Two plot points serve as bookends for the plot and theme of writer and director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper. They’re mercifully on time and surprisingly simple yet effective. I wish the movie’s gratitude theme was layered with more complexity. But this economical movie is the year’s best action picture I’ve seen.
Also, refreshingly, the movie’s primary callback does not relate to an initial flashback scene at a Minnesota cabin, featuring an act of self-destruction which is both devastating and, alarmingly, common, especially among white men. I really like that Thurber (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) has the courage to start with a nuanced depiction of someone who has lost himself in despair. It makes a brief and powerful lead-in and counterpoint to the main character played by Dwayne Johnson.
I like this because it laces the toe-tingling Skyscraper with the gritty realism the film needs to cash in on itself. Crucial to this is Neve Campbell as the Johnson character’s wife and mother to their twins. Unlike Ant-Man 2, the kids are not precocious (so don’t expect miniature 47-year old-ish children like you see all over today’s TV and movie kids). They don’t panic, scream and talk like they watch South Park. They’re like kids.
Skyscraper takes place in Hong Kong, where mother and kids join Johnson’s ex-Marine during his final interview for a security job protecting the title’s magnificent tower.
This building, created by an industrialist (Chin Han) and known as the Pearl, is made to “touch the sky”, as media personalities rave in a montage about the skyscraper as it debuts in the formerly British city. It’s true that I could see some of the major plot twists coming (you probably will, too) but there are fresh moments and enough proper setup, characterization and action to earn your engagement.
Johnson’s affable screen persona, as paper thin as ever and a similar role to the one he played in San Andreas, is pretty vanilla, so don’t expect his character to be as biting as John McClane in Die Hard. Johnson doesn’t wisecrack. He flexes his muscles instead, showcasing his physique and contrasting it with tenderness here and there.
It’s Neve Campbell as the good wife, who happens to be a war veteran and military surgeon, who adds height and weight to Universal’s Skyscraper. Campbell’s performance stands out, especially the early scenes, and it’s a pleasure to watch a woman on screen that isn’t relegated to behaving like a man-hating sociopath or a kickboxing, “bad ass” superheroine. Byron Mann stands out, too, as a police inspector, acting with his face, though he’s not given nearly enough to do.
Graphics, drawings and various pieces lay out the building’s design, which includes a virtual reality experience as the cherry on top. Conflict comes in a relatively implausible way but Thurber lets scenes play and does a good job with exposition. In short, Skyscraper is not an incoherent mess like a Marvel movie. You can tell who’s fighting. You see what’s happening. You care about the characters. You grasp the plot.
Every aspect of Skyscraper is well done, except for an over-the-top, stereotypically “bad ass” Asian female character who pops in as if from another movie that’s trying too hard. This villainess can’t see with one eye past her godawful 1990s’ haircut but she kills as if with omnipotence and precision.
Effects are good, not overdone like most pictures in the genre. Thurber’s script is often both witty and smart, from a dig at facial recognition technology to consistency in the Johnson character, essentially a self-made man (he’s handicapped by an injury, a detail which dovetails into the theme). This upscale security guard apologizes to Hong Kong’s policemen as warranted yet he knows how to tap the building’s elaborate system including for its “electromagnetic induction”.
Johnson’s security man plays on masculinity that’s extremely tough but highly sensitive, as against the false feminist charge that masculinity is “toxic”. He expresses love easily and meaningfully, reminds his son that “it’s OK to be scared” and he does so without trivializing masculinity, men or the role of emotion. His wife, for her part, is no docile woman waiting to be rescued; she takes responsibility for her family as much as her husband does. She does so without hesitating to defy the state.
As a romantic couple, you might say that Skyscraper is the antidote to the same studio’s overrated Get Out, which opposed interracial coupling.
I enjoyed Skyscraper so much that I think it’s already 2018’s third best picture, behind Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (which is perfect, especially if you want to affirm the childlike) and at the top Love, Simon (which is also perfect, especially if you want to feel good). Skyscraper (pay attention if you love skyscrapers and are still outraged about losing the Twin Towers) is almost the perfect action film, especially when you want to reboot, remake and rebuild.