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The Rock tests the hypothesis that moviegoers like 'em fast, splashy and loud

That's why Goodspeed is drafted into service as part of the Navy SEAL team that is ordered to invade Alcatraz. Trouble is, even with Goodspeed on board, armed with the expertise to defuse the biochemical threat, the SEAL commandos still need someone who can guide them through the maze of tunnels and sewer systems below the crumbling Alcatraz prison. Enter John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery), a British intelligence agent who, according to the screenplay by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner, is the only man ever to break out of the prison. (Obviously, these guys never saw Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz.) Mason was recaptured, and remains an unwilling guest of the U.S. penal system, even though he's never been convicted or even officially charged. It seems that, more than 30 years ago, he managed to record on microfilm the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover. After his capture, he refused to reveal where he hid the film. And so the FBI has never released him from captivity. Until now.

If The Rock ever allowed you sufficient time to fully consider its plot's ramifications, the movie might seem more paranoid than Oliver Stone's most fanciful conspiracy theories. But Bay keeps thing moving so rapidly, and so loudly, that you accept the characters' motivations and explanations simply as filler between the action set pieces. Mason is a political prisoner, the FBI and the Pentagon admit to reprehensible behavior and, who knows, Hummel might have a valid point. But none of this weighs heavily on the audience's consciousness because none of it is treated very seriously. This is the kind of movie in which the JFK assassination is a punch line. You can't get much more cynical.

Ultimately, of course, the amorality of the entire enterprise is less important than whether The Rock delivers the goods as a summer-movie roller-coaster ride. It does. It also develops an extremely amusing give-and-take between Connery and Cage. These days, Connery tends to saunter through movies like a slumming monarch, indulging all the lesser mortals around him with a hearty grin and a graceful air of noblesse oblige. He has perfected the art of conveying unshakable self-confidence without seeming at all condescending. And he can be very funny as he quietly nods with equal measures of approval and bemusement while his co-stars erupt in angry outbursts. Late in The Rock, when Mason makes one too many wisecracks about Goodspeed's anxiety, Goodspeed counters with a concisely self-critical speech about his unsuitability for the role of hero, and how dangerous it is for him to be defusing a toxic weapon. Cage caps it off with just the right note of pissed-off bravado: "So why don't you cut me some friggin' slack?" Connery looks genuinely impressed. And well he should.

Nicolas Cage has been impressing audiences for years. So much so, in fact, that at 32, he must be counted among the finest actors of his generation. The Rice University Media Center is currently presenting a retrospective of his movies, showcasing performances that range from the audaciously outrageous (Vampire's Kiss, June 22) to the superbly subtle (Leaving Las Vegas, August 3). Take note of Honeymoon in Vegas (July 27), in which Cage does a hilariously frenzied comic turn not unlike his performance in The Rock. And more important, rush to see Birdy (July 13), Alan Parker's exhilaratingly lyrical drama about two high-school buddies (beautifully played by Cage and Matthew Modine) who must rely on each other to survive their physical and psychological wounding in Vietnam. For additional information, call the Media Center film information line, 527-4853.

The Rock.
Directed by Michael Bay. With Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris.
Rated R.
129 minutes.

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