The Rock's towering presence fails to elevate 'Skyscraper'

Ginger Rogers, they say, did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in heels. Skyscraper gives Dwayne Johnson a chance to do everything Bruce Willis did in Die Hard, only on one leg.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a building security expert who has a prosthetic below one knee – a remnant of his dangerous former career as a hostage-rescue specialist with the FBI. Now Sawyer is in Hong Kong to provide fire-safety analysis of the world’s tallest building, a $6 billion edifice about to open officially with more than 200 stories of offices, apartments, and a kind of rooftop holodeck.

Movie-wise, the structure is an obvious digital phony, although the effects artists do a much better job on Sawyer’s amputated leg, which looks convincingly real, and adds a touch of vulnerability to the famously able-bodied Johnson. His other disability here is the script, packed with front-end exposition meant to set up narrative twists, but so clumsily deployed that it ends up revealing them almost immediately.

The story is also preposterous. The building is empty, yet Sawyer’s family is staying in the yet-to-open residences, as if Hong Kong had some kind of hotel shortage. Family includes wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and two children (Noah Cottrell, McKenna Roberts). One of the kids has asthma, which would be very bad if the fireproof building were to somehow become engulfed in flames and fill with smoke, but slightly less bad if dad happened to be a building-safety expert with unique knowledge of the tower’s fire-suppression systems, and have also extreme action-movie skills.

OK, so it’s ridiculous, but slightly ridiculous action movies are Johnson’s brand (they’re actually making a sequel to San Andreas), and what fans want in the context of that silliness are reasonably competent action and suspense – Johnson making incredible leaps from cranes onto burning buildings, or stabilizing a collapsing beam with his bulging muscles while imperiled innocents scurry past.

He also beats the tar out of several dozen bad guys, who have set the fire in order to extort something from the building’s owner (Chin Han) ensconced in a penthouse panic room that totally impregnable. Or completely pregnable, one of the two.

There’s also a ninja assassin (Hannah Quinlivan), clad in a black leather body suit, riding around on a motorcycle and killing police (the movie has a weirdly high body count for a PG-13 action movie), and she ends up tangling with Sarah, mistaking her for a random tourist pushover, unaware that Sarah completed three tours in Iraq, and that Campbell herself survived four Scream movies.

As for Johnson, he doesn’t say “yippee ki-yay,” but he does a version of the fire hose scene from Die Hard, and another borrowed bit, swapping out Scotch tape for masking tape. It’s more homage than rip-off – ditto the shout-out to the late Alan Rickman, whose villainous Hans Gruber’s memorable exit gets a nod here.

MOVIES

Skyscraper

  • Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Noah Taylor, Pablo Schreiber and Chin Han. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
  • Running time: 1 hour 43 mins.
  • Parents guide: PG-13 (violence)
  • Playing at: area theaters