Up until the 1950s, the Hollywood studios had a regular pipeline of “B” pictures they produced to show as the lead-in for an “A” picture on a double-feature. Along with a cartoon and a short, it gave audiences a full evening of entertainment for their 46 cents, the average cost of a ticket in the ‘50s. “B” features were straightforward entertainment packages told in a standard running time (60 to 87 minutes, depending on the production company) that let you eat your popcorn before the main film started. Most were genre pictures: mystery, western, horror, and later science fiction. Through the years they allowed movie makers like Anthony Mann and Jonathan Demme to learn their craft, and let actors from John Wayne to Jack Nicholson get their start. The demise of the old studio system meant the end of the classic “B” film, giving way to exploitation films from Roger Corman that eventually made way for the rise of Independent films. But every once in a while a film still capture the milieu of the “B.” The latest to do that is Dwayne Johnson’s Skyscraper.
The story is formulaic in the Die Hard mold. That film became a trope for pitching stories – “Die Hard on a bus” (Speed) or “Die Hard on a plane” (Passenger 57) or “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege), among many, many other examples. It makes sense that we circle back to “Die Hard in a building – again.” In this case it’s a 200-plus story megabuilding in Hong Kong. It’s called the Pearl because it features a globe at its top that gives you a vertigo-inducing view of the city, and it can also morph into a funhouse mirror maze.
Johnson plays former FBI Hostage Rescue team leader Will Sawyer, who lost part of his leg and almost his life in an incident that went very wrong. Ten years later, he’s married the doctor (Neve Campbell) who saved his life, has two extremely photogenic children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell), and works as an independent security consultant. A former member of his team calls him in to do an evaluation of the Pearl, which of course has the absolute best security set-up possible. Still that doesn’t stop a group of criminals from taking over the building. They’re led by a Hans-Gruber-lite (Roland Moller) and assisted by a henchwoman (Hannah Quinlivan) doing an impression of Maggie Q in Live Free or Die Hard. The gang starts a fire midway up the building, trapping the building’s owner in the penthouse, and Sawyer’s family in the apartment they’re using while he does the assessment. Sawyer’s outside the building when the takeover happens, leading to the centerpiece stunt of the film: a jump from a crane into a broken-out window of the Pearl. (It’s hard watching it to not flashback to Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson in The Other Guys, when their tough-as-nails cops pursue bad guys by jumping off a building – though not with the usual movie results.)
Writer/Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is known mostly for comedies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog’s Story and We’re the Millers, and he’d worked with Johnson before on Central Intelligence. Here he plays it straight, but he also knows to keep the action coming fast and hard so the audience doesn’t have time to reflect on the utter ridiculousness of it all – at least until the completely over-the-top resolution at the end.
Still, with all that said, the film does work pretty well in the spirit of the old “B” movies. It gives you two diverting hours when you can ignore the outside world and chow down on some greasy theater popcorn. And the movie avoids some of the most egregious plot points of the genre. It makes Campbell a bit of a badass herself rather than just a wife who needs saving, and the kids aren’t saccharin sweet. The police on the ground aren’t idiots, much different from the cops in Die Hard (other than Reginald VelJohnson). Thurber stirs the mix enough that there are only a few lumps left.
If you like deep character development and a plot that challenges you to think about the gray areas between good and evil, then don’t see Skyscraper. If you’re looking for simple entertainment for a couple of hours, then Skyscraper fits the bill. A “B” is still a high-enough grade to pass.