This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday.
Michael Bay’s The Rock sees U.S. Marines, led by Ed Harris’ Brigadier General Frank Hummel, taking over the island prison of Alcatraz, now a tourist attraction, and keeping the tourists hostage until a ransom is paid to cover the money owed to unpaid troops. If the money is not paid, Hummel and his men will launch deadly chemicals into San Fransisco, killing thousands of people. The FBI arranges for a Navy Seal team to go after the marines, but to do so they need the help of a chemical weapon specialist, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) and John Mason (Sean Connery), the only man ever to survive an escape from Alcatraz. The Rock is commonly known as the most acceptable of Michael Bay’s directorial efforts, although personally I’ll happily watch any of them that don’t feature the Transformers or Pearl Harbor (that won’t be the film for Florida’s road trip segment). I even like The Island. As such, this may not be as negative a review as you might expect. For you see, whilst I agree that for the most part Bay’s films tend towards a lack of depth, logical narrative or characters that aren’t paper thin, they generally make up for this with regards to spectacle, humor and sheer entertainment value. The fact that they attract epic casts doesn’t hurt either.
The main draw of The Rock for me has to be the chance to see Cage and Connery sparring off one another. These are two actors who aren’t supposed to be on screen together. They both have very distinct approaches to acting, and it’s safe to say that their more traditional character choices don’t necessarily gel, but what could make for a better buddy feature? Cage’s Goodspeed (or Sshtanley Goodsshpeed, as Connery calls him and I refuse to stop imitating) is a tightly wound live wire, unused to field work and more at home listening to Beatles LPs or tinkering in his lab, whilst Connery’s Mason is gruff and uncouth, which isn’t surprising seeing as he’s been locked away for thirty years, unaware that the prison he used to call home is now an attraction that draws in the paying punters. They each have their individual character foibles – Mason has used his incarceration to develop his knowledge of philosophy, whilst Goodsshpeed is eager to hide his inexperience my parroting the advice the more trained men offer to him.A great action film needs heroes, yes, but it would be nothing without a decent villain. Hummel is a very sympathetic antagonist, as the mission he fights for is one that many would have a hard job saying no to; it’s just his methods that are more questionable. Harris is always solid, especially when playing hard-nosed figure of authority (see also Enemy at the Gates, Gone Baby Gone, Apollo 13) and here he walks the fine line of a villain you want to see defeated, but whose intentions and motivations remain understandable. Our introduction sees him as a man already personally defeated, striding across a rain-lashed graveyard as a military funeral takes place, only for his destination to be the grave of his wife, to whom he apologizes, stating there’s something he has to do. This is just one of the visually impressive and beautiful sequences present, ramping up to the luminous green string-of-pearls chemical configurations seen later in the film which, whilst initially looking fairly rudimentary, I personally find oddly beautiful, especially when juxtaposed against the then otherwise smokey grey/brown murk.Surrounding the three leads is a supporting cast of astounding proportions. Hummel’s men include John C. McGinley, David Morse, Tony Todd and Bokeem Woodbine, whilst back on the mainland the authorities protecting the city include John Spencer, William Forsythe and Philip Baker Hall. Popping up in smaller roles are the likes of Todd Louiso, Clare Forlani, Xander Berkeley, Danny Nucci and Vanessa Marcil, and a personal favorite of mine, Michael Biehn, has the pivotal role of the Navy Seal team commander, who also takes the lead in the film’s greatest scene, as the Seals first arrive in the prison to confront Hummel and his men. Casts this deep are something I’m immediately drawn to, especially when they’re peppered with generally underrated character actors, as is most definitely the case here. None of these actors are underused either, as they all have a moment somewhere to showcase themselves as a character. Granted, allowing this may bloat the runtime a little – the film clocks in at 136 minutes – but in epic action movie terms that’s positively lean. It’s just a shame that so few of the actors in question are stretching themselves from something they’ve already done countless times before. Then again, if you’re good at something, you stick to your strengths.Aside from the confrontation scene, there are several other grand set pieces amidst this movie. The first act car chase, setting a custard yellow Ferrari against a Humvee on the hills of San Fran, is a typical education in Michael Bay’s ability to take a standard chase and litter it with wanton destruction and explosions. It, like most of the rest of the film, remains just on the right side of insanity to be entertaining, without inducing eye rolls, and it gives composer Hans Zimmer a chance to practice his Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. The car chase contrasts with the earlier assault by the Marines on a naval weapons base, which suffers from frenetic camerawork and everyone involved being dressed the same, thereby making the scene both confusing and aggravating.It would be easy to knock this film for many typical flaws encountered amongst other generic big dumb action movies. Whilst it’s true that at times the script is a little ropey, the most egregious examples of this come naturally. Goodspeed, known to be something of a square, is gifted with such gems as “Why don’t we cut the chit-chat, A-hole,” and “Freeze, sucker,” which add to his persona of an inexperienced guy attempting to appear as macho as the situation requires. And when held up alongside Connery’s dialogue (“Loserssh alwayssh whine about their bessht, winnerssh go home and fuck the prom queen”) or Biehn’s (“We spilled the same blood in the same mud!”) I put it that the script is actually pretty darn effective. Now, I’m not suggesting it should have been nominated for an academy award, but it shouldn’t be derided either.Whilst it falls into a myriad of genre cliches – a finale set against the golden glow of sunrise, underwritten female characters, numerous silhouetted ‘hero’ poses, enough slow motion to practically double the film’s length – there’s more than enough pure entertainment to ignore the rest. There’s inventive yet fun death sequences, a stellar cast and action set pieces galore. Plus, you get to see Nicolas Cage, having sex. Granted, you may not necessarily want to see that, but you have to admit you’re at least a little bit curious.
Choose Film 7/10