If The Rock isn’t smiling, something is wrong.
Dwayne Johnson is an actor and a person you inherently like as soon as you see him. With his hunky charisma and megawatt smile, he’s someone you feel instantly comfortable with. He could be a friend at the gym, the one who is there seemingly from morning until night, always ready to spot you during your bench press reps. Or that friendly bouncer at the bar on a Friday night, good natured and casual until someone crosses the line.
The Rock’s acting career has been on an amazing trajectory since 2001, starring or headlining almost thirty films. I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten his humble origins, starting out as a wrestler for the WWE until his big break as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. I don’t believe he takes his success for granted, either. He’s one of the hardest working people in show business today. In 2017, he had three big-budget films out: The Fate of the Furious, Baywatch and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. While I’m convinced he takes his job of entertaining us seriously, I don’t believe he takes himself too seriously. With every smile, he seems to be telling us subliminally, “Relax, this is all in good fun. Enjoy the show!”
In this way, he’s the heir-apparent to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold also started out humbly, as a professional body-builder until his first big break in The Terminator. Arnold also worked hard to entertain us, but was also self-aware enough to know that even while he was incredibly successful as an action movie star and (to a certain degree) in comedic roles, he’d never be taken seriously as an actor. But none of that mattered to him so long as we were entertained.
Skyscraper, starring Dwayne Johnson, felt like a throwback to the action movies of the Eighties, written with Schwarzenegger in mind in the leading role. (Or maybe Stallone, or JCVD, or Bruce Willis.) In Skyscraper, The Rock stars as Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent who loses a leg during a hostage situation that goes terribly wrong. In the aftermath, Will meets Sarah (played by Neve Campbell), on the operating table. Will and Sawyer get married and have two adorable and handsome kids. (He definitely has a charmed life, post trauma.) Will becomes a building security consultant, and is recommended by Ben, a former member of his FBI team for his biggest job yet. Will is hired to certify a new hi-rise in Hong Kong for hotel occupancy. But this isn’t just any hi-rise: it’s the world’s tallest building by a wide (tall?) margin. Named “The Pearl”, the building is 3,500 feet high with 225 floors. When Ben commented how Will’s company was the smallest and cheapest to quote on the job, I immediately thought “how does he not realize he is a patsy?”
To summarize the key elements in Skyscraper, we have: a security tablet that provides complete control to a new skyscraper and must be stolen to start a devious plan of revenge, an international terrorist with an accent, a flash drive with incriminating evidence on the terrorist, and a hero made humble by a previous failure, and the hero’s family put into danger by terrorists, forcing him to commit feats of bravery despite his doubts and physical limitations. Sound familiar?
Describing what Will does in this movie as “feats of bravery” sounds like an understatement. He climbs up the side of a nearby crane, in order to jump from an extended platform into the burning building. He scales the side of the building with only a rope attached to his leg and a statue strategically wedged in a broken window. He jumps through a set of whirling fans to gain access to a security override panel. When the security override makes things go terribly wrong, he winds up dangling upside-down, with only the rope fashioned to his prosthesis saving him from plummeting to his death. The Rock sells all of these implausible situations well. As an action hero, he’s a natural. When he undershot his jump from the crane to the building just a bit, I really believed he was holding on for his life with one hand. Granted, there is plenty of movie magic on display here. The camera work and the special effects are top notch. But The Rock must convince us his life is in actual danger for us to care, and he definitely succeeds. Dwayne Johnson may not be an oscar-calibur actor, but he’s good.
Throughout all of Skyscraper, I kept asking myself, why is The Rock not smiling? Surely he isn’t taking all of this that seriously. Even he presumably would know that the movie is a mashup of The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, that his character is essentially a superhero without a costume, that everything he manages to do in this movie is practically impossible. For example, in the beginning, when Will finds out that his family is trapped in the burning building, he climbs the outside of a nearby crane. As he does this, I’m thinking, wouldn’t his hands be getting sweaty? Even professional rock-climbers use talc to keep their hands dry, so that their hands don’t slip when they are reaching for their next hold. In moments like these, Arnold or Stallone or JCVD would have not missed the opportunity to crack-wize, letting the audience know that they know how implausible everything is. Why did The Rock decide to play his character so somberly, with nary a smile throughout the entire picture?
As someone who works in technology, I always find Hollywood’s understanding of technology laughable. For instance, there’s a security tablet that requires facial recognition to activate, but does not lock itself after being inactive for a few minutes? That someone could issue a “tracer” on a wire transaction that would allow the payee to know all of the off-shore accounts that single payment went to? That there would be a way to use that information to erase what was known after the fact. That keeping that information on a single flash drive, which could easily be destroyed, is a good idea? That a building 3,500 feet high could be self-sustaining with just a few whirling fans? That someone could encrypt a mainframe and it would somehow still function?
There are other cliches throughout the movie. One of Will’s children has asthma, which means that getting him out of a building on fire adds to the urgency. The head insurance underwriter is a creepy, mealy Brit named Pierce. If Han had watched any Hollywood movies over the last thirty years, he would know that Pierce was by definition a man not to be trusted.
In the end, Will and his family survive, the fire is put out and Han the wealthy tech entrepreneur will rebuild. Was the movie entertaining? Definitely. Could I have used an “I’ll be back” or a “Yippie ki-yay” or a “You’re the disease, and I’m the cure”? Definitely.