No sense in being a snob about The Rock. You'll miss all the high-octane action and rowdy fun. There is something to be said for a movie that is violent, vulgar and irrational without shame. The point is to get your mojo working, not your gray matter. For those who feel overtaxed by the espionage muddle of Mission: Impossible, The Rock offers a plot easily grasped from the television ads: "Alcatraz has been seized by terrorists who are threatening the city of San Francisco — Academy Award winners Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery play the only two men who can stop them."
Co-opting Oscar as a shill shows the cunning touch of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. From Top Gun, with Tom Cruise, to Crimson Tide, with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Simpson and Bruckheimer have always known how to use class to sell crass. It's ironic that The Rock, which marks the first teaming of Cage, 32, and Connery, 65, is also the final collaboration between shoot-the-works Simpson and by-the-book Bruckheimer. The 52-year-old Simpson died in January — in the john, like Elvis — after a lifetime of substance abuse.
In such films as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, and Days of Thunder, the producers became infamous for excess. The frugal '90s put them out of business until last year's Bad Boys (made for a paltry, for them, $20 million) grossed $140 million worldwide and began a new string of hits, including Crimson Tide and Dangerous Minds. Simpson and Bruckheimer pumped up audiences and pissed off critics by dressing up crude formulas with star power and making a box-office killing. The Rock, a rousing epitaph to Simpson's party spirit, looks ready to do the same.
Is it the fat paycheck that makes such actors as Cage and Connery go along? Cage's $4 million fee for The Rock exceeds by $500,000 the entire budget of Leaving Las Vegas, the film that just won him the Oscar. Cage hasn't mined box-office gold since he romanced Cher in Moonstruck, in 1987, the same year that Connery won his Oscar for The Untouchables. Except for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Hunt for Red October, Connery has spent the years since his Academy acceptance speech trying to shake off such flops as Medicine Man, Rising Sun, Just Cause and First Knight. Both actors are slumming in the blatantly commercial confines of The Rock to enhance their reps as bankable commodities. It's the money, stupid.
Or is it? That answer doesn't allow for the dazzling teamwork from Cage and Connery, who could easily walk through their roles if they were just cynically cashing in. Instead, they're having a ball, and the spirit is contagious. Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, the bumbling FBI biochemist called in when a rogue general (Ed Harris) launches a military raid on Alcatraz, holding 81 tourists hostage to protest the government's refusal to pay benefits to the families of war veterans who died during covert military operations. The general threatens to launch rockets loaded with VX poison gas on the Bay Area unless reparations are made. Only Stanley, a "chemical superfreak," can dismantle the rockets filled with lethal green pellets that can melt a body in seconds. What Stanley needs is someone who knows the secret passageways of Alcatraz to get him inside.
Enter Connery as John Patrick Mason, a former British intelligence agent (shades of James Bond) who has been imprisoned for 30 years without a trial for stealing — attention, Oliver Stone — the private files of J. Edgar Hoover. John escaped from Alcatraz in 1962 — for just long enough to father a daughter before his recapture. Like the general's beloved covert operatives, he doesn't officially exist.
Connery's first appearance, in a long wig and beard, is a howl. Despite his hatred of the FBI, John agrees to get Stanley on Alcatraz in return for a full pardon and a night at the posh Fairmont Hotel, where he demands a shower, a shave and "the feel of a new suit." You haven't lived until you hear Connery's in-shower rendition of "If you're goin' to San Francisco/Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" and see him transformed into an impeccably tailored, white-bearded loose cannon. Big bad John dangles an FBI agent off the hotel balcony and tries an escape that allows the tirelessly exuberant director Michael Bay (Bad Boys) to stage a high-speed chase that dents more Frisco hills and cable cars than Bullitt did.
The humor and the heart come in watching Connery and Cage go at each other and form a relationship while ducking bullets and bombs on Alcatraz. "I drive a Volvo — a beige one," says Stanley, using his nerd status as an excuse for being a klutz commando. Stanley wants John to cut him some slack for doing his best. "Losers always whine about their best," says the impatient John, who wants to let it rip — full out, no excuses.
If you see a parallel in the way John (rhymes with Don) makes mayhem and Don Simpson made movies, it's surely no accident. The Rock's two protagonists — one a dangerously skittering comet, the other a grounded realist trying to hold course — are Simpson and Bruckheimer in a nutshell. Bruckheimer once threatened to dissolve their alliance as a way to snap Simpson out of his self-destructive habits. Bruckheimer will continue to produce films — although, without his black-sheep partner, their tenor will be different. Simpson died without tapping any depths as a filmmaker. He is indefensible as an artist but indisputable as a showman. Simpson lives on in Tom Cruise's Top Gun flash, in Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop swagger and in Sean Connery's daredevil insolence in The Rock, a fitting wild-ride finale for the team of Simpson and Bruckheimer. It's a popcorn-movie deluxe.