Last Call

You need to watch the most underrated Nic Cage thriller before it leaves Amazon Prime this week

As Michael Bay’s contributions to Hollywood are reexamined, it’s time to revisit his best film.

The poor box office performance of Michael Bay’s latest movie, Ambulance, has prompted a reconsideration of his work. What happened to this one-time titan, whose name was synonymous with the blockbuster summer flick? Reputations wax and wane as time marches on, and critics (or at least people on Movie Twitter) are looking at his work in ways that rarely happened during his heyday. Bay, once the perpetual butt of jokes and accusations of being everything wrong with Hollywood, is now growing respectable.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that Bay has stepped away from Transformers, which felt like an all-consuming project with increasingly poor returns. Another is that Bay’s idiosyncrasies have become more pronounced in retrospect. Movies that once felt staid and by the numbers have revealed themselves to be created with a vision. A vision focused on explosions, sure, but a vision nonetheless.

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One of the strongest arguments for that vision is Bay’s 1996 movie The Rock. Arguably his best film, The Rock delivers solid action and excellent performances from its leads without wasting a moment, and it’s well worth checking out before it leaves Amazon Prime at the end of the month. On the smaller side of Bay’s work in terms of scope, The Rock would establish Bay as a sure bet before he went supernova two years later with Armageddon.

Like his first feature, Bad Boys, The Rock is all about two guys. In this case, it’s FBI biochemist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) and John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery). The two are an odd pairing, considering how Mason has been in jail awaiting trial for 30 years and Goodspeed is an eccentric agent who raises colleagues' eyebrows with his Beatles obsession. But they have some things in common, like a love of Shakespeare and an urgent need to save the lives of everyone who’s just been kidnapped on Alcatraz Island, the one-time prison turned national park.

The tourists are being held hostage by Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris), who’s taken control of the island with a group of rogue Marines. They’ve forsaken their duty in the name of justice, wanting $100 million to compensate the families of men under Hummel’s command who were lost on clandestine missions. And if the tourists weren’t enough, they have toxic gas weapons attached to missiles pointed at San Francisco.

Ed Harris is, at least by Bay standards, a complicated and nuanced villain. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Bay quickly establishes both sides of The Rock, offering strengths and weaknesses. While the Marines are outmanned outside Alcatraz, they hold all the cards on the inside. So FBI Director Jim Womack (John Spencer, best known as Leo on The West Wing) is forced to contact the man who’s been soundly denied his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, Mason.

The personalities at the center of The Rock shine. Cage is a lot of fun, especially once he realizes he can start lying about what he does at the FBI. Connery was the big man on set — Bay has talked about being “scared” to offer him any direction — and his aura radiates off the screen. He looks cool as a tortured prisoner with unkempt hair, he looks cool with a suit and a haircut the FBI provides him. People keep asking, “Why is this Scottish man here all of a sudden?” but it doesn’t matter. Everyone watching knows why, beyond what’s been given in the story: Because he’s cool.

It’s a break-in movie, it’s a siege movie, and it’s Marines vs. Special Forces. Bay delivers on the action sequences, which are much smaller and much smarter than anything in Transformers. The tense firefights don’t lose their edge, and Harris makes for a credible opposition force, especially after the FBI director proves to be a putz.

Connery and Cage are an unlikely pairing — both in reality and the confines of the story — but an effective one.Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Another element in The Rock that’s missing from Bay’s later movies is a feeling of subversion. All the major players here have worked for their government, and the results have proven too much to bear. As thanks for their service, they’ve been forgotten, imprisoned, or mocked. Goodspeed and Mason don’t have any particular loyalties, and the latter tries to escape every chance he can get. The cat-and-mouse game playing out on Alcatraz is between men who feel more loyalty to each other than any flag, and anyone who thinks otherwise is likely to end up dead.

The Rock was a hit, to the extent that plot details were apparently used to fabricate evidence in the run-up to the Iraq War. Its details, fleshed out by actors working in their masculine lanes, feel accessible. It never outwears its welcome and it regularly gives the viewer something new and surprising. There’s a reason it’s in the Criterion Collection, after all.

The Rock is streaming on Amazon Prime until April 30.

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