I saw the poster for this movie long before I saw the film itself. Sitting for forty minutes on a bus each way to-and-from school ensured that the smallest change in the landscape became an event in and of itself. Advertising was scrutinised from a distance whilst we waited for red lights to change. Movie posters were the best… imagining what pleasure were in store once I could eventually see the film. The cinema was, as it is now, a treat, and trailers and posters and articles in Empire magazine only built the anticipation and developed that treat.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why Nicolas Cage’s name was above Sean Connery’s head though…
My dad’s favourite film is Sliding Doors (1998 – Peter Howitt). I don’t know why, because he finds Gwyneth Paltrow as insufferable as the rest of us, but he adores it (I resist the inner arsehole in me that wants to tell him about Blind Chance (1987 – Krysztof Kiewslowski)). Sometimes, our love of a film has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather the people we saw it with, childhood friends, first dates, our dads. I wonder if this is the case for him. I should ask him.
So much of the appeal of an action movie can come from sitting there beside your father whilst watching it. It’s a kind of paternal imprimatur that defines a sense of masculinity. Which is so unhelpful for anyone sitting outside the most basic definition of a man. So many of these types of films are grounded in a pathetic conventional denotation, that the movie stars that exist outside this – for us this has most clearly been Keanu Reeves (others may find it in the nerdy, sexually-ambiguous determination of Tom Cruise) – that their mere presence on screen becomes something essential. They stand in opposition to a preening, overwhelmingly narrow idea of gender roles, and move queerly within worlds defined by the most toxic causalities of the male ego, namely violence, both physical and sexual.
Nicolas Cage is one these essential movies stars.
In recent years, Liam Neeson has become one of western action cinema’s cornerstones. His shambling, lumbering, haunted frame looms onto our screens once or twice a year in some cheaply made vaguely European action thriller. His move away from what is traditionally called ‘serious’ acting into a more pulpy genre has often been lazily presented as a reaction to the sudden death of his wife and the realisation that existence is meaningless. It’s an attractive idea (and only really psychically manifests itself Joe Carnahan’s 2011 masterpiece The Grey) and one that speaks to an admission of purposeless existence that we are quick to deny ourselves. But the casual sidesteps between action cinema and other less enjoyable forms of acting, have been made by numerous actors. Sylvester Stallone, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and Nic Cage, all have as many Oscar-bait pictures to their name as they do action flicks. But Nic Cage stands apart from them as a unique screen presence and a pioneer of a new style of screen acting.
Rather simplistically, the first screen performers were often fighting against the technical limitations that surrounded them and were thus forced into a heightened, expressionistic style of performance – one that clearly held its roots in the theatre (I can’t be alone in finding every trip to the theatre profoundly embarrassing… It’s unbearable to know that the ridiculous, artificial acts on stage are being performed by an actual person.) As sound entered the frame, and movies stopped moving, the dominant mode of performance was an unnaturalistic rapid-fire rattling of dialogue. In the fifties, movie performance began to shift towards naturalism, which was often convincing, and often dull. British actors rarely succumbed to the artificial stammering and bizarre speech-rhythms that even the laziest American television actor is capable of bringing to a part. Across every decade, movie stars relied on the same bag of highly charismatic quirks and moments that they would bring to every part, whether they were playing a poet, priest or politician.
Alongside the movie stars, were the less attractive actors. They played best friends. And below them, the ordinary looking people. They were (and are) by physical definition, known as character actors. No less quirky than the stars, they just employed a slightly wider range of moments and tics across their roles. By the eighties, a number of up-and-coming actors were trying to blend a movie star career with character actor performances. Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp and Nic Cage can all clearly be lumped together in this sub-genre of acting. But where Hanks and Deep provide clear demarcation between their ‘straight’ and ‘performance’ movies, Cage refused to do so. He would often perform both within the same scene.
Cage is a singular screen presence. He is magnetic and maniacal and entirely concerned with moments. He has little interest in creating fully-rounded roles and instead ensures that he is as interesting and engaging as possible in every second he is on screen. As such, his parts don’t often make sense – in The Rock alone he plays a violent, Beatle-loving, supposedly stream-of-conscious spouting chemical scientist, who sits in pants for no reason; one of these traits alone would be enough for most actors. But because of this, he is never anything less than interesting. He has an utter conviction to his performance that most screen actors lazily refuse to explore, such is their preciousness towards their ego.
Fairly early in his career, Cage played the part of a literary agent (one of those jobs people only have in movies – Jeremy Piven’s ‘obituary writer’ in Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is a personal favourite) in Vampire’s Kiss (1989 – Robert Bierman) who begins to lose his sanity. An insanity that manifests itself in his character’s conviction that he has become a vampire. A sister-piece to writer Joseph Minion’s After Hours (1985 – Martin Scorsese), it is the story of an ordinary man drowning in bizarre, only slightly-off key characters and situations that are only found in the movies. The film does not readily present what is reality and what is a delusion of Cage’s character. Most actors would let the audience know, primarily to illicit sympathy from them. Cage has no such qualms, instead walking the fine line of conviction, hysteria and violence with a dedication and energy that belies his talent. He is a joy to watch and utterly compelling in every strange, nostril-flaring moment that he has conjured up.
As such, Cage was pioneering a whole new style of acting. One that had little interest in naturalism or stage theory. It harkened back to the earliest days of cinema; it is expressionistic. Entirely formed from subjective reactions to isolated moments and scenes, it is heightened and defiant and one of the greatest special effects the world has ever seen.
It has, of course, been completely rejected by the vast majority of other actors. The humourless wankers.
There’s a tendency to reduce action films to elevator pitches – where plot is boiled down into one-sentence, high-concept ideas. It’s a frustrating punishment for action cinema, which so often relies on tone, mood and framing to create its identity. The Rock, can be simply described as ‘a scientist and an aging James Bond break into Alcatraz.’ We’ve seen how ‘scientist’ utterly fails to describe the mania of a Nic Cage performance, but the fact that he is an ordinary working man, clearly puts this movie in the tradition of Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan), whereby an everyday, albeit habitually wise-cracking, man is placed into a thoroughly dangerous circumstance.
An ‘aging James Bond’ is a more difficult position. Clearly, John Mason is an elderly version of the Connery Bond – he’s a snobbish thug, who was explicitly incarcerated for being a spy and makes a series of asides and double-entendres. Whilst he lacks Bond’s naval background, his complete disregard for authority marks him out as the same man. This is a Bond who was disowned by the officers who replace Bernard Lee’s M, and he is filled with nothing but contempt for the order of things.
The James Bond films have often been cornerstones of action cinema. The nasty, quick-cutting violence of From Russia with Love (1963 – Terence Young) proved highly influential. Never again would a karate-chop to a shoulder suffice. In the seventies, the Roger Moore Bond films pioneered the family-friendly, humorous and spectacular action film tradition that The Rock clearly belongs to. By the time the series had reached the eighties, Moore and Connery, returning to the role in Never Say Never Again (1983 – Irvin Kershner), ensured that audience believed that Bond would always be an old man – a tired remnant of the British Empire.
But in 1996, the series had managed to have one of its regular ‘return-to-forms’. Pierce Brosnan had become Bond’s latest regeneration in GoldenEye (1995 – Martin Campbell) – a glorious, unravelling of tattered British and Russian Empires that led to betrayal, explosions and sex. Whilst the remaining Brosnan Bonds were to become some of the most tedious entries in the series, Brosnan himself was being hailed as the best-Bond-since-Connery. In that regard, The Rock can be clearly seen as a defiant marking of territory. Despite his difficult relationship with the role that made him famous, he had returned to it twice before, and The Rock is his way of showing that even as an old man, and wearing another one of his preposterous hairpieces, he was still a more engaging, charismatic screen presence than the breathy interloper who was beginning to get good reviews.
‘Alcatraz’ is a whole other prospect. Films set in San Francisco occupy a special place in the cinematic canon. The surrounding sea and immediate weather patterns give it an openness within its urban spaces that no other cinematic American metropolitan area can propose. The acceptance of the local community has proven ripe for direct contrast with some of the most sickening aspects of society. And the steeply hilled streets have been responsible for – directly echoed in The Rock – of some of the most thrilling, dangerous car chases in the history of cinema. It’s close enough to L.A. to be neighbours, but far away enough to be a world apart.
By setting his film in and around San Francisco, Bay has sought to tie it into the pervy obsession of Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock), Out of the Past (1947 – Jacques Tourneur) and Basic Instinct (1992 – Paul Verhoeven); the seedy, dystopian nothingness of Point Blank (1967 – John Boorman), Bullitt (1968 – Peter Yates) and The Conversation (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola); the dark underside and brutality of Dirty Harry (1971 – Don Seigel) and The Game (1997 – David Fincher); the action adventure of Big Trouble in Little China (1986 – John Carpenter) and the fevered desperation of Escape from Alcatraz (1979 – Don Seigel). His creates a cinematic landscape within which his movie can play, drawing upon the beauty of the landscape and the weight of image to lend tension to his film. Ultimately, we are more invested when we care about what is going to be destroyed.
For an action director, Michael Bay rarely employs monsters. He refrains from using the snivelling, often British, traditional villains that dominate the genre, and has rarely resorted to the CGI nonsense that is found when someone like Alan Rickman or Jonathan Pryce isn’t available (the Transformers films are a notable exception to this.) Bay will always seek to make the antagonist of the piece an individual with at least some reasonable motivation. The military are often presented as failures within his films – and resourcefulness comes not from institutions, but from the work of individuals. Which presents a quandary for Bay in this movie; he wants us to sympathise with Ed Harris, but at the same time understand the misguided cruelty of his actions. To achieve this, he first places Harris as working alongside/against unscrupulous mercenaries, and then by placing him in direct opposition to Bay’s biggest enemy… politicians. Those working in politics are unfailingly presented as pathetically self-aggrandising and intellectually weak. It’s hard to disagree with this presentation.
As much as Bay has sought to place this film within a long tradition of San Francisco movies, he also seeks to use the cinematic shorthand of placing characters and moments within other films in order to elicit understanding from the audience. There are the car chases from Bullitt, an aging James Bond, cart chases from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – Steven Spielberg), and heart-piercing from Pulp Fiction (1994 – Quentin Tarantino). These references allow Bay to use a broader canvas than the frame allows. Whilst he is not fully in in his quick-cutting, multiple camera, different format style of shooting, he still relies on an audience working quicker than 24 frames a second. Similarly, this film lacks the soft-rock ballad that would come to play a part in his style of filmmaking over the next few years. The formula is not quite complete.
This referencing shorthand, and non-traditional framing of movies has led many to dismiss Bay. There are legitimate reasons to criticise him – the presence of a few too many angry black people in minor roles is uncomfortable viewing – but what is rarely appreciated is how Bay is a director who treats his audience with respect. He knows that we can make quick connections as spectacle unfolds in front of us, and that subtext should be as visual as it is textual in cinema.
What is rarely commented upon though, is how much Bay uses talented actors to lend real weight to the unfolding action. He ensures that throwaway lines, quick gags written by uncredited punch-up writers, and nonsense exposition are as engaging as any special effect. In addition to Cage, Connery and Harris, The Rock features John Spencer, William Forsyth, Michael Biehn, John C. MicGinley, Philip Baker Hall, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd in supporting roles. Any one of these actors is enough to light up the screen. The fact that Bay spends so much of his budget on employing such talent in minor parts should not be neglected. It is impossible to find a Michael Bay movie tedious; the reason we have stars is because we don’t want to ever be bored in the cinema – Bay promises us that even in the moments the stars aren’t on screen, we will have an image lit up by prominent character actors spitting out dialogue far beneath them.
The movie lacks any significant female presence – only nineties babe Claire Forlani pops up to reduce the alarming levels of testosterone dominating the screen. But Bay ensures that his men are defined as being in opposition to traditional masculine structures. Nic Cage is regularly belittled in the movie, and denigrated by his inability to perform essential male roles, such as ejaculating a gun. By ensuring that his hero is a strange, socially awkward man, and one defined by his intellect and not his physical prowess, he ensures that his presentation of gender is more nuanced than the movie poster would have you believe. The ideal man is heroic, but not essentially violent. Equally, his heroes will often be outsiders due to their class or race. Heroism is an outcome, not a character trait, a distinction rarely qualified within action cinema.
In many ways, Bay was the perfect director for Cage – both were concerned with immediacy above all else. Towards the end of the movie, when Bay shoots a desperate Cage silhouetted against a setting sun, he has little concern as to whether this aesthetically aligns with the shadow and blue of the rest of the movie; no, it is a beautiful image and thus one worthy of putting on screen. Complete coherence is not a priority. Bay’s tendency towards this would only grow as he widened his use of multiple camera set-ups using different film stocks – ultimately mixing formats completely when digital video gained primacy over traditional film. What worked in the moment, worked in the moment.
The Rock is often belittled by contemporary cinephiliacs for its status as one of the early releases from the Criterion Collection. But its use of cinematic shorthand, non-conventional presentation of masculinity and sheer visual pleasure ensure that it rightly deserves to be canonised. After all, no-one like Vertigo when it came out…
We’ll continue Nicolas Cage’s career in Chapter VIII.
Broadly speaking, directors who came to prominence in the sixties made their name in television (Altman, Lumet etc.). In the seventies they became known for their student films (Carpenter, De Palma, Scorsese). In the eighties it was for their work in advertising (Ridley Scott) and in the nineties it was for their work on music videos (David Fincher). Bay was firmly in the latter group, and his early motion pictures cemented him as a key figure in the future of action cinema. Previously, we have looked at the figures who achieved success initially in the eighties (McTiernan, Cameron), or directors whose impact was limited (Woo), but now we were starting to glimpse the future.
Bay would begin by making the Spielbergian move into producing. This is often an act of folly by most directors – their energy is spent wasted on support lesser filmmakers or tossing-off half-arsed ideas that have little appeal – but allows certain directors to cement their dominance in the market. By creating the Platinum Dunes studio he moved himself into a brand. The films produced by the studio are of limited appeal, and broadly consist of accessible remakes of seventies horror classics – is the A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010 – Samuel Bayer) significantly more interesting for using CGI effects rather than practical effects, or for making Freddy Krueger’s paedophilia explicit?
Bay himself would forge an interesting, if somewhat inconsistent career. His success was cemented in Armageddon (1998), a preposterous but spectacular affair where he would cast blank male leads surrounded by a plethora of talented character actors to work their way through some nonsense plot. A soft-AOR song would soundtrack the blandest of heteronormative relationships. But it seemed like a successful formula, and Bay was determined to repeat it.
Pearl Harbor (2001), isn’t quite as bad as any lazy internet joke would have you believe, but it’s a long way from being good. In the most part it suffers because the climax of the movie, the veritable attack on Pearl Harbor, comes at the centre of the film’s running time. Which of course, as an isolated incident, was a failure for America. Familiarity with the victory of history was not enough for cinema’s audience, so Bay adds a further hour or so to the film’s length to ensure that there is a significant act of revenge for Ben Affleck. It leads to a disjointed, arrhythmic movie.
The most enjoyable movies Bay has made since this presumptuous disaster are the more personal, non-franchise projects. The Island (2005) and Pain & Gain (2013) are crass, colourful and employ a unique visual style. Bay has delighted in placing cameras in any number of bizarre places, ensuring his movies are full of shots that no-one has ever seen before. Developments in technology have only aided this interest. He employs a rapid-editing style, with cameras largely placed low to the ground. Exceptions to this are his rapid crane work shots, where the image will soar in and around the actors. This style comes alive in the wonderful car chases he makes sure he includes in every film. He has maintained an integrity of physical performance and stunt work when most of cinema has denigrated into CGI slush. He has a specific sense of place, and the Miami of Bad Boys II (2003) is as real as the San Francisco of The Rock.
Even in the dross that passes for the Transformers movies he is capable of producing work of sublime beauty. Mark Kermode, a critic paid largely by an inescapable tax to repeat the same opinions across a number of media outlets, has called these films ‘the death of narrative cinema,’ which only seems to be an insult if you believe that narrative cinema deserves to be the dominant use of the form. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is complete sensory experience produced (as is explicitly referenced in the film) during the dying days of physical form. Using nine different recording mediums, Bay crafted a story of visual wonder, where the very nature of reality was questioned. The films no longer sought to present a threat to the real world, instead subversively documented an imagined world where hostility was an everyday experience. Within this, his usual plethora of talented actors grounded the film against the extraordinary stereoscopic action scenes that were unfolding in front of our eyes.
Bay, and by consequence The Rock, began to point the way forward. Action stars could also be some of the most talented, interesting actors of their generation, not just muscle-bound freaks of nature. Physical performance and stuntwork would still have a major role to play. But equally, he moved action cinema towards a space where it would rely on a safe formula than one where a director’s vision reigned supreme. Women would continue to be pushed towards the margins, a he would present a visual style that was easily misunderstood, ensuring a legion of incoherent images would smudge he screen in years to come.
Bay was the last director to get in through the door; he should have left it further ajar.