By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Though The Rock is technically a thriller, it might more accurately be described as a machine designed to pummel audiences into submission. For 2 hours and 9 minutes, the movie slams forward in a jackhammer frenzy. The camera never stops moving, and the images are chopped up in stroboscopic music-video style, so that every machine-gun blast, every smashed building and flying body, is jammed up against another, even more ”explosive” image of depersonalized mayhem. The final film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, the team that gave us Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Bad Boys (as well as the anomalously first-rate Crimson Tide), The Rock has already been hailed as ”the drop-dead thrill ride of the year!” In its fill-in-the-hype way, that line is more accurate than it knows: This is a movie out to entertain you even if it kills you in the process.

A renegade Marine (Ed Harris), decorated in three wars, leads his outlaw brigade into the ”rock” of Alcatraz, the famous, now defunct and shuttered island prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Taking a group of tourists hostage, he threatens to bombard the city with poison-gas rockets unless the families of all the men who’ve died under his command in covert missions are paid a million dollars apiece. The FBI assembles a rescue squad headed up by two men: Sean Connery, the only prisoner to have ever escaped from Alcatraz, and Nicolas Cage, a chemical/biological weapons expert who works behind the scenes at the FBI but has never had the occasion to use his gun. The team enters the prison fortress underwater and spends the rest of the film trying to defuse the bombs — and elude Harris’ men — within Alcatraz’s labyrinthine catacombs, which the movie uses as a dank, decaying maze, like the spaceships in the Alien films.

Back in 1988, few would have guessed that the plot of Die Hard would become the prototype for nearly every big-budget action movie. But then, even fewer might have predicted that Die Hard itself, a movie that originally seemed a sly joke of excess, would now look like a model of classical restraint. The Rock is a ride so relentless and assaultive it runs roughshod over its own characters. Early on, there’s a hair-trigger sequence in which Cage, locked in a glass chamber, has to defuse a bomb; the director, Michael Bay (Bad Boys), works in such a jittery, overwrought way that the movie seems more nervous about the situation than we are. A little later, we’re treated to a mammoth car chase, which, of course, is meaner, louder, smashier than any such sequence before it — a duel to make the demolition derby in The French Connection look like a turn-of-the-century buggy ride. Cars are crushed like paper cups, pedestrians go flying, and I lost count of apocalyptic payoffs — a car plonking through a block of parking meters, a fireball hoisting a trolley car 20 feet into the air. The film also smashes any pretense of plausibility. Cage, for instance, is supposed to be playing a civilized brainiac, the mild, modern guy who must learn to put aside thought for action. So why, half an hour into the movie, is he already acting like Bruce Willis, leaping into a yellow Ferrari to barrel through San Francisco like a suicidal road warrior? Because in the jacked-up world of The Rock, nothing matters but the violent, incendiary moment.

Even in a movie that’s all noise and bluster, Cage and Connery inject tasty bits of personality into their roles. Connery, as the aging renegade, shows up looking like the Unabomber and surprises us by expressing his wit less through dialogue — by now, we’re almost too used to that surly burr — than through his quicker-than-the-eye reflexes. He makes suave comedy out of his utter lack of fear, hesitation, scruples. As his worrywart scientist partner, Cage, happily, doesn’t have to abandon the charismatic zigzags in mood — the leaps from goofiness to rage — that have marked his performances in movies like Leaving Las Vegas. He plays right to the gallery with his gleam of soulful skepticism and his funky, off-kilter line readings, as when he says to Connery, ”How, in the name of Zeus’ butthole, did you get out of your cell?”

With a greater chance for interplay, these two might have made a memorable team. As it is, they spend most of the film going through the robotically impersonal motions of action mega-heroics: dodging bullets, thwacking enemies, defusing poison bombs in enough down-to-the-wire climaxes to stock a dozen conventional thrillers. If Simpson and Bruckheimer had an aesthetic, it was to turn movies into pure catharsis, narcotic rushes of audiovisual energy. Perhaps it’s appropriate that in the last project to bear their names, they attained a kind of summer-movie apotheosis: the action spectacle as drug, with ”fun” now raised to the level of exhaustion. The Rock numbs your sensory receptors and then assaults you through the numbness. It invites you to feel thrilled at feeling nothing at all. B-