Chances are if you grew up in the 90s and love action movies, you’ll have a soft spot for Michael Bay’s 1996 action movie opus, The Rock. Since both of those conditions apply to me, I can safely say that the Rock certainly has a comfortably nestled spot in my personal top ten action flicks of all time. I distinctly remember being blown away seeing this film in the movie theatre as an impressionable 12 year old seeing only his second ever R-rated flick in the theatre. If you need to know, the first was the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe vehicle Virtuosity, a pretty horrible little Sci-fi “messterpiece” that really isn’t worth bringing up.
In the years since 1996, Michael Bay has moved his projects further and further away from all the things that made The Rock (and even his previous introductory film, 1995’s Bad Boys) work so well. Make no mistake, The Rock is undeniably a Michael Bay film, filled with crisply filtered shots, incessant camera movement, huge car chases and action set pieces, a self important tone, and enough explosions to fill a fireworks factory accident on the fourth of July. While I have a soft spot for some of Bay’s guilty pleasure later work like Armageddon, the first Transformers movie, and Pain and Gain, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call The Rock his only legitimately good movie that can be enjoyed without irony.
I think a pretty clear reason is that Bay had a shorter leash to work with in this film, and had to keep some of his nastier habits in check to keep the bean counters happy. Sean Connery, one of the stars of the film, is also listed as a producer on the film, which suggests that the final say on things had to go through him. Bay, on the other hand, only had one film under his belt before this one, and had to make sure to keep his stars and studio happy, instead of having full free reign to indulge his worst sexist, homophobic, and excessive instincts that are all over his later projects.
I won’t get too into it, but this video by watchmojo.com gets into the nitty gritty of Bay’s style and why it’s not very conducive to good storytelling.
The plot is pretty straight forward, especially for a 90s action film. On its surface, it’s a standard story of terrorists that have taken over (location) and are planning to use (awful weapon) against (city or country) unless their demand for (blank) is met. It’s then up to (ragtag hero(es)) as our last hope to stop the villains and save the day. The Rock doesn’t deviate much from this basic plot structure that had been a staple of action flicks since the 80s. Where The Rock rises above the standard action movie limitations is the ingredients in the stew.
After an opening credit sequence that perfectly sets the tone of the film with Hans Zimmer’s powerful musical score and images of a military funeral, the film opens proper with Ed Harris, standing over his wife’s grave in the pouring rain, as the leader of a covert black-ops Marine unit expressing his frustration with how the government has treated the fallen members of his unit, in that they don’t even acknowledge their existence or sacrifice. He leaves behind a Congressional Medal of Honor on the grave stone and we smash cut to a rainy night at an American military compound. Harris and his men raid the facility using sleeping darts and non-lethal means and make off with several rockets loaded with VX-1 gas, a chemical agent contained in unstable green marbles, the effects of which are gruesomely shown as one of Harris’ men is melted alive when one of the marbles is accidentally dropped during the operation. Before long, Harris and his men take over Alcatraz island, take hostages, and point their Rockets directly towards the San Francisco Bay Area. Harris makes his demands known, which is a bunch of money being sent to the families of the men who have died under his command, and a little nest egg for himself and his current unit, lest he launch a horrifying chemical agent into the heart of San Francisco.
This is efficient storytelling, especially by Bay standards. We’re ten minutes into the movie, and we’ve established a sympathetic and human villain, his understandable (but still extreme) motives, and the who, what, why and where of the film. What I found interesting about The Rock compared to other Michael Bay films, is that really, Harris isn’t the villain of the piece, but rather the American Government. The government has used Harris and his men for all their dirty work, and they don’t even get a military funeral when they sacrifice themselves for their country. The government in the film will do anything to keep their cover intact, take no responsibility for how their decisions have led to this crisis, and the film makes Harris’ motivations for turning against his own country as the only logical course of action for a man of honor. Harris even insists that the funds he’s demanding come from a secret government slush fund that is used for illegal military operations in the third world. The movie points many fingers to the nastiness and merciless nature of American military operations that pushed the Ed Harris character to his current course of action. Compare this to the nauseating, flag waving, rah rah patriotism that would define his later work like Pearl Harbor, 13 Hours, Bad Boys II and even the Transformers movies. It’s an interesting parallel to make.
Okay, okay, okay, enough with the dry plot recap, let’s see what makes The Rock awesome.
The tone of the opening scenes is grim and rather humorless, which is why Nicholas Cage’s nerdy goofball FBI chemical weapons expert is so welcome. Here’s the audience’s way into the plot as we follow Cage, an everyman hilariously named Stanley Goodspeed, a regular dude who is about the start a family and collects Beatles’ vinyl, into the events of the plot. Desk jockey Cage is tapped accompany a squad of elite Marines as they assault Alcatraz island, eliminate the rogue Marines, save the hostages, and disable the rockets. There’s only one problem, which is that they don’t have a way into the heavily fortified prison. Enter Sean Connery’s Mason, a lethal, highly skilled former British operative who is the only man to have escaped Alcatraz as a prisoner and has executed missions during the Cold War previously though impossible. Connery has spent decades in solitary confinement, a shadow that neither America nor Britain wants to claim as their own. Deals are made and Connery must lead the team through a maze of tunnels under the prison and break into the facility. Of course, this comes after some 45 minutes of negotiating and wrangling with Connery’s character, which culminates in one of the great all time car chases put to film.
Let’s stop here and chat about this car chase, because it’s balls-to-the-wall awesome. Connery’s character makes a daring escape from a hotel penthouse (while receiving pampering that was part of his deal to help the Marines infiltrate the island) by stealing a Humvee from the hotel lobby. Cage goes into hot pursuit by jumping into a conveniently parked nearby Ferrari. The two turn San Francisco into a war zone as every car chase cliche in the book is pulled out. Waves of wheelchair riders are narrowly avoided, vehicles explode and are flipped through the air, Connery’s Humvee rips through the back of a water truck while Cage’s Ferrari takes a an ill-advised shortcut through a window. This is all before an explosive climax launches a street car five stories into the air. It’s inspired idiot-action movie lunacy, and if the movie doesn’t grab you with excitement here, there really is no hope for you. It’s thrilling, it’s idiotic, it’s expertly shot by Bay, and it’s freaking great. Check it out for yourself right here!
It turns out that Connery led the FBI on the merry chase not to escape, but to get to see his estranged daughter that he’s been separated from for decades one last time before going on the mission. This is the kind of thing that The Rock pulls off very well that other Bay films don’t. Even the motives behind the craziest action sequences are rooted in natural human desires such as seeing one’s family and establishing believable character traits. It’s actually impressive how well the film plops pretty believable and sympathetic characters into bombastic action set-pieces and ludicrous scenarios, and how much richer the movie is for it. Most action movies these days don’t do that sort of thing, because they believe that we, the audience, only care about the explosions, not the character narrowly avoiding it. Without a audience cipher like any of the Cage, Connery, or Harris characters, it’s just noise, sound and fury signifying nothing. Giving us this character development gives the film weight and gravitas, a measurable level of suspense sorely lacking from pretty much every other Michael Bay project.
At this point, over an hour into the film, it’s mostly one action set-piece after another as the good guy marines are wiped out by Harris’ Marines in another all-time great action set-piece as the “good guys” are massacred when trying to infiltrate the prison’s shower room. Only Cage and Connery are left alive and it’s up to them to survive long enough to find all the weapons, disable them, and save the day. We alternate between very witty and fun banter, and more crazy action scenes as Cage and Connery are our only hope for a nerve-gas free San Francisco day.
It’s not realistic, the film gets brutally violent in parts, and the tonal shifts might be jarring as the film skips between goofy humor and great one liners and ham-fisted heavy handedness, but it all somehow works. The film is smart enough to not insult our intelligence, but fun enough to know that we’re there to see Nic Cage ask a guy if he likes Elton John’s “Rocketman” before launching a rocket right into his torso, thrusting him out a window only to be impaled on a sharp pike on the island below.
Other Bay films give us these sorts of scenes with humor that try way too hard before giving us the blood and guts with a mean-spiritedness that is fortunately mostly absent here. Compare the crisp action sequences here to the umpteenth car chase in Bad Boys II that has Will Smith and Martin Lawrence wise cracking as they run over cadavers spilling out from a medical truck; it’s easy to see the difference. It also helps to have a good script featuring great actors in their prime. Cage may be a punchline these days, but in the 90s, he was a respected actor who was able to effectively carry a goofy action flick, star in goofy Coen Brothers comedies, or win Oscars in a serious drama about a depressed man determined to drink himself to death. Ed Harris is usually the best thing in whatever he’s in, and Sean Connery is a legend for a reason.
The Bay aesthetic serves the material well here. Some may say his later films are far too glossy and look like ADD-inspired anarchy, and they’d be right. Compare the headache-inducing CGI messiness that defines the Transformers flicks to the tight, practical stunts and effects here, and the difference is night and day. Here, his action scenes are chaotic but easy to follow, never losing track of time and place. The glossy, filtered look that Bay is known for creates some iconic action movie moments, especially during the film’s climax.
I have my doubts that Bay will ever come back to this sort of tightly plotted, well characterized, and smartly written action film when he’s busy churning out mindless, plotless CGI blockbusters that pull in billions worldwide. I can give some credit to Pain and Gain for trying to break that mould, but it mostly came across as a fun but empty headed, second-rate Oliver Stone flick to me. His films may be critically ravaged, but the customer loves what they’re getting. It’s a shame, because here we get a glimpse of a director with something to prove and something to say who unfortunately succumbed to the bright lights and endless noise of the modern Hollywood action blockbuster. It may not be right to call The Rock a small film, but it’s almost every thing a great action film should be. It lets loose when the action is rolling along, but it’s restrained and well paced in between shootouts and explosions.
In other words, it’s classic action flick, and any self respecting action fan needs to have seen it multiple times. This movie Rocks. To see you out, here’s Michael Bay being awesome.