Film Reviews

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Don Simpson is gone -- he died last January at 52, the victim of prodigious self-indulgence -- but, as The Rock indicates, his influence lingers on.

Along with partner and fellow producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson established a signature style for splashy Hollywood products with such '80s box-office behemoths as Beverly Hills Cop (and Cop 2), Days of Thunder and Top Gun. Visually frenetic and aggressively loud, these and other Simpson-Bruckheimer productions set a new standard for slam-bang entertainment in the age of shrinking attention spans. Their formula? Forget about subtlety, plot complexity and delicate nuances of character. Instead, concentrate on imagery as bold and visceral as MTV, set to the throbbing beat of wall-to-wall pop, rock and synthesizer music. Manufacture star vehicles. Offer an experience. Show your characters triumphant. (At any cost, even if, as in Top Gun, a triumph might entail the possible ignition of World War III.) And never miss an opportunity to crank up the volume.

Last year, director Michael Bay demonstrated his mastery of the Simpson-Bruckheimer style with Bad Boys, a surprise hit that turned Martin Lawrence and Will Smith into A-list movie stars. Bad Boys was very much an action flick in the Simpson-Bruckheimer tradition, meaning that it featured lots of shattering glass, overbearing music, striking visuals and foul-mouthed jocularity. It also featured a great deal of the slick, smoky ambiance and rapid-fire editing one usually associates with MTV and high-gloss TV commercials. It came as absolutely no surprise to discover in the Bad Boys press kit that Bay's resume contains dozens of music videos and advertising campaigns. For Simpson and Bruckheimer, those credits would carry more weight than hand-written recommendations from Martin Scorsese and Billy Wilder.

As a reward for hitting pay dirt with Bad Boys, the producers gave their budding auteur more money and even bigger stars to make The Rock. Shamelessly cynical but exuberantly entertaining, this action-adventure movie is every bit as formulaic as earlier Simpson-Bruckheimer productions. But after all, it's their formula.

And, indeed, The Rock is an altogether appropriate curtain-closer for the producers' partnership. (In the final credits, the movie is dedicated to Simpson.) It is a perpetual-motion thrill machine that offers a great deal of sound and fury, much of it brazenly gratuitous and all of it thunderously loud. Early on, there is a high-speed auto chase through the streets of San Francisco that adds nothing to the plot, and reveals very little about the characters involved. It does, however, give Bay the opportunity to smash several vehicles -- including a trolley car -- and to set off some fiery explosions. It's almost as though the director felt compelled to pump up the audience's adrenaline, so he could get away with a subsequent scene or two of exposition before the rush wore off. Bay directs The Rock as though he fears that, if he ever let his pace flag for a moment, his viewers would immediately rise up and walk to another screen at the multiplex.

In this context, casting Nicolas Cage makes perfect sense. Under normal circumstances, the immensely gifted Cage might not be anyone's first choice as an action-movie hero. (It's more likely he would be tapped to play an action-movie villain -- he was terrific in the underrated Kiss of Death remake.) But his precarious balance of coiled intensity and wild-eyed combustibility are extremely well-suited to playing Stanley Goodspeed, an FBI biological weapons expert who is dragged out of his laboratory and dropped into a high-risk field assignment. With each new explosion or burst of gunfire -- and there are plenty -- Stanley grows increasingly frazzled and short-tempered. Eventually, Cage begins to deliver his lines, even those containing complicated scientific jargon, with the ferocity of someone wielding a blunt instrument. Which, when you think about it, is just the way Bay and his producers want that kind of dialogue to be delivered.

The Rock begins to race in its opening seconds, as rogue commandos launch an assault on a U.S. military chemical-weapons storehouse. The invaders are led by Brigadier General Xavier Hummel (Ed Harris), a decorated hero who has spent most of his career in command of covert operations. Over the years, Hummel has lost many good men during top-secret incursions, and none of them received the credit they were due. Worse, because their missions were top secret, they were never officially listed as wartime casualties. And that means that none of their dependents received the benefits that go to the families of soldiers killed in battle. Naturally, this greatly displeases Hummel.

Unfortunately, Hummel's repeated requests for a policy change have fallen on deaf ears. So, to bolster his argument, he and his men steal several canisters of lethal V.X. poison gas, then seize control of the prison-turned-tourist-attraction on Alcatraz Island. He demands that his superiors pay the appropriate benefits to the families of his fallen comrades by tapping into "a secret Pentagon slush fund." If they don't, then Hummel will order the execution of the 80 or so tourists that he and his men have taken hostage. And then he will fire a battery of rockets containing the V.X. gas into the San Francisco Bay area.

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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Joe Leydon