Entertainment

The Rock's Ridiculous Jump in 'Skyscraper' Is the Big Reason to See the Movie

Skyscraper movie
Universal Pictures

His latest blockbuster might be sinking like a stone at the box office, but, in movie world, gravity is still no match for Dwayne Johnson. As a pro wrestler in the WWE, the muscle-bound actor used to fling himself around the ring and contort his body in pretzel-like shapes to sell the moves of his foes, and now he's transferred those skills to the big screen, where he makes otherwise sleepy thrillers, comedies, and disaster movies come alive with acts of patently ridiculous heroism. Skyscraper, his recent workmanlike riff on the Die Hard formula, is further proof that he's the action hero most likely to bend the laws of physics to his will.

At the very least, the movie feels like it arrived via time travel. From a plot perspective, Skyscraper sounds like it could have been produced in the '90s: There's an ex-FBI agent (Johnson) who must save his wife (Neve Campbell) and two adorable children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) from a gun-toting, sneer-having European terrorist (Roland Møller) attempting to take over The Pearl, a hi-tech super-tower in downtown Hong Kong. In the '90s, you could have plugged Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, or any number of stars into this movie. At the present moment, Johnson is one of remaining box office draws still trying to make big, dopey, meat-and-potatoes action movies.

Even for him, it's not entirely clear if the approach is working. After his previous action extravaganza Rampage underperformed at the box office, Skyscraper also appears to be on pace to underwhelm, delivering a partly $25 million opening weekend. There's a haphazard, anodyne quality to most of Johnson's recent action epics, like they've been rearranged from the leftover parts of more original films. For most of its runtime, Skyscraper is modestly entertaining but frustratingly indistinct, but it really gains a sense of purpose in it's best, silliest scene.

skyscraper dwayne johnson
Universal Pictures

If you've seen the trailer -- or the ridiculous poster -- you probably know what scene I'm talking about. Johnson's character Will Sawyer, a security expert who lost a leg in an explosion we see early in the film, is attempting to get into the burning, collapsing building where his family is trapped inside. The task looks impossible. But he scales a crane -- very, very quickly -- and knocks out a window on the building using the equipment. Security is approaching, time is running out, and then he leaps. The memes make themselves.

Could he make the jump? Well, it'd be a much shorter movie if he plummeted to his death. The debate about whether or not Johnson could actually travel the distance to the window has spilled out from a snarky joke to a (relatively) serious academic debate, with UCF Physics Professor Costas Efthimiou arguing in a UCF Today article that it's possible for Johnson's character to make it.

"There are a number of factors working against our protagonist in this scenario: his age, psychological stress, not having proper running shoes, not having past training for this particular jump, to name a few,” claims Efthimiou. “However, given the character’s peak physical conditioning, professional discipline, mental strength, personal motivation and determination, the laws of physics assert that he has a real shot at making this jump."

skyscraper poster image jump
Universal Pictures

Maybe Efthimiou is correct? But the scene, which occurs about a third into the story, simply works from a moviegoing perspective. The most important part of the jump is the way the director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who worked with Johnson on the comedy Central Intelligence, and the movie's vastly overqualified cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot multiple Paul Thomas Anderson movies, stage the action to wring every bit of goofy, nail-biting suspense from every flame-kissed frame. In trailers, the jump looks preposterous. But in the actual film, it's a crowd-pleasing moment of pure action movie hokum.

The effectiveness of the leap is all in the Jumbotron. In what feels like a meta-wink to Johnson's WWE days, when legions of fans would roar along to his every raised eyebrow and dropped elbow, the moment where Will make his fateful jump plays out on a giant screen in the streets of Hong Kong, where spectators watch and cheer him on. As a helicopter films him, the citizens of the city look on at the spectacle. You never really find out why all these people are gathered in the streets to watch this disaster soap opera, but you don't question it. They're a perfect audience surrogate: the gasp, cry, and scream for our hero. 

More so than in an earlier close-quarters knife-fight or in the movie's hall of mirrors finale, the crane-jump scene fully grasps and understands the appeal of Dwayne Johnson as a movie star in ways that previous vehicles have not. Yes, he's charming on talk shows and on social media. Sure, his shoulders are enormous. Fine, his heart seems like it's in the right place. But Johnson's most profound, enduring gift is the way he can thrill a crowd, which is what made him such a brilliant wrestler and has occasionally limited his film work.

Skyscraper presents Dwayne Johnson as a source of spectacle, a thirsty gladiator who feeds off the demands of an audience. There's a neediness baked into Johnson's public persona: You feel it in his Instagram videos, his chatty magazine profiles, and his emoji-filled tweets. It's not necessarily a bad thing -- in some ways it's relatable -- but it makes it hard for him to settle into a role. Even in the Fast and Furious franchise, where he can be quite funny, he stands apart from the action at a slight remove. Jumanji was the same way. He's present but winking at the same time. 

This is different. The leap in Skyscraper gives up all the pretenses of a conventional, dramatic movie and becomes something stranger and hypnotic. He's not just playing to the cheap seats -- he's playing to the globe. In the unlikely event there's a sequel, the movie should only be screened on a Jumbotron. It's where the magic happens. 

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.