A rogue Brigade General hijacks rockets with chemical weapons and seizes the legendary prison of Alcatraz. A Navy SEAL team including a former prisoner and an FBI chemical specialist infiltrates the facility. In the process the SEAL team gets killed leaving the prisoner and agent the only survivors…
Michael Bay’s The Rock was the final collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. While they announced their split after the production finished (Bruckheimer went on to produce Con Air on his own), Simpson died of drug overdose before the premiere and the movie is dedicated to him. The movie, the second feature by now infamous Michael Bay, features a stellar cast, starring Nicolas Cage as the FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed, Sean Connery as John Patrick Mason (a funny mishap appeared on the VHS cover of the movie, where, in the copy I watched, the character was called Jason Patrick Mason, the DVD I have now doesn’t have that mistake) and Ed Harris as Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, the commander of the rogue Force Recon Marines. Notable supporting cast features William Forsythe as the San Francisco FBI director, John Spencer as the general FBI director Womack, Michael Biehn as the SEAL Commander Anderson, Danny Nucci as one of the team members, covering Mason, David Morse as Major Tom Baxter, Hummel’s second-in-command and John C. McGinley as one of Hummel’s Captains.
In this movie, Michael Bay did two things right that he never did afterwards and, really, in Bad Boys, his big screen debut – storytelling and acting. Known for not wanting to really film intimate scenes and doing those in a very small amount of takes, Bay isn’t famous for particularly great acting (managing to waste Jon Voight, Ewan McGregor, Bruce Willis, Scarlett Johansson and Djimon Honsou demands a lot of “talent”) and the way he propels the story makes it seem like a random shots put together working better or (usually) worse. A lot of the problem is related to the fact that he tends to make really short cuts. He never stops the camera and tells everything in a bunch of very short shots. Not that it ever becomes confusing, there simply isn’t much of a story there usually. He jumps from scene to scene just to concentrate on the big action. Not this time. Above all, this time Bay slowed down. It very positively affects the storytelling aspect of the film. Still edited pretty quickly, the movie gets a more natural rhythm by the fact that for suspense and in more character-oriented scenes, the editing is slowed down. For at least a long time, Bay regarded The Rock as his best movie and we can see why. It is still visually very good. The fact that the director prefers a moving camera for the course of the movie and has a very good eye for angles, gives it a certain style. Made in 1996, The Rock still looks great. John Schwartzman’s cinematography (interestingly, a cousin of Nicolas Cage) features great use of lighting, shadows (especially the first scene with Hummel smoking, look at the way the smoke is lit!) and composition. Of course, some shots could be longer, but there is a sense of a story, an internal rhythm to the movie and the suspense rises when it should rise. That’s all you want from an action movie.
Another big asset of The Rock, especially in context of Bay’s now quite prolific career, is the acting. Ed Harris maybe plays the part a bit one-note and while he is quite likable (that is courtesy of producer Don Simpson who after watching a documentary decided to make Hummel memorable by the fact that he is a way more complex character than the typical villain), he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to smile or play warm, which he definitely could more, as hinted by the first scene at his wife’s grave and a conversation he has with some schoolgirls before taking over Alcatraz. He did the movie for the money, but still he is professional and the performance is a highlight of the whole movie. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery are plain fun to watch. Connery delivers an auto-ironic and older twist on his James Bond persona and pulls it off with huge class. In fact, while Harris (and later Bruce Willis) would speak very badly of Michael Bay’s directing style, Connery stood up for him personally when there was a possibility of getting the director fired by the executives (Connery came along with Bay to a meeting with executives and his praise basically sealed the deal of Bay staying onboard). Cage delivers Goodspeed with a very quirky personality. In fact for humor purposes, Bay made Connery and Cage improvise their humorous exchanges in Alcatraz. This among with some of Bay’s visual choices gives the movie a unique atmosphere, not something that can be said about many action movies. Pity, Bay didn’t use the opportunity to add humor in some of the SEAL scenes. There was at least one, when Mason has to literally go through fire to open the tunnels to the infiltrating team. Quite scared, the soldier covering him asks to be relieved of his duty for that moment. All Michael Biehn’s Anderson says to that is a deadpan “Stand fast, Lieutenant”. This was a wasted opportunity. Biehn in general is good, he usually is, but the character is a tad too patriotic to give a possibility of pushing him in the direction of having a bit more of a personality. John Spencer and William Forsythe are very good, especially the unlikable Womack is eventually a really fun character to watch. Morse is brilliant as Baxter, but not much more can be said here. The script and perhaps Bay didn’t thrive on the opportunity to give the Marines more of unique personalities, just a bunch of professional mercenaries. Knowing the conflict that ensues by the end of the movie, having them as more distinct character could help a bit.
The score works very well, but is very messy. The backstory here shows that it couldn’t be any different in the background it was created in. First composer slated to score it was Nick Glennie-Smith, who co-created Hans Zimmer’s sound in the mid-90s and additional composer on scores such as Crimson Tide and in this case most importantly Bay’s debut film Bad Boys. Based on that work, he was hired for The Rock. Bay loved the arrangements but hated the themes and as a last resort Hans Zimmer was brought in to add some themes and rearrange some cues accordingly. The rescue job was done with the help of Harry Gregson-Williams (who got a prominent additional music credit in the movie and – interestingly – a main credit on the album), Steven M. Stern, Don Harper and an uncredited Russ Landau. The resulting score is highly effective but probably psychologically ruined Glennie-Smith. Zimmer never wanted to be officially credited for the rescue job on what “was always a Nick score”, as he once put it. The album, most often associated with Zimmer, was a huge success and started many people’s interest in film music including yours truly. What can I say, it IS fun.
The Rock is a modern classic and the only instance of a Michael Bay movie that really makes sense. Bad Boys was huge fun, but had many mistakes that could be explained by the fact that it was a commercial director first attempt at a feature. Both movies showed a potential which the director completely and utterly wasted in further efforts. Maybe a lot of it doesn’t make sense, maybe the way the military procedure is shown is completely wrong (where is Michael Mann when you need him? Bay never thought of getting his actors through proper training? I mean, a boot camp?), but still. The Rock is fun, tense, well-made, well-acted and well-told. I wonder if the director doesn’t still regard it as his best movie. Almost 15 years after it was made, it still looks very good and gets all the points it should get. Heavily recommended.