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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Skyscraper, Review: The Rock climber’s burning issues

Skyscraper, Review: The Rock climber’s burning issues

Disaster films have been appearing on the screen for decades. In some of them, it is the earth that plays the villain (earthquakes), in others, it is water (floods), in still others it is wind (tornadoes, hurricanes) and fire, naturally occurring or man-made, is the burning issue in some of the movies. Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, tackles impossible odds in Skyscraper and onlookers applaud his bravura. As we see the crowds playing the role of background music, we applaud too. Not literally, but mentally.

Once an FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and former U.S. war veteran, Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson), hangs up his gun, gets married to Sarah (Neve Campbell) and has two kids, a girl and a boy. Professionally, operates as a safety and security consultant for skyscrapers. On assignment in Hong Kong, he is invited to assess The Pearl, which is a mind-boggling, 3,500 feet (1,100 m) and 240-storied structure, the world’s tallest by far, built by reclusive billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). His friend and former colleague Ben (Pàblo Schreiber), who works for Zhao, has recommended him for the job.

After an encounter with a terrorist many years ago, who threw a grenade at him, Sawyer had to have one leg amputated knee down. Thanks to prosthetic technology, he is fitted with an artificial leg, which restores his full mobility. Sawyer meets Zhao and presents his report that there several risks in the structure, which has yet to be populated. Zhao and his advisers, however, insist that the building is impenetrable and risk free.

While construction was in progress, rival gangsters, under the control of international crime kingpin Kores Botha (Roland Møller), had been threatening construction crews working on the skyscraper. This was to extort millions of dollars in payments, for ‘preventing’ an engineered massive strike of construction workers, potentially halting and delaying its completion.

The financiers of the skyscraper agree to the extortion payments, but not without carefully tracking, and recording, on a memory card, Botha's international money laundering scheme, in his attempt to legitimise the black money he has extorted. This would be their insurance against further extortion by Botha. Unfortunately for Zhao and his consortium, Botha, who has two moles placed in the project, gets to know about this clever move, and decides to wreak havoc on Zhao and the building.

Botha and his team of hard-boiled mercenaries break-in and set fire to the 96th floor of the building, blocking access to all higher floors and knocking out the computer controlled advanced fire extinguishing hardware, meticulously constructed and installed throughout the skyscraper. Using security information on a tablet they had previously stolen from Sawyer, the terrorists frame Sawyer as the chief culprit of the sabotage, to misdirect the police. Sawyer, knowing that his family is trapped on the floors directly above the blazing fire, breaks free from the police and begins his ascent of the building to save his wife, and their two children Georgia and Henry.

Reminding you of The Towering Inferno and Enter the Dragon (an entire scene replicated twice, but with minor chnages), writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (We’re the Millers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) has at hand technology that the 1974 venture could not have even dreamt about. And he uses it to great effect, so wisely and seamlessly, that you can hardly notice it. Visually stunning, Skyscraper makes it a point to explain technical jargon and also to keep it to a minimum.

There are several micro level problems in the script—amateurish stealing of the tablet, Zhao’s naiveté, the overdone “I love you; Daddy loves you; Mummy loves you”--but it works just fine on the macro level. For all of the characters, money is the chief driving force, bar the police and Sawyer. So what’s new about greed and double-crossing?

Tech savvy audiences will be chuckling self-consciously in the two scenes wherein a simple rebooting starts a hung-up phone, and another, in which rebooting helps the hackers on the side of the law break into a computer and help over-ride crucial, destructive commands. Like all disaster films, you see a clear pattern—Will, his wife Sarah and his two children get separated in turns, with scorching all around; the bad guys are eliminated in ascending order, the police arrive, but are unable to access the building; the children asking their mother “Are we going to die?”—and more.

Dwayne Johnson works hard at his job of sky-high calisthenics and gets emotional when required, without looking awkward or artificial. The Rock can get really soft when the situation demands. Neve Campbell (Scream 4, The Glass Man, Walter) is a gutsy nurse trained in fighting abilities too, so you find her making her contribution to the action. Chin Han (Independence Day: Resurgence, A Different Sun, Ghost in the Shell) as Zhang is suave and underplays his character. Arch villain Kores Botha is played Roland Møller, a Scandinavian playing a Scandinavian. He is ice cold and a veteran crime-lord, who pulls off big hauls, whatever the cost, without batting an eyelid, but with a bone-chilling line off and on.

A British accent distinguishes Noah Taylor (The Windmill, Free Fire, Paddington 2), who is called Mr. Pierce (does the name Bond with you?) one of the Zhang coterie members. The part has a twist that I will not spoil. Byron Mann (Jasmine, The Big Short, Mercenary Absolution) is the screen name for Byron Chan, Inspector Wu in the film. He goes about his duties with weighed strategies. Pablo Schreiber, paternal half brother of Liev Schreiber, has been named after literature giant Pàblo Neruda; Happythankyoumoreplease, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Lords of Dogtow ) and he is called Ben in the film. Talking of Ben, please do not miss the beginning, which contains the climax of the back-story about Will and Ben. McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell play the kids, who summon inner strength to go through the ordeal, which is like a baptism by fire.

Skyscraper works well because the writer director has done his research and filmed stunts that are either acceptable because, most likely, the performer has had hardcore training in similar circumstances, albeit on scaled models, yet he is no superhero. He defies death almost every time he leaps to catch a girder and even has his prosthetic foot come out. It is no magic or god-gifted power, but the determination to save his family at all costs is the most burning issue in his psyche.

Overall, an oxymoron best defines Skyscraper: absolutely incredible but totally credible. Now suspend your disbelief for 102 minutes, will you?


Rating: *** ½ 

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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