one) and needless reshoots (focus groups must have thought a very early, very deliberate double-cross was somehow out of nowhere) are painfully obvious. True to its stuffing The Rock into the John McClane role, the film is completely brute-forced. Johnson is shoved into a too-slim duct of characterization, where being a nice family man and bad-ass vet are all he’s given to work off of—besides his artificial leg, which must be the most ridiculously overused prothesis since Buster Bluth. May this be the first and only time it’s said that Dwayne Johnson ended up less charismatic than Bruce Willis.
As completely stupid and over-explained as it may be, though, Skyscraper is almost admirable in being transparently manufactured. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, the film shows such effective but near-styleless efficiency as his prior efforts (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence), it’s a wonder he hasn’t been tapped for a Marvel movie. While Thurber also wrote Skyscraper, it may as well have been a computer, an AI scrubbing Die Hard, The Towering Inferno, and a handful of other films for plot points. The final five minutes crib from no less than Jurassic Park, Rocky, and then back to what else but Die Hard—even when a Reginald VelJohnson-esque “nice to finally see you” from this cop hardly makes sense. There’s even a scene where Johnson seemingly reverts to his Hercules role to hold a fucking bridge up by its cables. (Die Hard Arcade fans may also delight in Campbell occasionally throwing some quarters in to kick ass as the female Player 2.) But no matter its effectiveness as a sellable product, Skyscraper ultimately ends like so many Chinese knock-offs: bound for the trash.
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Studio: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 102 minutes
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan