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Bursting With Good Actors

If you decide to catch only one of this summer's zillion-dollar action movies, make it The Rock. The high-profile Simpson/Bruckheimer production team, Bad Boys director Michael Bay and a battalion of stunt people blow up even more stuff--Humvees, yellow Ferraris, cable cars, a Navy weapons depot, some big chunks of Alcatraz prison--than that lame tornado movie everyone's going to see, and the high-tech gizmos in here outrank anything you'll find in the pointless, incoherent botch that is Mission: Impossible. Best of all, The Rock's crackling plot actually makes its own wacky sense; the spare, swift dialogue is spiked with wit; and the inventive, nonstop mayhem is enacted by the most vivid characters to inhabit any major wreck-o-rama since Hitler invaded Poland. The testosterone is ankle-deep here, as it should be, but you don't have to wade through it with lunkheads like Stallone, Van Damme and Cruise.

Dramatis personae:
* With his icy eyes and his upright bearing, Apollo 13's Ed Harris is just right as a renegade general obsessed with winning justice for fellow Marines who died in covert operations and were then disowned by their government--a scandal investigative reporters have recently pursued in the real world. Part Montana Freeman, part John Wayne, Harris's Frank Hummel has been a hard-nosed warrior/hero from Vietnam to Desert Storm, so when he hatches a plot to steal a dozen Navy rockets loaded with globules of lethal nerve agent and take eighty tourists hostage in decrepit Alcatraz prison, a platoon of tough commandos goes along. The neat trick here is that we admire Hummel's nobility even as we detest his folly. Meanwhile, Ed's stolen rockets are more interesting than, say, the stolen rockets in Broken Arrow, because the gooey green stuff inside them doesn't simply vaporize you, it melts your skin into sludge and turns your brain into taffy--in ten seconds. Okay, then: Let's aim a few of these things at San Francisco.

* The obligatory Everyman of the overworked action genre gets a fresh treatment from Nicolas Cage as an FBI chemical-weapons expert who would rather be playing old Beatles records and fooling around with his Rube Goldberg machines back in the lab than sneaking into Alcatraz with a team of Navy SEALS. Oh, well, heroes are made, not born. And without Cage's Stanley Goodspeed, a far more appealing "lab rat" than the one Charlie Sheen portrays in The Arrival, how in heck would you disarm those missiles? Not only that, Stanley's a wiseguy when need be, and the best actor in America--Honeymoon in Vegas to Leaving Las Vegas--turns that to splendid advantage. Stanley's gibes and cracks are all perfectly timed.

* Two magic words to elevate any movie: Sean Connery. The master is as debonair as ever, and the implication in the character of John Patrick Mason, a grizzled British spy who's been secretly imprisoned in the U.S. for more than three decades, is that he is a hounded and martyred version of James Bond, now in his dotage. What a splendid idea! And Connery plays it to the hilt. The elegant, embittered Mason, you see, not only has his own beef with the U.S. government, which mirrors Hummel's, he's also a gifted, intellectual escape artist who once broke out of Alcatraz and therefore knows every nook, cranny and tunnel. Even better, when the liars and crooks from the FBI (Bingo! Instant villains!) come to recruit him in the joint, he demands a suite at the Fairmont, the services of a tailor and a barber to trim his wild Moses locks before he sets out on the dangerous mission. Bond himself couldn't bring all this off with more aplomb, and Mason has a better back story to boot.

Thus does action/adventure get an overdue injection of style and a much-needed transfusion of acting talent. It doesn't hurt, either, that The Rock's other major player is Alcatraz itself--still powerfully mysterious, still fog-shrouded and frightening. Not only that, the producers--the late Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Top Gun)--got access to some hitherto unfilmed regions of the place, like a subterranean railroad once used to transport precious metals during the Civil War. There are spectacular shootouts and explosions galore involving Harris's mutinous Marines and the invaders led by Connery, but the old prison never gives up its dark magnetism. Director Bay, who began life making commercials and rock videos, has a real eye for architectural as well as human drama, and he uses the place well.

Young Claire Forlani has one brief scene as Mason's long-lost daughter, and Vanessa Marcil pops up for a minute as Goodspeed's pregnant girlfriend, but women are otherwise excluded from this boys' club. On the other hand, the movie's treacherous FBI director (John Spencer) gets as much screen time as the pivotal poison-loaded rockets, and he's just about as toxic.

When all the guns are emptied, all the cars are wrecked, the Alcatraz sewer system is scorched by flame and most of the bad guys are dead, what we take away from The Rock is the inescapable fact that character still energizes movies. Without the powerful presences of Connery, Harris and Cage, this would have been just another picture about equipment, explosions and car chases--another exercise in noise. With their invaluable help, it's drama decorated with relentless action. When it comes time to choose your summer movie entertainment, that wouldn't be a bad thing to keep in mind.

The Rock. Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner. Directed by Michael Bay. With Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris and John Spencer.

 
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