Here’s an idea. How about an action thriller about a group of home-grown terrorists taking over the prison island of Alcatraz and threatening the residents of San Francisco with some “really funky” chemical weapons? If that’s not enough, check out the talent involved: Oscar winner Nicolas Cage, Oscar winner and former James Bond, Sean Connery, four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, another Oscar winner creating the music in Hans Zimmer with Kings of the bombastic Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay producing and directing, respectively.
Now if that doesn’t set your pulse racing, perhaps you need to see a doctor.
With its perfectly balanced blend of action, drama and humour, The Rock exploded into cinemas in June of 1996, the first of Nicolas Cage’s gloriously riotous and outrageous trilogy of thrillers with Con Air and Face/Off arriving the following year. To this day, The Rock stands out as one of the biggest and best action movies of all time. Going over-budget at $75 million, over its shooting schedule and beset with behind the scenes disputes, it ended its box office run with a hugely respectable $335 million.
Knowing Cage was on board as chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed, Connery readily agreed to rejoin the ranks of the Secret Service as John Patrick Mason, a British spy incarcerated by the American Government without a trial who happens to be the only man to have ever escaped the (almost) inescapable prison fortress of Alcatraz, known as The Rock. With the tantalising promise of freedom dangled in front of him, it’s his job to guide a team of Navy Seals back into Alcatraz to find and neutralise the weapons of mass destruction held by General Hummel (Ed Harris). He’s disillusioned with how America treats its war heroes and wants to deal out some rough justice to make his point. Of course, he’s only bluffing and we don’t know that until the end, but it gives us a bad guy we can empathise with rather than a paint-by-numbers villain as seen so many times before from films in this genre.
Casting Directors Billy Hopkins and Heidi Levitt well and truly excelled themselves by putting together a magnificent ensemble and they bring life to a host of memorable characters. Michael Biehn is perfect as the leader of the doomed Seals, adding another military man to his already glowing CV. David Morse is Hummel’s loyal right-hand man, William Forsythe the grizzled FBI Special Agent tasked with overseeing the investigation and let’s not forget the legendary John Spencer as Womack, the treacherous Director of the FBI. Nobody says, “Cocksucker!”, like him. John C. McGinley, Gregory Sporleder and Tony Todd cap off a fine company as they ham it up spectacularly as psychopathic soldiers fuelled by blood-lust. Indeed, their pantomime performances give more credence to Harris and his calm, more measured approach.
However, the highlight is the inspired pairing of Cage and Connery. Cage approaching the peak of his powers is in full geek mode and Connery shows us what 007 might have looked like as he approached free bus pass age (granted, Roger Moore got close to that before relinquishing his licence to kill). “I was trained by the besht. British Intelligensh,” he tells us in his Scottish brogue. All that’s missing is a wink to the camera. He even talks about losing his sex appeal despite looking absolutely smouldering. It’s beautiful stuff and testament to Connery’s abilities as an actor that he makes such a convincing action hero at 66. The mismatched duo bounce off each other with an electric chemistry and it’s wonderful to watch.
It’s worth mentioning Connery’s contribution behind the camera. As Disney executives were becoming increasingly concerned by the spiralling costs and schedule issues, they called a meeting ready to give Bay a roasting. Connery tags along as Bay’s wing man and tells the suits that, “This boy is doing a good job and you’re living in your Disney fucking ivory tower and we need more fucking money!”
Once jaws had been picked up from the floor, “How much?” came the chided response.
Problem solved, Connery style.
A film like this is bound to have its fair share of gung-ho clichés. David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner’s script embraces the subject matter with tongue firmly in cheek, but that’s not to say everyone was happy with it, though. To add more humour and to flesh out the character of Mason, writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, both of which had worked with Connery before, were drafted in and bring us many comical moments to counterbalance the unfolding drama. Even Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin were drafted in as uncredited writers whilst many lines were improvised as the cameras rolled. Goodspeed’s incredulous “How in the name of Zeus’s butthole…,” a cheeky example.
Spectacular set-pieces feature heavily including a sports car/motorbike chase through the streets of San Francisco (shout-out to the Cable Car Conductor, Leonard McMahan, for making the most of a small part), mine-cart mayhem, a tense stand-off between the Seals and Hummel’s men and numerous fight scenes with many gruesome deaths. Who can forget the ‘foot thing’? Sure, the editing might be a little frenetic and the overall package might not make a lot of sense, but the energy is relentless and it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the exhilarating, explosive adventure.
Popcorn entertainment doesn’t get better than this. The movie Gods came together and sculpted an action film that ticks all the boxes. Long live The Rock. May she never crumble.