NEW YORK — 'The Rock" is named after Alcatraz, the former prison on a stony island off San Francisco, and on my way to the screening, I recalled other Alcatraz pictures. One minor classic is "Escape From Alcatraz," wherein the warden virtually dares Clint Eastwood to bust out, and Clint promptly obliges. There's also "Birdman of Alcatraz," a comparatively gentle tale starring Burt Lancaster as a convict with an ornithological streak.
"The Rock" is anything but gentle, and the only birds you see are seagulls flapping frantically away from the mayhem that erupts on-screen like clockwork.
The movie could have been a high-class enterprise with its top-of-the-line stars - Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery - cavorting through a thrill-a-minute plot complete with government agents, eccentric heroes, and military commandos gone berserk. But the filmmakers got suckered by their own high-tech effects, turning a potentially clever entertainment into yet another barrage of violence, vulgarity, and excess.
Ed Harris plays Francis X. Hummel, a brigadier general with what seems like a worthy axe to grind. American soldiers are regularly ordered into covert operations, he informs us, and if they're killed no benefits are paid to their families. Determined to correct this situation, he hijacks a pile of poison-gas missiles and stashes them on Alcatraz, threatening to wipe out San Francisco if the grieving families aren't paid.
The FBI and the Navy SEALS are called in to stop this maniac-with-a-cause. Leading the counterattack are Cage as Stanley Goodspeed, a toxicologist, and Connery as Patrick Mason, a former inmate with a mysterious past and a deadly reputation.
This plot has possibilities, and director Michael Bay squeezes a number of them into the 131 minutes (about 31 too many). Some are original, as when Hummel reveals the rationale behind his misguided mission. Others lock the movie into contrivances like arbitrary explosions, macho confrontations, and endless countdown sequences. "The Rock" also earns the dubious honor of being the first major film to steal the hypodermic gross-out scene from "Pulp Fiction."
Connery keeps his cool, lifting even the silliest scenes to the level of his thoroughly professional talent. Cage starts out fine, then slides into barely controlled ranting, and then recovers in time for the film's mildly amusing coda. The rest of the cast is adequate for the occasion, and the women on board - Vanessa Marcil and Claire Forlani - deserve some sort of medal for making even a small impression in such aggressively masculine surroundings.
The film was produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who have made good movies like "Crimson Tide" and terrible movies like "Days of Thunder." Simpson's recent death means their teamwork won't continue, and moviegoers who think the art of film should aspire to achievements more meaningful than "Top Gun" and "Flashdance" can only hope Bruckheimer will turn his talents in more worthwhile directions. Surely the huge quantities of eye-assaulting action in "The Rock" would be hard for even him to top, and surely his fans would like to see what he can accomplish in other, less-abrasive areas.
*'The Rock' has an R rating. It contains violence, vulgar language, and a brief sex scene.