The Rock is a first-rate, slam-bang action thriller with a lot of style and no little humor. It’s made out of pieces of other movies, yes, but each element has been lovingly polished to a gloss. And there are three skillful performances: Sean Connery is Mason, an intelligence expert who’s been in prison for 30 years; Nicolas Cage is Goodspeed, an FBI scientist; and Ed Harris is General Hummel, a war hero with a mad scheme to wage chemical warfare against San Francisco.
These are good actors, and they approach the material with the deadly seriousness that a plot this absurd requires. Many movies are not really about their stories at all, but about how they tell their stories, and The Rock is an example. The movie is a triumph of style, tone, and energy—an action picture that rises to the top of the genre because of a literate, witty screenplay and skilled craftsmanship in the direction and special effects.
Hollywood producers often claim credit for work they’ve paid for without really being responsible for. Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, however, deserve their prominent credits on The Rock, because they assembled and guided the package and it bears their unmistakable stamp. Forming their production partnership in 1983, Bruckheimer and Simpson quickly became known for high-tech thrillers in what one critic has called the “swinging dick” genre. Their first production, Flashdance, was indeed about a woman, but then they found their formula: big action stars in glossy f/x vehicles. Others copied their approach, but no one made more (or maybe better) films in their niche; their credits include Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and Bad Boys, made by director Michael Bay a year before he began The Rock.
The secret of The Rock may be its humor—and wit, which of course is not the same thing. Nicolas Cage plays a classic fish out of water, a nerd scientist who finds himself in a race against terrorists to defuse a deadly attack against helpless civilians. Sean Connery, who almost always finds a wry humor in his roles, plays his mentor and uneasy partner, and we’re reminded that male partnerships—usually between a veteran and a rookie—have been at the heart of most of the Simpson/Bruckheimer films. (Maybe there was an echo there of the cooler Bruckheimer and the brash, sometimes out-of-control Simpson.) The screenplay, by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, Mark Rosner, and the uncredited writers Aaron Sorkin, Ian La Frenais, Dick Clement, and Jonathan Hensleigh, gives Connery and Cage dialogue that’s clever and fresh enough to give the illusion—rare in this genre—that they are thinking individuals and not simply plot puppets.
The story hook is a mission to break into Alcatraz. Hummel and his men have occupied the former prison island, taken hostages, and threatened to fire deadly rockets at San Francisco. He is angered that 81 men have died under his command and never been recognized, because they were on secret missions the government denied existed. He wants $100 million in payments to their next of kin.
Hummel is respected in Washington, and his demands are taken seriously. The Pentagon assembles a team to break into Alcatraz and neutralize the poison gas missiles. We’ve already seen Goodspeed think fast while sealed into an airtight chamber with a deadly chemical bomb; now he’s assigned to join the task force, even though he’s basically a lab rat with minimal field or combat experience. He’s teamed with Mason, a British spy who, we learn, successfully stole all of J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files (“even the truth about JFK’s assassination”) before being secretly jailed for life without a trial. Mason’s qualification: He is the only man to ever successfully escape from Alcatraz.
Movies like The Rock leap from one action sequence to another. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how well they fit together. Consider, for example, the entertaining way in which Mason turns a haircut into an opportunity to dangle one of his enemies from a hotel window. And how that leads to a San Francisco streetcar chase inspired by Bullitt, and a crash almost as sensational as the train smashup in The Fugitive.
The Alcatraz footage looks a little like Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie. While Eastwood negotiated the maze of tunnels under Alcatraz in murky darkness, The Rock provides Alcatraz with a subterranean labyrinth as large and well-lighted as the sewers in The Third Man, and as crammed with props and unidentified metallic machinery as the Alien movies.
The plot moves efficiently between fire fights, explosions, torrents of water, hand-to-hand combat, interrogation, torture, imprisonment, escape, and scientific mumbo jumbo, as the Pentagon prepares to firebomb the island with planeloads of Thermite Plasma (which sure sounds neat). All of these elements are standard issue for action thrillers, but the script adds some deft touches (asked if he knows why he has been released from prison, Mason wryly says, “I’ve been locked up longer than Nelson Mandela. Maybe you want me to run for president”).
What really works is the chemistry between Connery, as a reluctant warrior who has the skills necessary to outsmart the occupying force, and Cage, who can disarm the rockets but is not much in the killing department. An intriguing complexity is added by the Harris character, who is not as one-dimensional as he seems (early in the film, he advises some small children to return to their tour boat).
In a movie that borrows from all the movies I’ve already listed, there are two particularly obvious steals: the hypodermic-needle-plunging-into-the-heart trick, from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and the Mexican standoff in which everybody has a gun pulled on everyone else (from QT’s Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, courtesy of old Westerns). Two lifts from Tarantino? Maybe Bruckheimer and Simpson were getting their revenge for the famous Tarantino monologue in Sleep with Me where he analyzed Top Gun as a homosexual parable.
No matter. Director Michael Bay orchestrates an efficient and exciting movie, with big laughs, sensational f/x sequences, and sustained suspense. There are several Identikit Hollywood action stars who can occupy the center of chaos like this, but not many can convince you they think they’re really there. Watching The Rock, you care about what happens. You may feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that’s part of the ride.
Roger Ebert is the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.