Thanks to appearances in sequels for “G.I. Joe,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and most notably, “The Fast and the Furious,” where he more or less stole the film series from its erstwhile stars, Dwayne Johnson was rightfully dubbed “franchise Viagra,” amplifying audience interest as his directors took their respective formulas to new and increasingly implausible levels. Johnson has evidently expanded this approach to all of his films going forward, transforming run-of-the-mill crowd-pleasers into events by recruiting collaborators who agree that, cinematically speaking, a hat on a hat on a hat is still two hats too few.

His latest, the “Die Hard” meets “Towering Inferno” crime-disaster hybrid “Skyscraper,” follows in the footsteps of “San Andreas,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Rampage” in its leveling up of familiar blockbuster conventions, as well as its ability to make “over the top” seem positively understated. And yet, Johnson’s sheer force of will makes it a goofy, briskly entertaining experience, especially if (like me) your palms get sweaty at the prospect of an experience that combines precipitous heights, claustrophobic environments and lots of gunfire (and regular fire, for that matter) at the expense of physics, logic or good old fashioned common sense.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former hostage negotiator-turned-security expert hired to vet the safety of a super-tall Hong Kong skyscraper dubbed “The Pearl.” Shortly after delivering his findings to The Pearl’s billionaire-industrialist owner Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han), Sawyer learns that a terrorist group led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) has set a fire in the building between its business and residential sections, and his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and two children are stranded inside. Determined to rescue them at all costs, Will fights his way back inside the building, facing down the intensifying flames, gun-toting henchmen, and Hong Kong authorities convinced that he’s perpetrating the disaster himself. But when Botha decides that the best way to accomplish his mission is to force Will to unlock the building’s most impenetrable corners, Will is put in a series of escalating life-or-death situations in order to survive the night, meet Botha’s demands and hopefully rescue his family.


Johnson of course comes from a long line of action stars starting with his 1980s forebears, but few of them seemed to get bigger -- like, physically larger -- with each role like he does. Part of that, of course, is due to his remarkable fitness regimen, but it’s also a byproduct of his outsized personality, and as evidenced in “Skyscraper,” his eagerness to nudge a concept outside the boundaries of audience expectations. The building in “The Towering Inferno?” 138 stories tall. The Pearl? 225. And in “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis plays a scruffy, shoeless cop; 30 years later, Johnson’s character is an ex-FBI hostage negotiator suffering from an attack of insecurity on the eve of his greatest professional success, who remains in peak physical condition despite a debilitating accident that rendered him legless below his left knee. He seems incapable of adhering to the formula set in front of him, and it continues to pay handsome dividends, as it does here.

Does that mean his self-seriousness and his sincere dedication to making each project as special as possible keeps it from being, well, kind of silly? Unfortunately, no. For better or worse, he is part of a familiar lineage of big-screen heroes, and his filmography is populated more with successful imitations of his predecessors’ projects than even the noble failures of original ones. That’s hardly his fault -- so many movies have established, imitated, and ultimately canonized the action-movie lexicon that he effortlessly wields -- but it provides him with the only real disadvantage that he’ll likely ever face: he will probably never be the first to explore an idea.

Then again, when there’s so much fun to be had with an idea as automatically silly as this one, even he doesn’t seem to think it matters. (He recently shared a story posted by Mel Magazine analyzing the unlikely physics of a jump that Will makes, suggesting their math professor wasn’t “drunk” enough to properly make the calculations.) This is a thriller where the solution to most problems is “break a window and scale the outside of a building,” producing a number of wonderfully vertiginous sequences that Johnson makes into great Movie Moments using copious amounts of grit and (in some cases literal) duct tape to make it through safely.

As Will’s wife Sarah, Campbell makes too few appearances these days but she’s a formidable counterpart for Johnson on screen, not simply waiting to be rescued but making active choices to protect her children. But “Skyscraper” director Rawson Marshall Thurber is Johnson’s real partner on this project, particularly after the two successfully sold the musclebound leading man as the tough outer shell of an overweight high schooler in “Central Intelligence.” Thurber seems to understand that Johnson is at his best when he’s playing against type, and enables the actor to indulge his most furrowed, doubtful instincts as Will. The only shortcoming to this approach? No matter what name he goes by, he’s still The Rock, which means that the kayfabe this former wrestler is breaking is his actual reality -- that of the oversized, outgoing, massively confident actor, athlete and leading man who seems unintimidated by anything, even the world’s most altitudinous building. “Skyscraper,” tall a tale as it is, never stood a chance -- and neither will audiences.