The virtue of this method was that nobody ever fell asleep in a Simpson / Bruckheimer film (Top Gun / Crimson Tide) or if they did, there was an explosion coming along every seven minutes to make sure they didn't stay that way. The Rock is full of typically excessive business. People can't have a simple fist fight without plunging through at least one window, most of the interior spaces are at one time or another traversed by sheets of flame, and military personnel are forever shouting things like, "Go! Go! Go! Converge on the morgue!"
The corresponding weakness of The Rock is that the high mayhem factor breaks the tension that is supposed to run from one end of a thriller to the other. Our longing for tension to be released needs to be played with, worked on, not instantly gratified. When audiences of The Rock are offered disorder almost on a disaster-movie scale early on, with a car chase involving a yellow Ferrari, a super-charged Jeep and a cable car that goes off the rails, they're likely to forget that this is only a sub-plot, and not what the film's about.
What's the film about? It's about these spheres of green liquid, looking a little like the bath globes people used to buy as presents for relatives they didn't know well or much care for. Only these globes aren't good for the skin or any part of the body. They're deadly poison, and General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris) has just stolen a bunch of rockets that are full of them.
Since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood thrillers have had to work a little harder to set up political scenarios for their plots, when once the phrase "Russian spy" was sufficient. Nowadays fantasy has to dovetail a little less crudely with international events, so if we get Russians, they have to be mavericks or throwbacks, and we're more likely to get IRA splinter groups (Patriot Games) or generic Arab terrorists (True Lies). The trouble is that global politics now move quicker than a film's production schedule. The Rock tries to be current with its Bosnia references and its nerve poisons (Sarin, as used in the Tokyo subway attacks, puts in a guest appearance), but takes an interestingly different line for its main plot.
The theme here is America divided against itself. General Hummel isn't a disaffected hard-liner, but a loyalist betrayed. He can't forgive his government for sending men to their deaths in illegal international operations without acknowledging their sacrifice. He doesn't mind the breaches of international law, it's the bad manners that upset him. Loyal Americans denied military honours, their families deprived of benefits. While his wife was alive he kept silent, but now she's dead he must do what is right. This information is conveyed in an opening sequence of outstanding clumsiness - a graveside monologue no less - edited like a trailer, with music pounding and helicopters filmed against the setting sun, an image that has become the Hollywood ideogram meaning "Vietnam War".
Not for the first time in such films, only America exists - and foreign casualties of American policies might as well have been holograms. But the film is up to date in dramatising the idea that you can be against the government and still be a patriotic American. The conflict between the forces that occupy Alcatraz under General Hummel, training the rockets full of bath globes at San Francisco, and the Navy Seals sent in to thwart them, is treated as authentically tragic. A conflict between two rights, not a right and a wrong. The result is in cinematic terms grotesque to those not sharing this politics, a grieving massacre in a confined space, a slow-motion fire-fight accompanied by sorrowful music. Machine guns and oboes.
Luckily, Simpson and Bruckheimer, and their writers Weisberg, Cook and Rosner, have provided other themes and other dynamics. There's a buddy movie in there somewhere, with mild-mannered FBI toxicologist Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) and maverick Brit intelligence agent Patrick Mason (Sean Connery), who has been held for 30 years by the Americans for knowing J Edgar Hoover's secrets, gradually learning to trust each other as they trudge through the underparts of Alcatraz looking for the bath globes.
Just as human beings have appendixes and flightless birds have stubby little wings, so The Rock has individual motivations for these two characters. Besides a sentimental disinclination to have San Francisco choked to death, Stanley wants to save his girlfriend, and Mason wants to save the daughter he has never known, fathered during a snatched moment of freedom in the 1970s. There is even a vestigial educational agenda for each of them: Stanley must learn to be committed to his girlfriend and the baby she is carrying - though he is more afraid of the biological changes taking place in her womb than of any bomb he's ever defused. Mason must learn to say "thank you".
Simpson and Bruckheimer don't stint on production values. Their director, Michael Bay, and cinematographer, John Schwartzman, contrive some magical visual moments, or perhaps take advantage (there was much filming on location) of the way mist and sun can soften the bleakness of Alcatraz. But most of the pleasure of the film comes from the pairing of Cage and Connery.
Cage's role is the better written, and the more obviously winning. Yet there is no greater pleasure in the movies than watching Connery back in the saddle undiminished, engaging in more hand-to-hand action than he ever did as Bond. Connery has come back more times than he's gone away.
At one point, Mason remarks, in Connery's famous whistling burr, "Maybe I'm losing my sex appeal," to explain why he now finds it easier to fight off gang rape in the prison showers. Perhaps this is a subtle piece of character drawing, since we have been told time and again that Mason is kept in solitary confinement, so his delusion that he has company in the showers is psychologically revealing. More likely this is a remark meant to be plainly self-contradictory, like his almost too classic "I'm too old for this!" as he leaps on to the next piece of machinery and into the next confrontation.
The role of Mason was tailored to Connery, which accounts for the incongruously respectful references to British Intelligence and our island in general, but which makes it baffling that a baddie is allowed to call him an "English prick" unchallenged. Killed, yes, but not corrected on a point of fact.
n On general release from tomorrow