Knock the Rock

Excess shaped producer Don Simpson's movies, just as it shaped his life. With his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson latched on to a hit-making formula that dovetailed perfectly with the entertainment expectations of a generation reared on MTV: Inundate audiences with mesmerizing visuals, throw in a hot actor or a topical subject (preferably with military overtones), add a dash of street-smart wisecracking humor, and, most important, crank the tunes. By amping up the flash, throwing one cheap thrill after another onto the screen, and ignoring niggling details such as character development and plausible narrative -- essentially turning motion pictures into gaudy, glorified feature-length music videos -- Simpson and Bruckheimer routinely infuriated critics (such as yours truly) and won over audiences. They churned out memorably meretricious cash cows such as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and Bad Boys. The duo's projects have generated more than three billion dollars in sales of theater tickets, video cassettes, and soundtrack albums.

Ironically, the approach that worked so well for Simpson's films -- bring on the rush and damn the consequences -- killed him when he tried to apply it to real life. Smoke and mirrors dominated Simpson's cinematic oeuvre; coke and mirrors ruled his off-screen behavior. The volatile megaproducer enjoyed turning all the knobs up to ten when it came to drug consumption; when Simpson died of a drug overdose earlier this year, an autopsy discovered traces of so many chemicals in the filmmaker's blood that the coroner could not determine which one proved to be his ultimate undoing. He had quite a list of contenders to choose from: Unisom, Atarax, Vistaril, Librium, Valium, Compazine, Xanax, Desyrel, Tigan, and plain old cocaine.

Those who knew of Simpson's fondness for mood-altering substances can be forgiven, then, for thinking of something other than Alcatraz Island upon hearing the title of his final picture: The Rock. How fitting that this showy, harebrained, macho thriller stands as the departed minimogul's final celluloid achievement. The Rock barrels ahead with reckless abandon, desperately sampling every known action-movie cliche. It's got your vertiginous vehicular chase through the streets of San Francisco, complete with overturned fruit carts and a runaway cable car. It's got your odd-couple duo of bickering heroes who overcome long odds to save millions of unsuspecting civilians from death at the hands of a madman. It's got your family-members-in-jeopardy angle. It's got your cool-looking high-tech implements of destruction. And, of course, it's got your respected, big-name Hollywood actors collecting a fat paycheck to slum through a project unworthy of their talent.

Nicolas Cage, a fine thespian who reaped all kinds of awards for his bravura work in last year's Leaving Las Vegas, cashes in on his newfound celebrity with a role that offers few challenges save for what to do with all the loot he must have earned for the part. Cage plays FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical/biological weapons expert pressed into harrowing service when a rogue Marine general named Hummel (Ed Harris, doing his standard clench-jawed tough-guy schtick) and his crack squad of renegade commandos seize control of Alcatraz Island and threaten to launch a battery of missiles equipped with lethal poison gas warheads over San Francisco.

The government teams Goodspeed with John Mason (Sean Connery), a top-secret prisoner on loan from the feds; the former British intelligence agent was wrongly accused of espionage by the U.S. government and imprisoned for some 30 years without benefit of a trial. Mason is an escape artist -- although you can't help wondering what he's still doing in federal custody if he's so good at breaking out -- who holds the distinction of being the only known convict to have successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Together Goodspeed and Mason sneak onto the island, slosh around in the prison's fetid bowels, and attempt to disarm the missiles while eluding Hummel's men.

This being a Simpson-Bruckheimer production, the outcome is never in doubt. Connery's wily senior citizen and Cage's nerdy biochemist outfox and overpower a dozen or so heavily armed, highly trained soldiers. The only thing that matters is how stylishly Goodspeed and Mason accomplish their mission. Fortunately, director Michael Bay is much better at creating tension through tight, kinetic camerawork and innovative staging than the screenwriters are at constructing a believable plot. Connery, Cage, and Harris all walk through their parts and utter their lines with professionalism, if not inspiration. Cage even manages to shade a few clunky throwaway lines with nuance and sarcasm where likely none was written into the script.

For some strange reason, Simpson and Bruckheimer resisted the urge to punch up The Rock with rock. The tandem's movies are inextricably identified with their soundtracks. You could make a parlor game out of naming the Simpson-Bruckheimer flick from the popular song associated with it. Who can think of "Maniac" or "Flashdance...What a Feeling" without dredging up images from Flashdance? Who can listen to "Axel F" or "The Heat Is On" without recalling Eddie Murphy's exploits as a Beverly Hills Cop? Who could deny that "Take My Breath Away" and "Danger Zone" cruised to the top of the charts on Top Gun's vapor trail? The Rock, with its chases and shootouts and cartoonish melodrama, would have been a natural for some high-octane musical accompaniment. Instead you get Sean Connery warbling along in the shower to "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)."

Speaking of Sean Connery and hair, The Rock sees fit to cover the sexiest bald pate in the world (next to my own) with not one but two ridiculous hairpieces: a long, stringy wig that makes Connery look like an old washerwoman; and, after the movie displays its sophisticated sense of humor by poking fun at an effeminate hairstylist called upon to shear Mason's locks, some tufts of powdery white fuzz that sit atop his scalp like a patch of bleached AstroTurf. Nicolas Cage's rapidly thinning mane also looks artificially bulked up, either by a weave or by meticulously careful combing, spraying, and lighting. The Rock casts three bald actors to play its leads, then covers up two of them (Ed Harris sports a military buzz cut). Why bother? Because Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer have a strict formula to follow, and male pattern baldness isn't part of it.

Fake hair or no, the Connery/Cage/Harris trifecta will keep cineplex turnstiles spinning. The Rock should roll smoothly down the well-worn Simpson-Bruckheimer path to box-office success. The movie offers more than enough mindless action sequences to satisfy the average adolescent adrenaline junkie. Then again, Mission: Impossible is still going strong and could smash The Rock to rubble. Now that would be poetic justice: Don Simpson's last film ground into dust by a balls-out, pedal-to-the-metal actioner starring Tom Cruise -- whose career took off into the stratosphere with Simpson-Bruckheimer's 1986 Top Gun -- and directed by Brian De Palma, one of the few filmmakers whose reputation for stylistic motion picture excess rivals Simpson's own.

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