When Nic Cage accepted his Oscar in 1995, he dedicated it to “the future of acting.” That future turned out to be 96’s The Rock. Now, a decade and a half later, the 20th century eclipsed, Cage is a mythic, chimerical humanoid fury of the screen, the name Michael Bay has become synonymous with… well, Michael Bay, and Sean Connery has all-but dematerialized from our pop-cultural purview. IFC’s midnight screenings of The Rock give us pause to recognize the film that was less "the future" than one momentous fine de siecle fireball of past, present, and yet-to-come.
In case there exists some poor soul, heretofore deprived of majesty that is The Rock, the film concerns bonafide American hero General Frank Hummel (the delectably dead-serious Ed Harris), who, in an effort to exact reparations from the Pentagon on behalf of disavowed K.I.A. black-ops troops, occupies Alcatraz and aims rockets loaded with the ghastly—and elegantly named—VX poison gas point blank at San Francisco. Ever determined to stiff veterans, the Gov’ment assembles a crack SEAL team to infiltrate the island—expertly trained but completely unknowledgeable as to the finer points of such a shit-storm. Enter one Stanley Goodspeed (Cage, uncharacteristically well-behaved, but no less perversely addictive to behold), a gun-shy chemical weapons specialist, and John Mason (Connery, Sir Connery), a pseudo-Bond British operative, clandestinely imprisoned since the 70s for stealing a top-secret microfilm (yes, a microfilm), and who happens to be—you guessed it—the only person to ever escape from “The Rock."
Since 1996, Michael Bay may have gone on to bigger and bigger things, but if the millennial shift has left The Rock a minor work, that only speaks volumes to the potentialities vibrating around the film’s incendiary siege of the screen. Today, The Rock stands as an event horizon in big-screen spectacle, a point of convergence and singularity for all that came before, the eye of a needle that 20th century schlock had to pass through before it could be shat out into the 21st.
Bay’s post-Rock trajectory signaled a sea change in American blockbusters: the late 90s were the twilight of the heavily armed, foul-mouthed rogue or dwindling band of heroes after revenge and/or a few hostages, stealthily maneuvering limited locations, scrapping with subordinate baddies en route to one vile chieftain, and probably glimpsing some bare bosoms along the way. There used to be a name for such a flick—Action Movies. Kids today are corn-fed wholesome world-historic turds about global annihilation/salvation in which nobody—I mean, nobody—swears (drowned out by a PG-13-ensuring gunshot blast, not even John MacClane could manage to remind us what comes after “Yippee-ki-yay motherf…” in Live Free or Die Hard).
But The Rock—oh yes, The Rock—stood at the precipice: before CGI became our favorite protagonist, before 3D made its inevitable and as yet underwhelming return (you heard me, dorks), before the post-9/11 surge of emboldening ensemble disaster remakes curbed our depraved appetite for human-on-human machine-gun spray. The Rock stared straight into the coming abyss and asked, “Whakyna fucktup tour is this?”
The Rock throbs with intertexts, falling on its knees and waving green flares triumphant atop a mountain of 20th century carnage: Die Hard, The Poseidon Adventure, Top Gun, Die Hard 2, Escape From Alcatraz, Die Hard 3, and most explicitly the 007 series, to name a few of literally dozens.
Scenery has seldom been gnawed by a seething multitude to such harmonious effect as the film’s orgy of choice character actors: John Spencer, David Morse, Michael Biehn, John C. McGinley, William Forsythe, the great Tony “You know how this shit works?” Todd…
It takes the gilded Action Movie calling card of elaborate bad-guy demises to sublime levels of excess, dispatching each of Hummel’s sentinels in ceaselessly inventive, exceedingly atrocious ways. Connery masticates his obscenity-laden dialogue (plus the occasional historical aphorism or Latin proverb) with Glaswegian relish, while giving Harry Callahan a run for his money for the record of biggest Bay Area body count posted by a fed-up geezer.
And Cage—teetering at the apex of his credibility, just before diving headlong back into his now—trademark complete inexplicability—is something like masterful: knowing exactly when to go-all-Cage on our asses, and when to simply let the movie go bat-shit around him. It may be his least standout role—by which I mean, the film itself is as go-for-broke bonkers as its star. Cage appears utterly (anomalously) disciplined, truly pitch-perfect. As committed to Goodspeed’s egg-headed nincompoopery as any of his more unhinged roles, Cage tones it down when Connery and Bay take the rollicking reigns, only to step up and knock ten-dozen one-liners into the rafters: “Whaddya say we cut the chit-chat, A-hole?”
Few films bestow such a bounty of unbridled awesomeness: geriatric espionage, skin-melting poison gas, giant Atropine needles, green-tinted control room hand-wringing, heaping dollops of slow-mo, balletic fighter jet POVs, Cage getting busy in cowboy boots, and a car chase that's only seeming function is to make Frank Bullitt look like a nancy-boy.
The Rock is perhaps best watched with nostalgia-tinted glasses. Blight on the multiplex though he may be, Michael Bay was born to make this movie, and likely will never make one like it again. The Rock was only Bay’s second feature (after the blitzkrieg of tonal misjudgments known as Bad Boys) and the last time he would take on a plot that didn’t presume to hold the fate of the world in the balance (unless you’re counting Bad Boys 2—are you, though?).
His Alcatraz is a Temple of Doom-style labyrinth of jagged deathtraps; his San Francisco looks more like the cloud city of Bespin. This is the arena rock anthem of action flicks, replete with smoke, lasers, and omni-present belches of flame.
The Rock’s masterstroke climax (prefaced in voice-over by a Presidential monologue that set the tone for all Bay posturing to come) blows sky high like only the great metteur en wad could blow it (occasioning the single greatest piece IMDB "trivia" ever logged: “First of three Nicolas Cage movies in a row to feature a finale in which he is flung through the air in an explosion”).
Where today the director’s histrionic camera movements, rousing orchestral strains, gatling-gun montage, and near-radioactive color schemes have attained a stridence all their own, in The Rock Bay’s face-blasting was the difference between an unwieldy gimmick of a movie, and a nakedly epic, total viewing event.
Far from small by comparison to Bay’s future megaliths, The Rock was nothing short of an eruption of the boundaries of brainless blockbuster self-importance, the seared wreckage of last century’s limits. At one point in the film, Spencer’s FBI Director confesses that the microfilm Mason stole all those years ago held "our most intimate secrets from the last half-century: the alien landing at Roswell, the truth about the JFK assassination…"
A cursory nugget of subplot to be sure, but a reminder that The Rock carries a thick swathe of genre histories even while it launches itself with kamikaze abandon at one hyper-specific premise. Watching The Rock, it’s imperative we remember that—as Cage and Connery are prowling the innards of that fabled prison, disabling guidance chips and swapping wisecracks—aliens indeed exist, and have made contact with the US government.
Is The Rock the greatest Action Movie of all-time? “You’re on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know.”