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Dwayne Johnson (left) and Chin Han in a still from Skyscraper, a film which courted the Chinese market it wanted to break into with respect.

Is Dwayne Johnson action movie Skyscraper a blueprint for US-China co-production despite being a box-office flop in America?

  • Skyscraper, co-produced by Universal in the US and the Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures, made almost a third of its US$304 million worldwide box office in China
  • While the plot was unoriginal, the film offered meaty roles for its Asian actors, ‘paid respect to Hong Kong and Asian cinema’ and was stunningly shot

Skyscraper, a 2018 action film starring Dwayne Johnson, might not look like a cinematic trailblazer, but interesting patterns start to reveal themselves when you underneath the surface.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber ( Central Intelligence), the film – so indebted to US film franchise Die Hard it was jokingly called “Die Hard in a building” – was co-produced by Universal and the Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures.

Because of this, Skyscraper secured a very rare summer release in China, where it made almost a third of its US$304 million worldwide box office.

The plot of the film is rather less interesting than the series it took inspiration from. The prologue shows a hostage rescue gone wrong, in which FBI agent Will Sawyer (Johnson) loses part of his leg and meets his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), a nurse, in the trauma unit.

Cut to Hong Kong, 10 years later, where Sawyer is hired to review the security of the world’s tallest building, the 3,500ft (1,066 metre) high The Pearl, for its billionaire owner, Zhao Longji (Chin Han).

“It’s the safest super-tall structure in the world,” Sawyer declares. “It’s Fort Knox a mile in the sky!”

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Soon, terrorists – lead by Kores Botha (Roland Moller) – arrive to prove that it very much is not and start a fire on the 96th floor while disabling the security systems. The plan is to trap Zhao, who has valuable information on the crime syndicates Botha works for.

Sawyer’s wife and children, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), are coincidentally also in the building. So he forces his way inside to save them.

Those seeking a metaphor for the relationship between Hollywood and China need look no further than the scenes in which Sawyer, representing Hollywood, risks life and limb and takes gravity-defying jumps to get to Zhao, representing China, who sits safe behind his penthouse doors.

Neve Campbell (left) and Dwayne Johnson in a still from Skyscraper.

What makes the film different is not that it courts the Chinese market so fiercely, but that it does so respectfully.

Unlike globe-trotting Hollywood blockbusters such as Transformers: Age of Extinction, there is a strong narrative reason for Skyscraper to be set in Hong Kong, even if most of it was shot in Vancouver, Canada.

“Hong Kong’s one of the few cities in the world where you could build the tallest building, as it’s an incredibly vertical – and beautiful – city,” Thurber said.

Johnson with Chin Han (left) and Campbell (right) at the Skyscraper press conference in West Kowloon, Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

And he is right, it is beautiful – a glittering canvas of busy, branded neon. When we see Sawyer walking on the glass floor at the top of the Pearl, he looks like he is suspended, Man on Wire-style, over the city’s blinking lights.

“Welcome to heaven, Mr Sawyer,” says Zhao.

This generosity extends to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage. “We wanted to make sure that we paid respect to Hong Kong and Asian cinema,” said Thurber. “That’s why there are significant portions of the film that are spoken entirely in native Cantonese, and subtitled in English. You don’t see that a lot in big American action films.”

You certainly do not. Compared to the usual co-production fare, the film has a cast that actually reflects Hong Kong’s international population, with performers hailing from as far afield as South Africa and Australia.

Dwayne Johnson in a still from Skyscraper.
It also offers slightly meatier-than-usual roles for its Asian actors, particularly the Singaporean Chin Han, who was allowed to show much more light and shade than he managed in The Dark Knight.

Throw in Campbell’s resourceful female lead, and the fact that Sawyer has a prosthetic leg – albeit one he frequently wields like Thor’s hammer – and you have a film that tries to please everyone.

It may not have worked for American audiences, where the film made just US$68 million of its US$125 million budget back, but as a step towards co-production success it is definitely one in the right direction.

If Hollywood filmmakers could only combine these lessons with an original concept, they would truly have the world at their feet.

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