Here's a good use of digital effects: plunking a 225-story skyscraper that looks like a postmodern tree stump on the skyline of Hong Kong. And here's another: plunking Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on the exterior of that skyscraper.
Skyscraper sounds like a recipe for the ideal turn-off-your-brain summer movie: The Towering Inferno with CGI and an underdog action hero à la Die Hard. As he's shown in blockbuster after blockbuster, Johnson is physically ginormous enough to make absurd stunts seem less absurd, yet charming and self-deprecating enough to connect with an audience. He's the perfect star to carry a movie like this. So why is Skyscraper not more fun?
One problem is that, for a movie written and directed by someone with a comedy track record (Rawson Marshall Thurber, of Central Intelligence and We're the Millers), Skyscraper takes itself a bit too seriously. Another is that, for a movie shot by a justly lauded cinematographer (Robert Elswit, of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and There Will Be Blood), it falls short of the visual grandeur that a movie about a guy scaling the world's tallest skyscraper desperately needs.
The movie starts in a gritty register, with FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson) in the thick of a hostage crisis. The incident leaves him with a prosthetic shank, but it doesn't slow him down, and this matter-of-fact portrayal of disability is a refreshing addition to the action-movie landscape.
Not much else about Skyscraper's plot feels refreshing. We rejoin Will years later, after he's married military doctor Sarah (Neve Campbell) and spawned two lovely moppets (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell). Having embarked on a career as a security assessor, he brings the fam to Hong Kong's new landmark, known as the Pearl, to determine whether its upper reaches are safe for habitation.
Surprise, surprise, they're not, because the skyscraper has been infiltrated by a team of criminals hell-bent on sabotage. When they set the 96th floor ablaze, with Will's wife and kids trapped just above, our hero springs into action.
The film's most thrilling moments involve watching Will scale a crane and break into the Pearl nearly 100 stories up — a harrowing sequence for any acrophobe, even though the green-screened nighttime cityscape often looks murky.
After that, it's mostly downhill. Various previously introduced features of the Pearl generate various anticipated set pieces. Yet the scale and wacky splendor of the building's interior never really come through, perhaps because everything's so quickly obscured by digital flames.
The absence of innocent bystanders in the Pearl, other than Will's family, makes the movie feel oddly depopulated. And where Die Hard had a villain as personable as its hero, Skyscraper has only a glowering mob guy (Roland Møller) and a Vogue model gone bad (Hannah Quinlivan). Though it's nice to see Sarah have heroic moments of her own, Will's family dynamics aren't particularly dynamic, either.
As a result, Johnson has nothing to play against except action-movie clichés. Will is prone to pep-talking himself: "Come on!" he groans at one point, after the script springs a painfully predictable twist on him.
It's one of the funnier lines in the film, because the audience feels his weariness, too. Johnson is more than capable of carrying a modern-day Die Hard, but great popcorn cinema isn't ever about one actor's likability. It's about snappy dialogue, a rogue's gallery of supporting characters, genuinely surprising twists — stuff that starts with the writing. Even the world's coolest digital skyscraper can't replace that.