I was wracking my brain about which influence to discuss in this post. The truth is, everything I’ve read, watched and lived has had an influence on my fiction. I think that’s why I started writing to begin with, way back when I was too young to understand the relief I felt when I put my excess fascinations on paper. I retain too much. I need the outlet.
But don’t worry. As I debated how to consolidate my myriad artistic role models for your reading enjoyment, I dished some pot roast, flipped on DirectTV, and found The Rock playing on cable.
I’ve known a great many artists who are selective in the extreme about what they will permit themselves to learn from. Few of them would consider a scenery-chewing action film from 1996 as a proper place to gain storytelling skills. But as I said, I can’t help it. I’m an inveterate lover of a tale well-told. I decided this single film and the reasons I enjoy it could explain a lot about why I wrote a book like Security — a hybrid horror/mystery/romance with a narrator who pontificates on death and a heroine who makes a pretty good Sartre joke — as well as why I intend to write many more novels whose insouciant insistences on character and theme do not negate a concomitant devotion to thrills.
It’s all but impossible to argue that The Rock is in any way subtle. Firstly because Nicolas Cage is in it. His acting is a study in foregoing subtlety, and that’s its charm, its vividness. He’s a great match for Michael Bay, for whom this movie represents a fantastical departure from the digitally enhanced, narratively anorexic filmmaking he would embark upon later.
The plot: a legendary general takes over Alcatraz and threatens a poisoned gas attack on San Franciso. Cage is an FBI chemical weapons specialist tasked with disarming the rockets. He’ll be escorted in by a team of soldiers, and that team of soldiers will be led by the only convict who ever escaped the notorious American prison.
Enter Sean Connery. As with any movie he stars in, he is this one’s ace in the hole — a calm, wry presence who anchors the car chases, gun fights and explosions. He is also, undoubtedly, the greatest possible foil for Nicolas Cage, whose zany flights of improvised dialogue ring true and grounded and balanced in The Rock, more so than in any other work he’s done. My favorite line delivery in all of cinema is delivered in this movie, and it is delivered by Nicolas Cage.
“I drive a Volvo. Beige one.”
That line and the way he says it tells Connery’s character — and us — everything we could hope to know about Stanley Goodspeed, an unwilling hero who, of course, winds up going it alone with the grizzled escape artist, saving San Fran one scary bomb at a time.
It’s wonderful to have intriguing heroes. It is imperative to have interesting villains. That’s why Ed Harris is here, eminently buyable as a battalion commander with an axe to grind about soldiers killed in covert ops. He’s not just a maniac after money. The bad guys’ meltdown toward the finale reveals schisms within the ranks that distinguish the banally evil from the morally misguided.
Yet, for all that, what really makes The Rock a home run is The Rock itself. Alcatraz — the impenetrable, inescapable fortress that housed Capone, Doc Barker, and the first Public Enemy #1, Alvin Karpis. Who? Exactly. Alcatraz is where the worst of the worst were sent to disappear, and Bay actually filmed there. His taste for overkill color, off-putting in most of his projects, makes Alcatraz throb with age, reek, decay, danger. It’s like a decrepit playground for the dream cast to play on.
And yes, the slow-mo is overused. And yes, the set-up drags too long. Yes, lines like “You breathe, he breathes with you. You piss, he helps,” suggest the screenwriter took testosterone supplements to sound manlier. The music is overwrought (though the Irish flute is well-placed) and women are non-existent (except a meek daughter and a flighty fiance for the men to fret about). But when I went to this movie at age fifteen, I perfectly recall exiting the theater with my dad. The ground was soaked, the gutters flooded. A tornado had blown through while we were inside. There’s a joke in here about Michael Bay’s well-established love for loud, but had I been aware of the risk, I’d have probably just moved to a lower row. The finished cohesion of the story’s elements is that propulsive, alive, exciting, wild, and fun.
The Rock is not my favorite movie. I don’t think it cracks the top twenty. But it taught me lessons worth learning, and so have romance novels, and so have silly TV series about conflicted superheroes or melodramatic vampires. So has sitting in a coffeehouse on Sunday morning while the church crowd shows up for their after-worship mochas.
Writing is everywhere. Until you learn that, as well as how to swallow your pride and admit that Michael Bay once inspired you, your writing is nowhere.
Ergo . . .
Choose a setting pregnant with possibilities. Grow characters who spark off one another, challenge each other. Inhabit the big moments with shameless abandon. Allow wise voices to speak, but let the wiseasses have their say, too.
And resolve to fight — always, for all you’re worth — to be more compelling than a tornado.
Security is out now in Hardback and Audio CD