Sunday, September 21, 2008

Flick of the Week: "I'm only borrowing your Hum-Vee"

This week’s flick takes us from The Longest Day in 1962, which featured the fine early work of Sean Connery, to 1996 and Connery as a star in Michael Bay’s action blockbuster, The Rock.

Now The Rock is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. It’s definitely a 2 ½ stars out of 4 job, that is likely to get replayed about once every 8 months on Channel 10. But I think it is an interesting film because 1996 was a crucial year in the history of action films; and The Rock also highlights a number of other interesting changes, that mark it different from similar types of films that came before.

The three greatest action films of the 1980s were, without any shadow of a doubt, Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). Beverly Hills Cop made more money than the other two, but had less initial impact. One of the reasons for this was Eddie Murphy: there just aren’t that many comedians who can also play tough guy roles. Robin Williams can play a teacher or psychiatrist, but can you see him pumping a guy full of lead Clint Eastwood style? BHC, though was important for being the first action film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (whose first big hit was Flashdance).

Lethal Weapon set a great template – translating the odd-couple from comedy to action. It also made use of the Vietnam War – both Gibson and Glover in LW are Vietnam War veterans. It took the theme from Rambo, and used it as pure character development (plus a bit of plot). But while the Lethal Weapon template of partners and the Vietnam War had some influence, the real influential action film was Die Hard.

For the next decade at least just about every action film could be characterised as “Die Hard on a ...” – Speed (on a bus); Under Siege (on a battleship); Die Hard 2 (in an airport); Speed 2 (on a slow boat); Passenger 57 (on a plane); Air Force One (on a plane with the President).

The Rock could even be called “Die Hard on an island”.

The Rock actually uses both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard – the partnership is used, as is the reference to the Vietnam War, plus the whole “trapped with the bad guys” aspect of Die Hard. But The Rock signals a change from the action flicks of the 80s not-least because of two people – Don Simpson and Michael Bay.

This is Don Simpson’s last film (he died of a heart attack after living a life of absolute excess), and it was the second film of Michael “if it stands still blow it up” Bay. Simpson with Bruckheimer had produced, apart from Bev Hills Cop, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Bev Hills Cop 2, and Bad Boys. Bad Boys is also important because it was the first film directed by Michael Bay, and it also harked back to Lethal Weapon (the partners) but this time also Bev Hills Cop – the comedian/action star (Will Smith). Simpson represents the 80s action film; Bay the 90s and after.

The other two names involved in The Rock that are interesting to note are Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. Now if you are going to be an actor, pick Sean Connery as your role model. During the 1960s he is, of course, Bond. In the 1970s he gives up the big budget, but appears in some smaller very good films where he gets to act – The Man Who Would Be King is the best of them.

However, by the 1980s his career seems to be all but over; he was reduced to doing another Bond film and appearing in bit roles in trash like Highlander. Then came The Untouchables: he wins an Oscar, and suddenly Boom! Talk about a resurrection, he finds the role of “supporting actor” – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Prince of Thieves. He was suddenly the go to guy when you needed an old guy with gravitas.

In The Rock he plays not only the old guy with gravitas, but also the old guy who can kick butt.

Here’s the five movies Nic Cage did before The Rock: Guarding Tess, It Could Happen to You, Trapped in Paradise, Kiss of Death and Leaving Las Vegas. After The Rock he did these five: Con Air, Face/Off, City of Angels, Snake Eyes, and 8MM. It’s not hard to see this marked a turning point in his career – from indie type weird, not sure where he fits guy, to major action star. He is now perhaps the most versatile actor going around. He can do mindless action in Gone in 60 Seconds, then do bizarre indie-film in Adaptation. He can do drama – Lord of War and World Trade Centre – and then be a comic book hero in Ghost Rider or National Treasure.

I don’t particularly like Nic Cage; but there’s hardly any film where he can’t turn up and fit right in.

So with Nic Cage and Sean Connery, you’ve got a good base for your action film. The Rock also had a great supporting cast – Ed Harris as the bad guy (but with honour) playing the standard bad guy but with honour in any army themed film – ie he has to be THE most honoured soldier in the history of the army. The big shift with The Rock was the reference to the Gulf War. While Ed Harris’ character had fought in Vietnam, the reason for his taking hostages on Alcatraz is the Gulf War. It signalled a generational shift, one reflected in Broken Arrow which came out the same year (in that film John Travolta’s character makes mention of how many missions he flew over Iraq).

Others in support are the “must have in an action film of the 80s” Michael Bein; John C McGinley in between his days acting for Oliver Stone and finding himself in Scrubs; John Spenser in between his time on L.A Law and The West Wing; plus one the great “oh yeah, he’s that guy from that film” guys with David Morse.

The plot is great – bad guy with honour takes hostages on Alcatraz because of some obscure not really sure, but who cares reason, he threatens to explode poison across San Francisco, so cue nerdy poison expert Nic Cage (with the typically unreal movie name – Stanley Goodspeed) and the only man to have escaped Alcatraz, Sean Connery (pity they couldn’t get Clint Eastwood). First there is a pointless car chase (with a humvee, as you do), and then Cage and Connery team up. Once on the island the story is pretty much over. No prizes for guessing who wins, but it’s all done pretty well.

In fact it is done so well, and with at least half an eye on some semblance of reality, that some 12 years later you can watch it with an almost fond nostalgia. Ah, an action film where there is actually some pain; where there is some semblance of concern that the heroes may be in danger. Since The Rock – and 1996’s Independence Day was a big player in this – action films have got further and further from reality.

It’s no surprise that now action films are pretty much all comic-book films, because it had got to the stage anyway where action stars all had the healing abilities of Wolverine. Consider the latest Indiana Jones film – at one point in the film the characters go over a series of four Niagara Falls size waterfalls, and come out with nothing more than a “phew that was wet” expression (mind you by this point Indy had already survived an atomic bomb by hiding in a fridge...).

So The Rock may not have influenced any films after it, but it is a nice meeting point of the 80s and 90s. It contains actors and elements from the 80s, and the director and star of many of the 90s action films that dumbed down the genre. So stupid have action films become now, that were this released this year Connery would probably be considered for an Oscar. It’s a great indicator of how movies have become progressively more targeted for 14 year olds (and mostly it seems really dumb 14 year olds).

Nostalgic for The Rock? I would never have believed it.

Best line:
John Mason: Are you sure you're ready for this?
Stanley Goodspeed: I'll do my best.
John Mason: Your "best"?! Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f*ck the prom queen.

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