A lot of people who read movie reviews think that two stars (out of four) means the kiss of death. It doesn’t. Usually, it just means the movie is average. Most movies are, in fact, average. That’s what “average” means.
From its generic concrete noun of a title on down, “Skyscraper” is exactly average for its genre, said genre being the Common-Man Hero Takes Back a Building [or Other Complex Place/Situation] From Evildoers action extravaganza pioneered by “Die Hard,” in 1988. “Skyscraper” wants to be “Die Hard” very badly, only with more muscles on its hero and more floors on its building. And as a streaming option on a slow night or a long flight, the movie has its uses. But you’ve seen almost all of this before, with more wit and a better villain.
It has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson going for it, though, which is nice. With his Mr. Clean physique and an attitude that’s downright pleasant, Johnson’s maybe the most neighborly two-ton action behemoth out there; he doesn’t do wisecracks because he doesn’t want to sound mean. All that saves him from dullness is that preposterous isosceles triangle of a physique and the brain you sense loping amiably alongside the nonsense.
In “Skyscraper,” Johnson plays Will Sergeant, a security expert brought in to handle the final arrangements on a Hong Kong super-building, the Pearl — at 3,500 feet the tallest in the world — only to singlehandedly save the day from a crew of Uzi-wielding multinationals. An opening flashback establishes that, 10 years earlier, Will was an FBI hostage negotiator in a situation that went bad, lost him a leg, but gained him a wife, in military surgeon and general badass Sarah (Neve Campbell).
Sarah and the couple’s two children, asthmatic Henry (Noah Cottrell) and plucky Georgina (McKenna Roberts), are staying in the otherwise-empty residential quarters on the Pearl’s 98th floor when the villains, led by the suspiciously Scandinavian Kores Botha (Roland Moller), start a fire on the 96th while Will is off elsewhere trying not to get killed. It all has something to do with a mysterious MacGuffin in the possession of the Pearl’s billionaire builder Zhao (Chin Han), who’s squirreled away in a panic room on the 220th floor.
The Hong Kong setting and a generous helping of fine Chinese-born actors in the cast — in addition to Han, Byron Mann plays the contractually required skeptical cop who has to be won over to the hero’s side and Hannah Quinlivan is cast as a curiously soft-voiced lady assassin — it’s clear that “Skyscraper” has been engineered to play equally well to Asian and American audiences. It also comes loaded with gleaming high-tech, chattering computer screens, and an aerie atop the building filled with a 21st-century version of a hall of mirrors.
You don’t have to have seen the old Orson Welles classic “The Lady From Shanghai” to guess some kind of shoot-out will occur in that hall, and “Skyscraper” sticks to the strict Chekhovian logic that every item planted in a movie’s first third has to pay off in the last. The only entertainment here is watching Johnson pulling off stunts that resist the laws of physics even if you do happen to have deltoids the size of Christmas hams.
The Internet already had its fun when the movie’s poster came out early this year, and it was mathematically proven that no possible trajectory would enable Will to leap from the arm of a crane to that burning building without splatting on the ground 100 floors below.
Movies, by contrast, work their dopey magic regardless of logic, and you’ll probably be holding your breath and shredding you cuticles along with all of us other lemmings as Will dangles by one prosthetic ankle from a broken window above the flames or tries to dive through the whirring double-helix blades of the Pearl’s ventilation system. (Because that’s where they put the secret electrical panel the hero has to reboot, of course. It’s probably a permit issue.)
For all the crude but irresistible suspense-mongering — and points for allowing Campbell’s Mrs. Hero to get her action licks in — “Skyscraper” is let down by its dialogue and characters. Johnson doesn’t do wisecracks, but writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber hasn’t come up with anything interesting with which to replace them — the best he can muster are some shout-outs to the usefulness of duct tape — and the script is as boilerplate as the film’s title. As for the criminal mastermind played by Moller, let’s just say that the ghost of Alan Rickman’s majestically hateful Hans Gruber is not losing any sleep.
I suspect that “Skyscraper” is an attempt by Thurber to jump-start his directorial career in a fresh direction after a series of broad comedies (“Dodgeball,” “We’re the Millers”) and one random Michael Chabon adaptation (“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”). The results prove he can direct traffic, choreograph big-budget mayhem, and get the trains and cranes and helicopters running on time — all in the service of average.
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Moller, Byron Mann. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 103 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of gun violence and action, brief strong language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.