Amazingly, there’s been no 25th anniversary razzamatazz for this pulsating piledriver of an action movie, a stone cold classic. Instead of the standard breaking out of Alcatraz, a brilliant reversal sees a crack military team of U.S. Navy SEALS trying to break in to stop maniac martinet General Hummel (Ed Harris) devastating San Francisco with stolen missiles containing nerve gas. Notwithstanding his iconic turn as James Bond and Oscar acclaim for The Untouchables (1987), this is surely Sean Connery’s best, if not boldest, performance, the calm at the heart of the storm, exuding a riveting screen persona. No other star of his calibre would have allowed themselves to be seen at the start with such lack of dignity, not just shackled but with dirty exceedingly long hair.
Not only is it a brilliant entrance but such is director Michael Bay’s mastery of his material that he makes audiences wait 25 minutes for it while he sets up the terror that awaits the city from a rain of terrifying gas, Hummel as a ruthless legendary officer with a point to prove and allows Nicolas Cage to break out of his initial geek. Backed by a classic battering ram of a score by Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith and an outstanding battalion of supporting players, Bay never lets up the high-pitch tension, finding his stylistic way with slo-mo, helicopters swaying in the sky, brutal stand-offs.
Former British spy John Mason (Connery), the only man alive who has broken out of Alcatraz, is released from prison to lead the break-in, Hummel holding hostages as well as his weaponry. Never has a star done so much with so little, using a coin to discover his nemesis F.B.I. director Womack (John Spencer) and with nothing more than a piece of string engineers his own escape from a San Francisco hotel that leads to a riveting car chase ending in wanton destruction and a touching scene reuniting Mason with a long-lost daughter (Clare Forlani). That such a cracking movie bothers with emotional hooks – academic FBI chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed also has his girlfriend in harm’s way – shows the screenwriter skill in bringing greater character depth. Except for his daughter, Mason would have made another escape from Alcatraz at the first opportunity.
What appears mission impossible becomes mission impossible too far when Hummel’s men slaughter the military invasion leaving the unlikely duo of Mason and Goodspeed to save the city – and their own lives when the equally ruthless operation overseers determine it’s better to completely liquidate Alcatraz rather than risk the missiles being fired.
And without Cage as the mild-mannerd scientist stepping up to the action plate, this would be a different picture, over-dominated by Connery. Cage delivers a multi-layered performance, from the emphatic strum of a guitar string to his flickering fingers and the brilliant delivery of the humdrum line “in the name of Zeus’s butthole.” He shifts from fearful geek who has left his gun behind to determinedly hunting down Mason in a car chase and then finding a true action mojo on the rock.
Given this top-notch performance, it’s proof of Connery’s star power that he easily steals the picture. Suspicious, clever, ruthless, soft-hearted when it matters, he mentors Goodspeed, though not always gently, “losers always whine about their best, winners go home and f*** the prom queen.”
Odd as it might be to say about a Michael Bay picture, this is layered too. From the conflict between Mason and Womack, the nuanced performance by the essentially honorable Hummel, brilliant character development – like Hilts in The Great Escape Mason the loner eventually persuaded to help the general cause – the transition of Goodspeed from goofy oddball to saviour, speedy edits, some cracking images, a script dipped in paranoia (references to Roswell, the Kennedy assassination, black ops and secret military slush funds) and a stack of one-liners. All this delivered in passing as this high-speed train of an action blockbuster thunders along the line.
The whole enterprise is bolstered by a top-notch supporting cast led by the Mason-hating John Spencer (stepping up from a supporting role in L.A. Law, 1990-1996), David Morse (The Green Mile, 1999), eternal heavy William Forsythe (J. Edgar Hoover in The Man in the High Castle, 2018-2019) getting the chance to lighten his load, Michael Biehn (Aliens, 1986), John C. McGinley (Any Given Sunday, 1999) and Bokeem Woodbine (Queen and Slim, 2019). Two young actresses show tremendous promise – Clare Forlani capitalised on this break with Meet Joe Black (1998) but it proved less of a Hollywood calling card for Vanessa Marcil (Goodspeed’s fiancé), her best work coming in television (Las Vegas, 2003-2008). This was Mark Rosner’s only screenplay from a story by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg. who collaborated on Double Jeopardy (1999).
It was also Michael Bay’s calling card to enter the high-octane world of big-budget blockbusters like Armageddon (1998). While his career had as many ups as downs, this is unquestionably his action masterpiece, a no-holds-barred non-stop adrenaline spike.