Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Summertime has become the season in which studios release blockbuster escapist movies that entice viewers into air-conditioned theaters to view fantastic sights and situations as well as over-the-top actions and explosions that comprise a universe somewhat separate from our own.
Admittedly, I revel in most of these movies, putting the real world out of my mind.
I may be a movie critic — though there are some who question that designation — but I am, at heart, a film buff who still embraces movies that are larger-than-life and lack pretention.
And that brings us to The Rock, released on June 7, 1996, starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris and a host of solid character actors, including David Morse, Tony Todd, Bokeem Woodbine, William Forsythe and Michael Biehn.
Despite its big budget and 136-minute running time, The Rock is nevertheless pure program entertainment with an outlandish plot as well as several B-movie tropes and situations. And, yes, director Michael Bay, working from a script that he and three others cobbled together, does provide a bit of social commentary, but that’s simply camouflage for a violent guns-and-explosions action thriller.
The movie marks Cage’s first foray into the big-budget action genre. It was his first role after his Academy Award-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas And he followed The Rock, with two back-to-back summer action offerings that opened within weeks of each other in 1997 — Con Air and Face/Off.
In The Rock, Cage portrays Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, the FBI’s top chemical weapons expert. He is resourceful and brave but is more nerd than action hero.
The story is set in motion when Brig. Gen. Frank Hummel (Harris) and his rogue group of recon Marines break into a naval weapons depot and steal a stockpile of deadly VX gas-armed missiles. Though the villain of the piece, Hummel’s motives can be considered honorable; he wants reparations for his men and the families of those he has lost on clandestine missions.
Hummel and his men transport their new arsenal to Alcatraz, taking 81 tourists as hostages in the process. There, Hummel issues his demands for $100 million from a military slush fund. As is the case with movies of this ilk, a lot of high-level meetings are held to discuss options. The Pentagon and FBI settle on a plan to retake the island, defuse the missiles and free the hostages. Of course, Goodspeed is recruited to go along.
The problem is how to get to Alcatraz undetected. It is here, as the cliché goes, that the plot thickens. FBI Director James Womack, played by a smarmy and obnoxious John Spencer, is forced to offer a pardon to federal prisoner John Mason (Connery) for information on how to access the island. Mason, a British national, has been imprisoned without charges for 20 years and was the only individual to have escaped from Alcatraz (aka The Rock) when it was an active prison.
The script has Mason initially refusing, then accepting and finally trying to escape FBI custody, in a sequence that features one of those standard high-speed chases in which a lot of property and vehicles are damaged and destroyed. But Mason agrees to the mission after Goodspeed tells the Brit’s estranged daughter that her dad is helping the FBI on an important case.
Naturally, everything goes haywire because of the usual by-the-book shortsightedness of Biehn’s SEAL team, which refuses to follow Mason’s advice. They walk into a trap and are slaughtered, leaving Mason and Goodspeed to complete the mission — against overwhelming odds, as is the wont in such escapist features.
Two men against a heavily armed and trained force gives the audience individuals to root for, as does the verbal jousting between Mason and Goodspeed who, over time, begin to bond and respect each other.
The script features many preposterous situations, many including the 60ish-year-old Mason in hand-to-hand combat with much younger and well-trained men, and Goodspeed getting the crap knocked out of him and, like the Energizer bunny, continuing to go and go and go.
The Rock has a countdown, nick-of-time finale that does build suspense, even if you can guess the outcome. All ends well; Hummel redeems himself, San Francisco is saved, Goodspeed makes good on a promise and Mason, well, he also receives his just reward.
The film ends with a light and satisfying coda at a remote church in rural America, which elicits some laughs.
The Rock is a perfect summer movie. It’s not to be taken too seriously — despite its semi-political overtones about abandoning our clandestine military specialists when they are no longer needed. The movie is violent, explosive and loud, which is the perfect recipe for a summer indulgence.