At one point in the insistently, nay, proudly ridiculous thriller “Skyscraper” the hero played by Dwayne Johnson assures the audience what it is known from the start: “This is stupid.” It is hard not to wonder if writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber built the entire movie around this redundant truism. And why not?
All he had to do was pad it with some recycling, bank on his relationship with Johnson — they worked together on “Central Intelligence,” as mocking a title as Hollywood has produced — and Thurber had his elevator pitch: “The Towering Inferno” meets “Die Hard” but in China. Box-office domination was guaranteed as soon as the seven-figure deal was signed.
There is of course a story, or at least a whisker-thin excuse for one, that finds Johnson’s character, Will, a security analyst, visiting Hong Kong on business with his surgeon wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and their twins. Soon after he interviews for a high-end job in the world’s tallest building — an ugly metallic behemoth that looks like a twisty trunk of an African elephant grasping a baseball — violence happens. Heavily armed thugs set fire to one floor. Will is wounded in a brutal fight and must perform self-surgery. Men in black run and plot. Sarah and the tots scramble. A chick in black with an anguished haircut mows down a roomful of anonymous computer guys.
Mostly, Will gets to work, or rather Johnson does, as the character undergoes the hero’s crucible of suffering with throbbing muscles, an impressive deadpan and yards of duct tape. As is always the case in male-driven fantasies like this, an ordinary man rises, just and noble and true, and transforms into a hero. As he rises, Will dodges bullets and more bullets, scales a soaring construction crane and leaps across an impossible void, a superhero without cape or portfolio. Again and again, he also dangles by a single, sweat-slicked Hitchcockian hand as all of Hong Kong anxiously watches his escapades below or on TV, oohing and ahhing in presumptive harmony with the movie’s audience.
Blockbusters like “Skyscraper” are near-indestructible entertainment delivery systems partly because they inoculate themselves against criticism with winking self-awareness — hence Will’s “stupid” line and the succession of increasingly outrageous physics-and-logic-defying stunts.
Thurber ups the ante with cinematic allusions (“The Lady From Shanghai”) that feel like reviewer bait, and wouldn’t you know, I took it. Of course, I did. That is part of the contract, as is my noting that it is welcome how race quietly figures into the story without becoming a problem that needs solving. And it is genuinely welcome even if it would have been nicer if the movie had tried harder on every other count.