‘The Rock’ 25th Anniversary: How Nicolas Cage Became an Action Hero Without Selling Out

Now, moviegoers take it for granted that Nicolas Cage is an action hero, but that wasn’t always a given. In fact, his first attempt, the “Top Gun with helicopters” movie Firebirds did not make him an action hero, so he went back to quirky comedies and indie movies for a while. It would take 1996’s The Rock to confirm Schwarzenegger and Stallone had to share action vehicles with Cage.

[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for The Rock. If you’ve never seen it, watch it for the first time now and then come back to this celebration.]

Nicolas Cage lights the flares in The Rock
Nicolas Cage | Buena Vista/Getty Images

The Rock makes sense as Cage’s true action debut because it basically forces the quirky Cage character to become an action hero. Today we celebrate 25 years of Cage kicking butt. 

‘The Rock’ was already the end of an era

We also have to remind modern audiences that the early ‘90s’ was full of “Die Hard on a ______’ movies. They’d almost run out of planes, boats and stadiums by the time they did The Rock, which was “Die Hard on Alcatraz.”

Disgruntled covert ops Marines led by Gen. Hummell (Ed Harris) take a tour of Alcatraz (“The Rock”) hostage. They threaten the Pentagon with chemical weapons they stole in the film’s opening sequence, demanding $100 million to disperse to the families of disavowed soldiers. 

Nicolas Cage holds the rocket in The Rock
Nicolas Cage | Buena Vista/Getty Images

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The only man who can help a team of Navy SEALs break into Alcatraz is the prison’s only escapee, John Mason (Sean Connery). The only man who can disarm the chemicals is FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Cage). The premise of The Rock is also full of delicious conspiracy theories of special ops missions, government slush funds and the real JFK killer.

‘The Rock’ let Nicolas Cage be funny

Every action hero uses comic relief. Schwarzenegger is famous for his one-liners. Goodspeed begins as primarily a comic character. He’s not trying to be tough. His aw shucks attitude is a hoot in a bombastic R-rated action movie like The Rock

The idea that Goodspeed wouldn’t swear at first was Cage’s idea, according to his commentary on the DVD for The Rock. Cage said he wanted Goodspeed to have to find more interesting ways to express himself, which led to hilarious exclamations like, “How in the name of Zeus’s butthole” and “A-hole” when he catches Mason. 

The idea that Goodspeed was a Beatlemaniac who spent $1300 on a vinyl of “Meet the Beatles” was also Cage’s idea, just for a character detail. There was already a “Rocket Man” joke at the end of The Rock, so Cage felt it also established Goodspeed’s musical interests.

The Rock: Nicolas Cage plays guitar for Vanessa Marcil
Vanessa Marcil and Nicolas Cage | Buena Vista/Getty Images

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Cage also his facial expressions and intonations for comic relief. When he says, “This ISnt HAPenING” that makes an otherwise generic plot scene entertaining. Goodspeed is scared of the dead bodies, too. A Navy SEAL who doesn’t survive the incursion is the first one he’s ever seen and Cage plays that moment real. The dead terrorist twitching is played for laughs. 

He even repeats bad guys’ expressions back at them, turning “I’ll take pleasure in gutting you, boy” into a verbal set piece. Cage wouldn’t go full Vampire’s Kiss just yet. He’d save that for Face/Off.

Sean Connery passed the torch to Nicolas Cage

The role of Mason is set up for a veteran action hero. Mason is a former SAS agent who stole government secrets, and went to prison without ever giving them up. He’s someone who could have escaped Alcatraz 30 years prior and could still hold his own approaching age 70. 

Mason gets away at first. Goodspeed has to chase him in a stolen Ferrari through the streets of San Francisco. But, he earns Mason’s respect for saving face with Mason’s daughter Jade (Claire Forlani). It’s still a long road, though. Goodspeed still can’t keep a gun on Mason. He has to keep proving himself throughout The Rock.

The Rock: Sean Connery watches Nicolas Cage defuse a rocket
L-R: Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage | Buena Vista/Getty Images

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Mason keeps Goodspeed around to defuse the rockets. Ultimately, in their adventure, Goodspeed draws his gun on a terrorist to save Mason. Still, Goodspeed can’t fight Mason to make him stay on the island and complete the mission. Only Mason can make that choice himself. 

In the end, Goodspeed has Mason’s future in his hands. Goodspeed gives Mason safe passage after the mission is over, telling his government wards that Mason has died. With that, Connery leaves Cage to lead Con Air and Face/Off by himself. 

Nicolas cage steps up

Cage does embrace the action hero moments of The Rock while maintaining his Goodspeed character. He steals a Ferrari for the car chase and gets the Michael Bay low angle spinning camera shot looking up at him. When a motorcycle guy remarks, “You f*cked up your Ferrari,” Cage gives him a glare when he says, “It’s not mine, and neither is this.”

Goodspeed lets Mason do all the shooting at first. By the end of The Rock, he’s taken out two more terrorists. Cage also got pumped up with an action hero physique, but you only see it once. He’d show his guns more in Con Air wearing a dirty tank top. 

The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off are the holy trinity of Cage action films, but they gave him free reign to pick an action movie whenever he wanted. He did the National Treasure movies, Gone in 60 Seconds, Drive Angry and many more. Even his recent output includes action. While they may not have the budget of his ’90s vehicles, Cage still delivers interesting performances within the genre and no one ever doubts he’s capable of kicking butt.