Johnson pulls off gritty performance in 'Skyscraper'

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service

The hardest working man in showbiz, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson debuts his third blockbuster action flick in nine months this weekend. The descriptively titled "Skyscraper," which comes on the heels of "Rampage" and "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," is written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed Johnson in the very funny buddy comedy "Central Intelligence."

"Skyscraper" — a sort of reverse "Die Hard," where a family man breaks into an imposing structure to save his family — scoots by on the thinnest of premises, and an even thinner script.

Dwayne Johnson stars in "Skyscraper." The movie opens July 12 at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

While it's a completely disposable story, "Skyscraper" is fascinating simply for Thurber's fascination with evolving Johnson's star persona. In "Central Intelligence," he cast Johnson against type, liberating him from gruff meathead roles and uncovering his goofy comedic talent. In "Skyscraper," Thurber takes Johnson to a darker, grittier place. Don't expect to see much of his megawatt grin here. Johnson's Will Sawyer is tough as nails, using brute force, blunt instruments and plenty of duct tape to rescue his family from a burning building. He barely even touches a gun.

In so many of his films, Johnson is like some kind of comic book superhero: cartoonishly strong, his biceps bulging to an unimaginable size — he dwarfs the usually yoked Vin Diesel in the "Fast and Furious" films. But in "Skyscraper," Thurber seeks to diminish that strength. The camera looks down on him rather than up, and he's outfitted in rumpled business casual rather than tactical spandex. It makes Johnson more human before we then watch him perform feats of strength and derring-do using simple machines, like Buster Keaton on human-growth hormone.

Thurber literally handicaps Will, who loses his leg in a bombing as an FBI rescue team leader 10 years prior to the events of the film. He loses the limb but gains a wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), the surgeon who operated on him. They're in Hong Kong with their twins at the tallest skyscraper in the world, The Pearl, where Will is putting in a bid as a security consultant for the self-sustaining city in the sky. Scams, theft, arson and double-crosses ensue, and soon Will is outside The Pearl, which is on fire, trying to get in to save his trapped family as a team of thieves are trying to get out.

One has to wonder if the entirety of "Skyscraper" was reverse-engineered around a single stunt, wherein Will leaps from a construction crane into a crashed-open window of The Pearl. The leap does draw gasps and cheers from the audience — both the one seated in the theater and the onscreen audience of onlookers watching Will's exploits on massive news screens on the street. This screen-within-a-screen device is a little slice of meta commentary laced throughout that visualizes the literal spectacle that is Johnson and his physical capabilities.

This depiction of how we see Johnson as an action star and the twists in his evolution as a performer are what make "Skyscraper" interesting to watch. The charm is turned down, the seriousness turned up, and Johnson pulls it off. It's also a refreshing change to see him have a fully realized romantic partner for once, and Campbell gets her own set of heroics to perform.

Otherwise, the plot is strangely simplistic, the special effects murky and chaotic. The cast is stacked with an array of international actors, no doubt to appeal to a wide global audience. With a few well-delivered lines and a killer haircut, Taiwanese model and actress Hannah Quinlivan makes quite the visual impression as an entertaining if underwritten villain.

Thurber's storytelling is rote at best, scanty in some places, but the performers sell it with all they've got. "Skyscraper" is standard issue, but it makes for a compelling entry in the story of Johnson's stardom and his total Hollywood domination.

2 stars
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Hannah Quinlivan, Pablo Schreiber.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language.