I suppose it was inevitable that in a world where every critically acclaimed actor in the world at some point plays a character with a disability, that eventually the not so critically acclaimed actors would jump on the bandwagon.
I'll confess, however, that I didn't quite expect Dwayne Johnson to be one of those actors.
Johnson, who has constructed quite the Hollywood career out of playing infinitely likable, family loving action heroes, adds "kick ass amputee action star" to his resume in his latest film, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber's Skyscraper. In the film, Johnson plays former FBI agent Will Sawyer, whose FBI career ended shortly after a domestic violence case went wildly awry and left Will with scars both emotional and physical along with one less lower leg that has been replaced by a prosthetic leg that will prove to be handy and dandy more than once throughout our adventure.
While it's never completely clear if Will gave up his FBI career voluntarily or his significant injury interrupted his career, judging from the actions that unfold in Skyscraper one could easily surmise it was the emotional wounds that didn't heal quite so easily. On the flip side, Will has come out of his traumatic experience with a rock solid marriage to Sarah (Neve Campbell), the ex-naval surgeon whose intervention likely saved his life, and a set of twins (played by McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) along with a growing reputation as a small, yet knowledgeable security consultant.
It's in that role as security consultant that Will, thanks to former FBI buddy Ben (Pablo Schreiber), snags his biggest contract yet evaluating any potential vulnerabilities for "The Pearl," a Hong Kong skyscraper that has become the world's tallest building. With Will's green light, The Pearl's multi-billion dollar insurance policy will go into effect and the building's upper floors will finally be able to open. While it makes sense that Will is brought in for the presentation and subsequent opening, placing he and his family in an upper floor luxury appointment while they're in town begins the first of what will become an increasingly relentless series of impossibilities to unfold in a film that is even more unbelievable than one of the films it unabashedly rips off, the Oscar-nominated The Towering Inferno.
Of course, we wouldn't have a film if everything went as planned and, of course, nothing goes as planned. Before the ink is even dry on Will's evaluation, nefarious plots are underway and, as anyone who's seen the trailer knows, it's only a couple more connected dots before The Pearl is aflame, Will is under suspicion, and Will's family is trapped alone but not alone above the fire's origin point.
Oh me. Oh my. What will we do?
There isn't a moment of originality to be found anywhere in Skyscraper's 102-minute running time, with the possible noteworthy exception of Thurber's inexplicable decision to body shame virtually every other amputee alive or, minimally, those poor amputees incapable of climbing up burning buildings or jumping across broad chasms of concrete. As a double amputee myself, I can't wait to find out where they obtained a prosthetic leg capable of withstanding exposure to flames without melting.
I want one. Seriously. Maybe one day I can be just like Will Sawyer.
It's a fair statement, however, that no one, perhaps excluding the criminally insane, goes to a Dwayne Johnson movie for a sense of realism. This is the guy, after all, who made us all like a film called Tooth Fairy despite the fact that there was almost nothing to like about Tooth Fairy. There's something about Johnson that almost defies explanation. He's got an "every man" quality about himself despite the fact that he's richer than you and I, more famous than you and I, more muscular than you and I, and, in all likelihood, wouldn't be seen with you and I.
Just keepin' it real, folks.
Johnson is never a superhero in his films. Johnson's heroics are nearly always deeply personal and often centered around helping his family or saving his family or otherwise honoring his family. The same is true with Skyscraper. Johnson's heroics here are almost exclusively to the benefit of saving his wife and two children, a fact that practically dissipates the whole "under suspicion" scenario in the same scene that it starts.
But, I digress.
While some may applaud the fact that Johnson's performance here is largely devoid of his usual winky-winky mannerisms, the truth is the absence of those broad smiles and twinkling eyes only serves to remind us that Johnson really doesn't have much range as an actor. Essentially, Dwayne Johnson can't act. Dwayne Johnson is absolutely stunning at being variations of Dwayne Johnson and America loves him for that. But, that's not acting. That's being Dwayne Johnson.
If anything, Johnson is less of a Johnson (Seriously, how could I not go there?) in Skyscraper. While Johnson is still pretty darn winning as one sooted up superdad, the absence of the usual witticisms, beyond multiple references to the miracle of duct tape, turns Johnson into a surprisingly bland hero.
If anything, the real hero of Skyscraper is Neve Campbell, whose gritty performance as Sarah Sawyer has all the spark and energy that Johnson's Will lacks. To the credit of all involved, especially Campbell, Sarah is a full-fledged character here far and away above the usual one-note caricature we typically see in what is usually a thankless role. Johnson has always been a generous actor willing to share his spotlight. While he's clearly the lead here, Campbell truly shines.
As a filmmaker, Rawson Marshall Thurber is definitely hit-and-miss. His most recent film, 2016's Central Intelligence, was mostly a hit and one can only wish he'd have added some of that humor and spark to this film. The vast majority of Thurber's films, which also include The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and We're the Millers, have earned rather middling reviews due to their wild inconsistencies.
The same is true here.
The script for Skyscraper, in particular, is just plain lazy writing not only lacking in anything original but also lacking in anything that would allow Johnson to shine. Skyscraper often seems on the verge of becoming something special, or at least as special as a film like this can be, but it never quite gets there. Given the odd lack of threat and menace the fire seems to pose throughout much of the film, Skyscraper has an awful lot of room for this to have been turned into a rather fun affair or, at the minimum, the kind of cheeky affair that reminds us of The Towering Inferno, or to a lesser degree Die Hard, and brings a smile to our face. Instead, Skyscraper constantly plays it safe and amidst all of the action there's hardly an emotional note of resonance that gets played.
Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit lenses Skyscraper, though even the film's lensing lacks a sense of direction and purpose. It's not particularly surprising that The Pearl has a number of high-tech gadgets and rooms, but when the climactic encounters occur one can't help but be let down by a scenario that's been played out a number of times and doesn't look that impressive on the big screen.
I will note that I saw Skyscraper in 2-D. It's also available as a 3-D/RealD feature and may be more impressive given the actual awesomeness of the building and the scenarios that unfold. However, given everything else that never quite gels it's incredibly hard to recommend forking out the extra dough even if the film is a little more impressive in 3-D.
To be fair, Skyscraper likely has enough going for it to please a good majority of Johnson's loyal fans. With the exception of Baywatch, Johnson's fans have followed him everywhere and it's hard to believe they won't follow him here. While it's unlikely to attract any new fans, modest applause must be given, I suppose, for a guy who knows what his fans wants and he delivers.
Now then, let me wrap this review up so I can start Googling "fire-resistant prosthetic legs."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic