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I’ll just leave this here (probably NSFW for Nicolas Cage overload):

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What is the nature of the “guilty pleasure”? I have “Through A Glass Darkly” sitting on my DVD player, and I instantly watched “Mars Attacks!” instead. We say to ourselves that we know that the Bergman film is “better” — better critically reviewed, part of Bergman’s existentialist canon, etc. Yet, we can’t resist the clarion call of that which we know is “low culture”: Top 40 pop music, Jersey Shore, and Angry Birds.

Yet, the craft involved in building a great piece of trash is underappreciated. What separates good trash from bad trash? Michael Bay’s career, in conjunction with that of his occasional trash culture counterpart, Nicolas Cage, is a prime example of the tightrope walk of trash culture. Sometimes you get “Bad Boys”; sometimes you get “Pearl Harbor.” And sometimes, you get “The Rock,” the ur-action movie, so rife with cliches and riddled with absurd self-importance that it shouldn’t work. It’s not a giant turd in the way of “Pearl Harbor,” and scored tolerable reviews. And yet, I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the film. It’s not even an ironic “so bad it’s good” viewing. The Rock isn’t a farce by any means; it shows the pleasures of existing in the genre and embracing its formal strictures.

Consider this car chase:

All the cliches are there. Fruit carts being spilled, check. Obstructions in the roadway, check. Everything exploding, check. Civilians in danger, check. Witticisms (“I hope you’re insured!”), check. I half-expected to see two guys walking across the road holding a sheet of plate glass. But there is something joyful about the formula in the scene, the same way there is something joyful about singing along to a pop song. In many ways, the great action movie is more science than it is art.

Compare this scene with another San Francisco car chase:

What is The Rock‘s car chase if not an exaggerated version of the mother text, as it were? The cars are more exotic; the explosions bigger; the dialogue more existent. And yet, underneath the chaotic action sequences, it is still a car chase, evolved from the Bullitt DNA. The film simultaneously believes and mocks its own ancestry.

Another unappreciated aspect of the good trashy action movie is that the acting has to be superb. One assumes that bad material must equal bad acting. And rest assured, the material in this movie is bad, and the self-seriousness and overexplaining that would plague Bay’s future output is already here:

The pornographic embrace of military technology (which would reach a head with the Transformers films, in which the human characters are rendered soulless by the machines), the bombastic score, the Mexican standoff. It’s all so ridiculous that it would be easy to simply read the lines for what they are.

Yet here, all the actors fully commit to their outrageous roles. Of course Nicolas Cage’s Goodspeed can defuse a bomb, go on a car chase, and shoot guns from a minecart, despite his apparent nerd cerdentials. Of course Sean Connery’s Mason can suavely jump off buildings, knock out a giant Marine with one punch, and still look good getting knocked in the back of the head with a rifle. (The guy was only James Bond!) Roger Ebert identifies a winking humor throughout the film, but I don’t think that’s why it succeeds. It succeeds because it’s a movie-lover’s collage about loving action movies (see “Hot Fuzz”).Only by believing your cheesy dialogue can you pull off a line like this:

Action movies are like pop songs in that their appeal comes in large part because of a contradictory combination of shiny novelty and comforting sameness. Now that the sheen of the movie has dulled a bit — today there are bigger bangs, better chases, and a sad series of flops for Cage and Connery — it’s worth wondering where its particular appeal comes from. The joy of the movie is its proper balance of slickness and genre-appreciation. With all the knowing glances to the action film canon, from cheesy one-liners to over-dramatic pontification, it should come as a surprise to no one that Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin punched up the screenplay. It’s so over-stuffed with references that we don’t even notice them. We love to feel the embrace of the familiar, with a new coat of paint. It’s “The Same Ol’ Song” phenomenon that we just need to change the lyrics, even if the tune’s the same.

And so, even as The Rock‘s action film compatriots of the 90s continue to atrophy — Independence Day, Air Force One, even the venerable Jurassic Park, it seems to have the perfect balance within its genre. Just enough humor to befit the old Western one-liners; just enough gunplay to satisfy Die Hard enthusiasts; just enough plot to resolve in two hours. We always want to push ourselves to the new, the undiscovered, the wild. But in the comfort of pastiches such as The Rock, we can fulfill that compulsive urge to hit repeat and watch the same characters, the same plot, the same car chases and gunfights. With The Rock, we really can go home again.

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