Dwayne Johnson, who recently played a brawny ex-Special Forces primatologist in Rampage, gets a backstory that’s almost as good in Skyscraper: His character, the Ahabically one-legged safety consultant Will Sawyer, used to be an FBI agent, until his left shank got blown off in a botched hostage rescue. Dusting off his undergrad comparative mythology books, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber sends our hero off to relive and scale this trauma (this time with his own wife and kids in peril) as he swings and climbs his way up the Pearl, a Hong Kong super-high-rise that makes Dubai’s real-life Burj Khalifa look like an old New York tenement. It’s 3,500 feet tall, very shiny, and topped with a spherical chamber that operates somewhat like Star Trek’s Holodeck, though its only real purpose is to set up an abstract, Lady From Shanghai-inspired funhouse finale. We’re told the Pearl is “the safest super-tall structure in the world.” But towers have been a recipe for disaster since the Book Of Genesis, and this one falls easily to sabotage by a crew of international, mostly Eurotrash mercenaries.
Its target is Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), the mysterious tech entrepreneur who’s sunk billions into the project and found himself on the bad side of some crime syndicates. When Will leaves to inspect an off-site security center, the bad guys set fire to the 96th floor, trapping the new building’s handful of occupants in cartoonish, fiery peril—including Will’s wife (Neve Campbell) and their two children, who were supposed to be out sightseeing. The villains, led by a raspy soldier of fortune (Roland Møller) and a chic assassin (Hannah Quinlivan, on whom Thurber’s camera nurses an obvious crush), presume that this gives them some leverage over the big guy. Plus, it was his access codes that they used to disable the state-of-the-art safety system, making him the fall guy and a wanted man. But, like so many action-movie villains before them, they’ve underestimated how far a pissed-off ex-something with bulging muscles will go to protect his loved ones—leaping through the blades of wind turbines and clubbing goons with his prosthetic as he hops around on one leg.
The Hong Kong setting gives Thurber an opportunity to add some local genre staples to the plot (there’s a kitchen brawl that isn’t half bad), and for the most part, Skyscraper is more stylish than one would expect from the director of Central Intelligence and We’re The Millers. (The cinematographer is Robert Elswit, who has shot every Paul Thomas Anderson film except The Master and Phantom Thread; more relevantly, he was also the director of photography on Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, which features the most famous set piece of butt-clenching acrophobia in modern moviedom.) But for all of the big numbers tossed around in Skyscraper’s expository scenes, its scale is cramped, limited to just a few of the Pearl’s 250 floors and to green-screen effects with murky digital backdrops that never give an impression of altitude or risk. It feels like a dumbed-down, poor man’s Die Hard, despite costing a lot more to make.