Crossing the line movie car chases: The Rock

To celebrate the incoming Need For Speed Rivals, we've been taking a look at the excellent car chase in The Rock...

Our look at ten classic chases and pursuits from the movies – in the build-up to the launch of EA’s Need For Speed Rivals game – continues here, with (and here are words rarely used together) a Michael Bay classic. The Rock came before the excesses of the Transformers movies, and seems almost low budget in comparison. It’s not of course, and it’s got a corking car chase in it too. So let’s take a look…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7LUg4RXUV8

The film

From his very first feature, 1994’s Bad Boys, director Michael Bay established himself as an orchestrator of loud and wilfully over-the-top Hollywood movies. Having begun his career at the helm of glossy commercials and rock videos, Bay’s big-screen career began under the tutelage of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, whose own appetite for the loud and brash dovetailed perfectly with Bay’s sensibilities.

Bay’s second film, the action thriller The Rock, sets itself up early as a larger-than-life, trashy epic. Nicolas Cage stars as the absurdly named Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical weapons expert whose knowledge comes in handy when disgruntled General Hummel (Ed Harris) takes over San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island and threatens to destroy the Bay Area with deadly rockets filled with VX gas.

When the FBI decide to sneak a team of Navy SEALs onto the island to take it by force, Goodspeed’s sent along to consult. And to help the team sneak into Alcatraz’s maze of underground tunnels, incarcerated MI-6 agent John Mason (Sean Connery) is taken out of prison to act as a guide. Unfortunately, Mason proves to be a master escape artist who refuses to do as he’s told, which brings us to the film’s memorably explosive car chase…

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The rivalry

It says a lot about Michael Bay’s ‘more is more’ approach to filmmaking that the five-minute car chase in The Rock’s first act could have been left out entirely; as far as the story’s concerned, Mason simply wants to evade capture for a few moments so that he can catch up with his estranged daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in years. But rather than have Mason use his skills as an escape artist to give the FBI the slip, he instead puts the story on hold for a gratuitous but entertaining jaunt through the streets of San Francisco.

Having escaped from a luxury hotel, Mason hops into a gigantic Hummer waiting outside, and promptly drives off in it. Goodspeed rushes off in hot pursuit, and as you’d expect in a Michael Bay film, decides to commandeer what’s perhaps the most expensive car in the entire city –  a yellow Ferrari F355.

The driving

Using the superior weight and size of his Humvee, Mason gleefully smashes his way through everything in his path, as the cops and FBI give chase in a selection of bouncy cars and SUVs.

With the film taking place in San Francisco, Michael Bay refuses to ignore the chance to reference the classic thriller Bullitt, with The Rock‘s chase scene taking place on what appear to be the exact same steep city roads as Peter Yates’ 1968 film.

At the same time, Bay doesn’t even try to resist the temptation to destroy things at every turn – every single shot sees Mason demolish something in his tank-like Hummer, from poor old VW Beetle (complete with 60s flowers painted on the side) to a truck full of water cooler bottles.

Goodspeed, on the other hand, has no such luxury, and given that his character’s meant to be a bit of a timid desk jockey, he handles the relatively fragile Ferrari with remarkable skill. Quite how he manages to drive through so much carnage and debris without so much as puncturing a tyre, however, is a mystery.

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Crossing the line

As far as crossing the boundaries of dangerous driving go, Mason does so the second he applies his foot to the accelerator. We naturally understand that he’s desperate to see his daughter one last time – or at least, we do so later – but how many lives does he endanger in the process? At the very least, the number of whiplash claims would be astronomical (“I hope you’re insured!” Mason crows out of the window, as he demolishes yet another vehicle in a ball of flame).

This disregard for life and limb is almost cartoonish, and there’s a real sense that Bay isn’t expecting audiences to take anything that happens particularly seriously. In this respect, The Rock’s car chase could be seen as the precursor to the Fast & Furious franchise’s later entries, such as the scene in Fast Five where most of Rio is destroyed during its final pursuit sequence.

As Goodspeed finally catches up with Mason’s Hummer, the chase reaches its absurd climax. As a little old lady shuffles across the road, Mason finally displays a shred of humanity, and swerves to avoid her – and in so doing, smashes his Hummer straight into one of San Francisco’s trademark trams.

The tram skitters out of control, sending passengers leaping out of it in terror. And as Goodspeed’s Ferrari spins into a crash, the tram’s thrown up into the air by an improbably large explosion (what did that van have in it? Semtex?), and comes sliding down one of the city’s steep hills, totalling the Ferrari and nearly crushing Goodspeed at the same time.

It’s said that, on average, an average shot in The Rock only amounts to about two seconds. That certainly feels like the case in this chase sequence, where Bay’s shaking camera and manic editing serve to add to the cartoonish sense of chaos. And while it’s quite obvious that the in-car shots of Cage and Connery shouting and wrestling with their steering wheels are blue-screened and recorded long after the fact, this only adds to the sense of fun.

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The Rock’s extraneous car chase entertains by sheer brute force, and while it certainly isn’t clever, it’s not a scene that’s easily forgotten.