The steely structure at the heart of “Skyscraper” is something to behold. An impeccably sculpted tower that dwarfs everything in its path, it’s a symbol of physical might and commercial supremacy recognized the world over.
But enough about Dwayne Johnson. In this blissfully stupid and thoroughly irresistible new movie, the artist sometimes known as the Rock goes up against another colossus called the Pearl. Billed as the tallest building in the world, it’s a fictional pillar of luxury and high-tech hubris that looms over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor. The Pearl boasts more than 100 floors, dragon-like architectural motifs, a beautiful indoor garden and a huge sphere perched atop its 3,000-foot frame. It’s as if Frank Gehry had decided to reproduce the Eye of Sauron, and not just because the whole thing will soon go up in flames.
Why must it go up in flames? Because it looks awesome, duh. But mainly because a few Euro-accented thugs (Roland Møller, Noah Taylor) have a score to settle with the Pearl’s billionaire owner, Zhao Long Ji (the intriguing Chin Han), and they’ve decided their best bet is to smoke him out. What they don’t realize, of course, is that the Pearl’s state-of-the-art security system is in the hands of Johnson’s Will Sawyer. Or that Sawyer will be left on the ground, staring up in horror as his beloved wife (Neve Campbell) and kids (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) wind up trapped on the 96th floor, just above the fire zone.
That’s the setup, and it’s enough. If you thought no one could rescue their imperiled loved ones better than Liam Neeson, you’re very much mis-“Taken.” Let’s just say that to watch as Johnson climbs an enormous crane and flings himself into a burning building is to fulfill a need you may not realize you had. Never mind that he does all this while managing a prosthetic leg — which, far from impeding his superhuman abilities, seems to have only enhanced them in ways best left for the viewer to discover.
The discovery of several unexpected uses for detachable limbs is scarcely the least ingenious of this movie’s borrowing-and-repurposing gambits. As written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, “Skyscraper” rips whole chunks out of “Die Hard,” “The Towering Inferno,” “Cliffhanger,” “No Escape” and the Burj Khalifa sequence from “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” tossing them together like so much narrative kindling.
You might also wish that Thurber had also set fire to his copies of Robert McKee’s screenwriting manuals while he was at it, though the thuddingly obvious setups and payoffs are undoubtedly part of the fun. Among other things, “Skyscraper” offers a useful reminder that you should never tune out during the casual husband-wife banter at the beginning of a movie like this. It may sound strained and banal, but it’s chock-full of future problem-solving secrets.
Add in piles of Chinese production money (the movie was co-produced by Legendary Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Dalian Wanda Group) and a few Asian-born actors (Byron Mann, Hannah Quinlivan) in roles that run the gamut from serviceable to negligible, and you have a prime specimen of multiplex globalism. As suggested by the numerous stunned reaction shots from Kowloon locals on the ground, nothing brings an international audience together quite like the sight of Dwayne Johnson swinging like Tarzan from floor to blazing floor — a glorious, ridiculous spectacle that cinematographer Robert Elswit and his swinging camera amplify to pleasurably vertiginous effect.
For the most part, though, “Skyscraper” spends most of its time indoors. The movie was shot mainly in Vancouver, Canada, and its frequent cutaways to the Hong Kong skyline are hardly the sole example of blatant visual trickery at work. Thurber makes that trickery explicit by setting one action scene in a fun house hall of mirrors, a derivative trompe l’oeil conceit of which the filmmakers prove far too enamored.
Still, if all this digital artifice accomplishes anything, it effectively heightens the irreducible flesh-and-blood realism of the movie’s star. Thurber previously directed Johnson in the equally (if more intentionally) silly “Central Intelligence,” and he brought out a strain of playfulness and vulnerability in this fast, furious, rampaging actor that few other movies manage. Johnson doesn’t get to pledge his love for unicorns and Molly Ringwald in this relatively straight-faced outing, but his versatility is more than intact: He’s a human wrecking ball, a human bridge and a human teddy bear rolled into one. He’s a towering Dwayneferno.
In English, Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Opens in general release July 13