Back in the 90’s when Hollywood producers still had the ability to restrain Michael Bay’s more absurd cinematic habits; we got bullshit-free movies like 1996’s The Rock. Even the most ardent, red-faced, spit spraying detractors of Bay’s body of work would shrug their shoulder’s, stare at the ground and begrudgingly admit that: “Yeah, ok… The Rock is fucking cool… I guess.”
Snuggled between his rousingly entertaining debut Bad Boys and his over-the-top sci-fi disaster movie Armageddon, The Rock was the second of many collaborations between Bay and super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, quite possibly the only man who could wrangle cinema’s most notorious boom-slinger.
It features many traits the director made infamous: a muscular score, multiple shots filmed in the deep orange glow of sunsets and such vast amounts of military worship, you wonder if Bay can only achieve orgasm unless someone dress in chamo fatigues salutes while screaming “SIR, YES SIR!!!” inbetween every thrust – yet all these “Bay-isms”, which have regularly derailed his more modern movies, actually make The Rock soar like an F-18 laden with thermite plasma. Plus, if nothing else, the film somehow managed to rope SEAN FUCKING CONNERY into an action movie where he flings a knife into some poor bastards throat and then matter-of-factly state “You must never hesitate.” Despite hesitating just to say that phrase.
Super stern patriot General Frank Hummel has apparently popped a sanity cap and with a sizable contingent of soldiers taken a bunch of tourists hostage on Alcatraz island. To make matters worse, he has rockets filled with a heinous chemical weapon that are aimed at San Francisco and if detonated will cause tens of thousands of people to cough up their guts like a zombie with a shitty tummy. As the military scramble to come up with a counter attack that Hummel hasn’t already planned for, FBI chemical expert and astonishing super-nerd Stanley Goodspeed is drafted in to give his rambling insight into the weapons despite his fiancee recently announcing her pregnancy. Also flung into the fray is John Mason, a British spy who has been languishing in American prison on trumped up charges for nearly 50 years and, more valuably, once escaped from the titular prison back when it was still operative. These two mismatched oddballs are escorted to the island by a squad of marines in a purely advisory capacity but soon disaster strikes and it’s solely down to Mason and Goodspeed so save the day before the Pentagon puts Plan B into effect (hint: it involves a LOT of fire) but can a geek with no combat training and a 60 year old convict possibly hope to stand against Hummel and his troops?
The Rock styles itself as Die Hard-style siege that you’d expect to play out much like the events at Nakatomi Plaza but with a much shittier paint job; but instead the film desides to continuously and enjoyably wrong-foot you every step of the way. For example, it takes over an hour for the good guys to even reach Alcatraz prison meaning we have ample time for some quirky character work and some varied action such as a Ferrari vs Humvee chase that tears up a section of San Fran while the awesomely excitable score from Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith blares away in the back ground. It’s all utterly ridiculous of course; why the fuck would the boiler rooms of Alcatraz not only be active but have massive cogs and fucking flames shooting out of it like it’s in a Rammstein music video, why are Hummel’s men SO psyched to be sadistically bloodthirsty if the General’s plot twist reveals him to be only bluffing and why is it so hard for highly trained military men in their prime to out fight a man who qualifies for a freedom pass on the bus?
What helps to corrale the vast amounts of magnificent 90’s cheese is the starry cast who roll up their sleeves and embraces the ludicrous like their lives depended on it. Nicolas Cage, who memorably followed up his Oscar win as a dying alcoholic for the grueling Leaving Las Vegas by nonchalantly starring in three of the greatest action movies of the nineties, plays Goodspeed as a sweet nerd comprised entirely of Nicolas Cage style quirks (Beatlemaniac, chills out after work by playing the guitar naked, an aversion to swearing) while Connery – famously somewhat of a grouch in real life – looks like he’s having the time of his fucking life, dusting off his old action chops and coldly dispatching bad guys like a certain super-spy he’s played once or twice – in fact there’s a enduring fan theory that Connery’s John Mason IS actually an aged James Bond, nabbed by the americans and disavowed by the British government. Even though this theory doesn’t quite scan, it’s still a badass concept that Bay has fun with while not being too obvious.
The rest of the cast are practically flawless, featuring such top-notch, shouty performances from renowned character actors such as Michael Biehn, Tony Todd and William Forsythe (plus a typically quiet/noble David Morse one) but it’s captain reliable himself, Ed Harris that impresses the most as he pumps Hummel with enough gravity into his role to crush a bank vault flat, creating a flawed, multifaceted antagonist with tragically noble intentions.
Of course, on top of this is a procession of the finest explosions and car wrecks 90’s money can buy, with a whole tram being blown 30 feet in the air and Cage using a actual rocket to spear a man out a window. Maybe it’s a generational thing but the vision of Cage, weakened by a close encounter with an adrenalin needle, desperately dragging himself to a vantage point where he waves the green flares with anguish on his face to stop a bombing run of the island, has always sonic boomed me right in the feels, leaving a manly lump in my throat (phrasing!). It’s a feeling that those who grew up with Jerry Bruckheimer’s 90’s output is more than familiar with (christ… Armaggedon is ROTTEN with manly throat lumps) and it’s something I miss from the majority of today’s action romps, but Michael Bay’s sophomore effort remains a noticable high point of his sometimes baffling filmography.
Simply put… The Rock is solid.