Release year: 1996 • Posted May 11, 2014
“I’m a witness. You can fail up.”
By failing upward, The Rock is uniquely successful. From the first moment, ridiculous tropes are casually presented and then immediately eclipsed by other slightly more absurd tropes, creating a trope-based short circuit that finally combusts when Nicolas Cage injects antidote into his heart with a giant needle, poses as Jesus on the cross, and is blasted into the San Francisco Bay by a missile fired accidentally. Naturally, he survives.
For any movie other than The Rock, the events that unfold, the pace at which they unfold, and the enormous suspension of disbelief expected of the viewer would be easily reducible to a glib paragraph in an overall negative review. The Rock, however, layers its events so specifically and with such careful attention to detail that it borders on becoming an action-based example of magical realism. The Rock defines a genre: post-Schwarzenegger action. It is no surprise that institutions like the Criterion Collection have included The Rock on their list of “important classic and contemporary films,” and notable film aficionados have remarked that “each element has been lovingly polished to a gloss.”
In fact, The Rock was the initial inspiration for Cage Match. Before writing anything about Nicolas Cage, I had crafted and often repeated my “failing upward” thesis on this film. I would vigorously defend it to anyone who was listening, noting, like Roger Ebert did, that the movie borrows the best tropes from other action films and orders them from least to most cringe-inducing so meticulously that it’s reminiscent of Tarantino at his best.
It might seem like the Tarantino comparison is too easy (compare The Rock’s heart injection to Pulp Fiction’s). The problem is that The Rock is difficult to describe or compare without being reductive and therefore unfair to something so great. It’s a success that’s greater than the sum of its pieces.
Some Nicolas Cage films casually toss out multiple tropes that only land on screen with a spastic plop. A good example is Gone in 60 Seconds, with its rondelet of car chase, racist joke, car chase, sex, guns, explosion, car chase. In The Rock, every trope is used. Seriously, every action film trope I can think of is implemented in this movie. From a brief review of my notes, I identified the following lines and plot elements that are completely unoriginal:
- A car chase through San Francisco
- A Mexican standoff
- A pregnant girlfriend
- A wrongly imprisoned special agent
- A microfiche with government secrets
- Innocent hostages
- Military traitors
- Traitors betraying the traitors
- “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”
- “I’m getting too old for this”
- Deaths by chemical weapon, gun, rocket, broken neck, impaling, falling, air conditioner
- An old minecart chase
- An established action hero mentoring an up-and-coming action hero
- An impenetrable fortress
- Government conspiracy
The movie goes on forever like this, and every time it presents you with another cliche to make you roll your eyes, it distracts you with the very next event. It’s embarrassingly exhilarating.
One of the reasons The Rock manages to get away with this beautifully crafted litany of trite nonsense is Ed Harris. Harris is, without a doubt, one of the most talented character actors working today. He’s also the only lead in this film who has never won an Academy Award, despite four nominations. Harris opens the film, engaging the viewer with a spectacularly delivered monologue about military injustice and immediately introducing the central theme: who, if anyone, is actually a bad guy? He provides a stern, troubled, and deeply rooted foundation for Sean Connery to mentor Nicolas Cage in the ways of zany action stardom. He’s the backbone of the film. He delivers a performance so sincere, you forget for large swaths of the movie that it’s belligerent Michael Bay explosion porn.
But not to worry, because Sean Connery will make sure you won’t forget. At the time in 1996, Sean Connery was the biggest name attached to this film, a huge draw for people to buy tickets. This is important to note, as 28 minutes and 15 seconds go by before we see Connery, and an additional three minutes and 15 seconds pass before Connery says his first line. It baffles the mind to consider what kind of money it must have taken to get the then 66-year-old, former James Bond, father of Indiana Jones, immortal screen legend Sean Connery to participate in this film only not to use him for the first half hour. That takes cinematic courage.
Connery is aware of his purpose in the movie and he plays to it. He also genuinely develops a beautiful repartee with Nicolas Cage. I couldn’t find any interviews from the time with both Connery and Cage, nor could I find any clip of Cage talking about working with Connery. I have no sense of whether the on-set relationship was one of professional generosity, with Connery making Cage look good without overshadowing him, or one of strict professionalism, with Connery just considering it his job to create a believable rapport. Regardless, the Cage/Connery relationship and the resulting comic relief are appealing and well done. Personally, I choose to believe they really enjoyed working with each other. It makes re-watching the film even more enjoyable, true or not.
Finally, there’s Nicolas Cage. I’ve mentioned before that Nic is not the type of action hero who can and will succeed (that’s Connery), but instead is the type who can’t succeed but somehow does. That’s what Nic Cage is in The Rock and it’s wildly successful. The slow evolution of his character from thoroughly defined chemical weapons expert to rocket-launching, platitude-spewing action hero is so well paced that the heart-injecting climax sneaks up on the viewer despite the copious amounts of foreshadowing.
To Nic’s credit, he keeps pace in a world that could easily have been dominated by Harris or Connery. He drives the first half hour of the film with grounded sincerity, paving the way for the magical realism to come. With help from Harris, Nic gives something to cling to, as moment by moment and ever so imperceptibly, everything spirals totally out of control. Nic too knows his purpose in the film, and accomplishes the finest performance of his action career. Filling in the emotional gaps between the other actors, Cage allows Harris to be a catalyst for his own crazy emotions, which in turn allows Connery to operate with cool, fatherly bravado. The performances balance each other out perfectly.
Each actor, including Cage, eagerly approaches the world of The Rock with the agreement: yes, this is happening and yes, this is how my character would honestly respond. We see the same tactic from Cage and Travolta in Face/Off, but it wasn’t executed as perfectly as it is here. In The Rock, Cage is caught in a moment between the legitimate leading man he once was and the illegitimate action hero he will become. It’s the best of all possible Cages.
- Nic Cage’s acting?
- Did his performance make the movie worse?