action movie freak

The Rock movie poster


"Welcome to The Rhawck." (Connery accent)

(1996) Director: Michael Bay

Anytime there is something military in an action movie, I like it better. I'm not a war monger but there's something about the training, the uniforms, the whole hero-who-wants-to-protect-us thing that raises the stakes for me.  This movie is surprisingly humane for a military movie. It pits an FBI Agent, a "chemical freak" ("Chemical Super Freak, actually"), against a retired SAS Army Major, and what casting!

Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in a Buddy movie. They are great together. The script is funny—full of action-movie quips and attitude. The unlikely 'buddies' gain a begrudging respect for each other as they go along. The heart of the movie is the decency of Nicolas Cage's character Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, despite the prominence of Sean Connery on the poster*. The military and agency types are also well cast. Even though there are so many characters that most of them get only a few moments, they are great; the cumulative effect lends an air of authenticity and an intensity to the action. The stakes are high and the acting is committed. It's
Bruckheimer and it's a non-stop roller coaster ride to hell.  The two buddies, Cage and Connery, manage to outwit and defeat the bad guys despite being outgunned and outnumbered, and we get to go along for the ride . . . with Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, David Morse, William Forsyth, John ("Dr. Cox") McGinley, Danny Nucci, and more.

If all those actors aren't enough for you, there is an incredible volume and variety of action ("Action Soup").

READ THE LIST! Appreciate it!:

  • A stealth operation to break into a military facility and steal chemical weapons (with zip lines and knockout darts), which goes wrong

  • A horrible death by chemical poisoning

  • A life-and-death bomb defusing session in an FBI chemical weapons training facility, which goes right

  • Negotiation with and the escape of a mysterious prisoner who is a notorious escape artist

  • A chase through a hotel that turns into a car chase through the streets of San Francisco involving:  a Humvee (I love that they poke a little fun at Arnold here when the Humvee's owner sounds Austrian), a Ferrari, a motorcycle, taxis, fruit, police cars, a derailed cable car, a Volkswagen beetle, 2 trucks, many cars, a meter maid's truck, parking meters, an enormous truck carrying water bottles, a minivan, pedestrians, some in wheelchairs, a granny (too obviously a stuntwoman in a horrible dress and bad wig), and downed power lines, and including, riding over and smooshing vehicles, crashing, going airborne, flips, driving through a storefront, gravity (it is San Francisco), and explosions

  • A  hostage situation/takeover of a legendary prison facility by mercenaries (Marines)

  • Government/military secrets and bureaucratic/agency wrangling

  • A high-tech mobile command set-up and a model of Alcatraz

  • A helicopter approach with 2 Apaches (how cool are they?!) and a Huey (let me know if I'm wrong)

  • "An incursion underwater to overtake an impregnable fortress held by an elite team of U.S. Marines in possession of 81 hostages and 15 guided rockets armed with VX poison gas" (by Navy SEALs in scuba gear with STUs and outfits with mini cams)

  • A stand off between the Marines and the Navy SEALs that ends in a massacre, and then picks up again in a video-game environment chase through the maze under Alcatraz with a battlefield feeling, and explosions including a raging fire ball

  • A thrown knife to the throat, and a squishing with a large radiator-looking hunk of metal

  • A chase around the Alcatraz prison facility with several gun battles and more explosions, a man on fire, and a ride on a mining cart

  • A missile firing at a major city

  • A military mutiny/gun battle where so much shooting is going on, several drops of blood land on a camera

  • A missile firing at a man resulting in a brutal impaling

  • A life-or-death fight in a lighthouse where VX poison gas is released and Nicolas Cage's character has to inject himself in the heart with Atropine

  • An assault on Alcatraz involving F-18s and thermite plasma bombs, resulting in an aborted bombing attempt that nearly kills Nicolas Cage's character (and what an exciting aerial shot that is even thought it's fake-GREAT JOB!)


CAGENicolas Cage in The Rock
The opening sets the military feel with a funeral and great music (parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack sound very similar). Once Nicolas Cage's character is set up as a chemical weapons expert, we learn what's at stake:

"One teaspoon of this shit detonated in the atmosphere will kill every living thing in an 8-block radius."

Cage's counterpart in chemical weapons is a trainee: Marvin Isherwood. I couldn't help thinking the name was a combination of pisher and peckerwood. He is the movie's Whiner. It was written well, but I think Todd Louiso could have done a little more with the lines. However, the Whiner here delivers the intended effect: he makes you realize how hard it would be to have to inject yourself in the heart with an enormous needle of Atrepine, and shows you that Cage's character delivers under pressure.

Cage's performance is entertainingly adroit because even though the character is a chemical weapons bad ass ("Womack, who is your best chemical/biological man?" cuts to having Cage having sex), he's still a bit of a tool (Stanley Goodspeed).  Cage gets his share of great lines, but it's not so much what he's saying, as how he delivers it (he can make ordinary words highly entertaining):

"Well, gosh, kind of a lot has happened since then." 

"What do you say we cut the chit chat, a-hole?!"  

"My stomach's doing hula hoops around my ass."  

"FBI! Freeze sucker!"  

"Oh, really? You know I like history too, and maybe when this is over, maybe you and I can stop by the souvenir shop together, but right now I just . . . I just wanna find some rockets!"

The fact that Cage's character is "an educated man" gives us hope that we could be a bad ass/hero too because maybe we could get there through education. Seeing Cage's geeky/novice character have to use his FBI training and step up to the challenge drives this movie through to the end, where, of course, he does 'the right thing'. While he may seem bumbling at times, his intelligence and strength of character save the day. It's all about who has integrity and who doesn't. Ultimately, integrity tears apart Ed Harris's team and unites Cage and Connery. In the end, what matters is saving lives, not taking them: Connery saves Cage, and Cage gives Connery his life back.


Sean Connery in The Rock


Sean Connery's
character Capt. John Patrick Mason is also intelligent. Intelligent enough to break out of Alcatraz, successfully. That is a big part of this movie. Even if you've never been there, Alcatraz captures your imagination: the location/remoteness of it, the fortress look, the reputation of the inmates, its 'inescapable' status, all contribute to a legendary fascination with this particular prison. How cool that there would be somebody who did make it off the island! Luckily for us, Connery brings his career to this role. I think some actors don't realize that the roles they play get attached to them. We don't know them, so we see them as the sum of their roles. (Tom Cruise is a victim of this association. His acting abilities are discounted and he is often cast as the same type of person because he plays it so well, and because he plays it so well, we think that's him and we think he's not acting.) So Mr. Connery brings his suave, bad-ass, Bond-y-ness to the role.  He has fun with the lines as well, and his accent makes a simple statement like "Welcome to The Rock" memorable. 
"Well, Womack, you're between The Rock and a hard case." 

"Gooodspeeeed, I'm not gonna kill you."

After escaping Alcatraz, Connery's character Mason is recaptured. He later escapes other prisons too, but they've basically locked him up and thrown away the key. When they introduce him, he's aging but still scary, and not to be underestimated.*


Ed Harris's
character General Francis X. Hummel feels bad for letting his men down. The set-up from the opening scene reveals his motivation: reparations for the families of the soldiers who died under his command and were ignored by the Government. Even the high command defends him saying "General Hummel is a man of honor." And yet, this point doesn't seem to hit home for the General until in the Alcatraz shower room standoff scene, Michael Biehn's character Commander Anderson tells him "General, we've spilled the same blood in the same mud." When the rocks fall and the shooting begins, all the SEALs are wiped out. Now it's more blood on Ed Harris's hands.  This hitch in his plans (shedding the blood of more soldiers) eventually makes him abandon his quest, and re-route the missile he fires, so that more innocents are not killed. Once we know he won't kill the faceless citizens of San Francisco, watching him unravel and not kill any hostages (or anyone else even in defending himself) is the only possible outcome. 

It's interesting to see in the Criterion DVD version that the extras contain MANY takes of Ed Harris flubbing his lines and acting "Bale-ish" (Much Ado About Nothing). Even more interesting, they contrast this with one take of Nicolas Cage tripping and falling down but getting right back up and staying in character—the consummate professional! This juxtaposition seems to say that Harris is a pompous jerk. For me, Harris is not enough of a pompous jerk in the role. His quest should have been more obviously ego driven and less of a nice guy, so that when he is disobeyed in the shower room scene and more lives are lost as a direct result of what he is trying to do, his realization/transformation is more meaningful. Also would have made you feel sorry for his dead wife.

Even the character arc of a character who is third on the list is important. This gives the other two main characters the break they need, and makes the lives lost less meaningless. [It's a lot like another Buddy movie A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore up against such a strong evil character like Jack Nicholson, but they are not who the movie is about, they just get 'taken out' in the process. What if they had been (who the movie was about)? Would both movies have been even better, more compelling, even more memorable? Don't get me wrong—I know both are about honor and they're both still really great movies—The fact that I can wonder this side point this attests to how interesting they are.]


Yes, Bruckheimer. He's a big part of the movie—the look and feel and success of it.  The moment between Connery and Cage when they speak this dialogue is when their characters are on an even level in each other's eyes. Connery is no longer the bad guy and Cage is no longer the buffoon.
MASON:               "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

GOODSPEED:      "I'll do my best." 

MASON:               "Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen."

GOODSPEED:      "Carla was the prom queen." 

Before this, they were thrown together by virtue of the fact that they were the only two survivors and were being hunted, and therefore were on the run together.  The hunt through the tunnels under the building, the
"[underground maze of shit that] has been ripped up and rebuilt for years" is just the kind of stuff people play video games to see and do.  You can't help but wonder ALL THIS is under Alcatraz?! But, of course, it doesn't matter. The 'ride' is moving and you're hanging on.  Bruckheimer really delivers the goods. Layers upon layers of what you go to an action movie to see.  The action (duh), the cast, the locations, the bureaucracy and the uniforms, the weapons and vehicles, it's just tons of stuff that has the cumulative effect of immersing you, and ultimately that's what you go to the theater for: escape. "[Bruckheimer] knows this. We are dealing with one smart son of a bitch." After the verbal exchange above, Cage and Connery become a willing team and work to save the day. What ensues is a nail biter. What's Ed Harris's character going to do?  When he says "Fire" and they launch the missile you're thinking Oh My God . . . What can Cage and Connery do now? But General Hummel makes his choice, and after that, up against the greed of his men, he's done for. He tries to maintain control with his command alone. By the time he shoots his weapon, its half-hearted. From the moment he put his Congressional Medal of Honor on his wife's tombstone, you had the idea he was never coming back. The greed-crazed remaining Marines chase Cage and Connery over the grounds of Alcatraz and up into the lighthouse. Not hearing from Goodspeed or Mason, the President has to order an airstrike in case the bad guys are about to launch the last missile. A scene includes the President! (Well, not the real President, but talk about layers!) The F-18s are on their way with thermite plasma. "The entire island is to be blanketed—not one square inch missed."  The scene where the pilots who will fly the F-18s are put on alert could have been shot in an office or a lounge, but this is a Bay/Bruckheimer movie and it is shot in a hanger with an F-18 plane and one of its giant wing-mounted rockets; everyone is in uniform and there's a whole unit of them; plus a gorgeous reflection on the hanger floor and a giant American flag flies above the huge hangar door entrance. Layers scream military, standby, ready to go, Bruckheimer blockbuster, and that's a big part of why this movie works so well.

Green Smoke from the movie The Rock thermite plasma explosion at the end of the movie The Rock

Overall, this movie is incredibly entertaining. As much for the casting/performances as for the action. It is truly action PACKED! It's really so men and toys, how can you not enjoy it?!  I loved that when the go into Naval Weapons Depot, it's "Unit 2" (second unit = action, get it?). I loved the face melting off scene in the opening as well:  "Lemme outta here, oh God! Lemme outta here, oh God!" That guy ("Marine That Dies" Ingo Neuhaus) was awesome!


In the scene where Connery and Cage are locked up, Connery is in an empty cell, laying on the floor with his arms outstretched and his fingers touch the walls. When I visited Alcatraz, I came away with the lasting impression that the cells at Alcatraz are crazy small (not even twice the width of a twin bed) and it must have been bitterly cold when the wind blew in in the winters. It is the best movie shot/set on The Rock/Alcatraz. There is a haunted quality to the burned-out shells and the abandoned and worn look of the place, like so many images of towns after bombings in war time. If you didn't like The Rock, you're too hard to please, and you're not an action movie freak, or fan. Yes, the women were just girlfriends, background, and secretaries. Yes, the portrayal of black/African-American people seemed racist since two of them said "motherfucker" but . . . It was more that it was all two-dimensional and cartoonish in quality (the fake granny) and over the top, and for action movies, that works!

Here are some great action-movie lines from "The Rock" (these should give you the feeling the movie is shooting for):

"Cocked, locked, and ready to rock!"   "C'mon General, let's be all we can be."  "I'd take pleasure in gutting you, boy."  (I couldn't help but wonder if it was Nicolas Cage's brilliant ad lib that he was laying on the floor singing this line to himself.)

There were some really beautiful shots of San Francisco in this movie (filming locations). It had a real look to it in terms of the military feel, the underground portion, and Alcatraz itself.

There's a few little things that seemed wrong and bothered me: 

Why would it take "an act of God" to "equip a flight of F-18s with thermite plasma within the next 36 hours?" (Post 9/11 I sure hope they have them standing by!)

Mason knows Nelson Mandela ran for President, saw the Vietnam highlights on TV, etc., but doesn't know Alcatraz is now a tourist attraction (how'd he miss the Indian occupation, protests, the fires)?

They don't set this up well . . . The SEALs don't want to go during full moon, but they go anyway and are picked up on radar. Do the decoys really work? Are  we supposed to think the bad guys watched only the 2 smaller helicopters they were tracking and missed the larger one "off the radar" hovering right next to the island? If they could get THAT close, drop them on the shore! But then they couldn't have all the cool
"island's bowels" stuff going on.

What did Nicolas Cage's ordering a Beatles album have to do with anything? I kept waiting for the payoff on that.  And the 3 washers in Mason's special equipment.

Was VX invented or discovered by accident?

How did General Hummel get a call through to the Director of the FBI without the Director knowing who is on the line?

Why do their masks fog up when they are defusing the bomb?

And some that didn't bother me and worked well:  
On the Alcatraz tour they don't lock you in the cells, but it works well the way they used it to trap the hostages all at once. [The cell doors are all painted red, no, they're not, wait, they are, no, they're not again . . . (they weren't red when I was there but maybe it was filmed in 2 locations).]  General Hummel's exposition: they would already know all that before agreeing to do the mission, but it works to make him seem pompous (pride goes before a fall).

What was the fire-trap thing? Why was that still running at a tourist attraction? Did Harris's men turn it on? And what were they mining underneath the prison? The island isn't that big for them to go on a rail car ride, is it? I didn't care . . . The movie was a great 'ride' and too much fun to de-rail me.

 (*Connery was still a bad ass in this movie, despite his age (66). Sadly, however, just two years later in "Entrapment" in 1998, he didn't live up to the part.)

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