Looking back at Michael Bay’s The Rock

It stars Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and an entire prison island full of great character actors. Ryan looks back at Michael Bay’s The Rock…

By now, Michael Bay’s latest giant robot opus, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon has assaulted cinemas with its chunky metal fists, and made a metric ton of money in the process. In its wake, like a shrieking Greek chorus, we’ve heard the usual derision that greets everything Bay makes.

The movie-watching world, therefore, appears to be separated into two sharply defined camps. On one side, we have the vocal group, who appear to think that Michael Bay is the antichrist with a steadycam rig, and on the other, a quieter faction, who keep paying money to go and watch his films.

Now, I’m not exactly a huge fan of Bay’s movies, but then, I don’t hate them, either. It’s true that his films are never anything more than loud, noisy and vacuous diversions for the masses, but done right, there’s nothing at all wrong with a splashy, entertaining summer film. Bay’s The Rock is an example of a splashy, entertaining summer film done very well indeed.

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Viewed again in 2011, The Rock is a pretty good example of Bay’s movie making style at its best, and also contains some pretty clear examples of the more unfortunate excesses that have dogged all his features, from Bad Boys to Dark Of The Moon.

First, let’s remind ourselves of The Rock‘s plot. The great Ed Harris plays Francis X Hummel, a disgruntled war veteran who, with his band of mercenaries in tow, holds 81 tourists hostage on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island. With an arsenal of deadly chemical weapons aimed squarely at the city, Hummel demands that the government pay millions of dollars’ worth of compensation money to the wives of fallen black ops soldiers.

Rather than shrug and simply cough up the cash, the US government bullishly decides instead to send in a crack squad of Navy Seals, led by Michael Biehn (who, if I’m not mistaken, is playing roughly the same character he played in Navy Seals six years earlier). To dismantle the deadly missiles, they send along dorky FBI weapons expert, Stanley Goodspeed (Nic Cage), and to help them through Alcatraz Island’s maze of corridors, they drag out ex SAS operative and former inmate, John Mason (Sean Connery).

This being a Michael Bay film, it takes absolutely ages for the setup outlined above to actually fall into place. Goodspeed’s ability to dismantle bombs is introduced in a jarringly odd encounter with a booby-trapped doll, while Mason’s age-defying abilities to injure and evade capture are related through a lengthy and unbelievably over the top chase through downtown San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, this latter sequence was Bay’s idea, and not in the original script.

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As the film’s younger co-star, Cage’s tic-filled performance is almost as over the top as Bay’s action scenes. Just look at his first appearance in the film, which merely requires him to open a large envelope. Cage uses his entire physical bulk to pull the thing open.

That Cage can overact even when opening an envelope provides a clue to his approach to the film as a whole. He plays the part big and broad, biting off large chunks of scenery as he utters such lines as, “We’re stuck on an island with a bunch of violence-for-pleasure seeking psychopathic Marines. Shame on them!”

A wholesome, yet eccentric character with a love of Beatles records and playing the guitar in the nude, Goodspeed’s nervy in a gunfight, yet surprisingly good at sliding at driving a Ferrari 355 sideways on busy city streets.

The film’s true star is, of course, Sean Connery. Well into his 60s by the time he began work on The Rock, he still displays all the menace and magnetism he brought to his Bond movies, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role with quite the same dynamism. The film could even be seen as a late adventure for an elderly Bond.

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The Rock is lifted further by a remarkable supporting cast, which includes William Forsythe and John Spencer as surly FBI types, and Tony Todd, David Morse and John C McGinley as a few of Ed Harris’ rent-a-villains.

The script, it has to be said, is something of a mixed bag. Writers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Jonathan Hensleigh and Aaron Sorkin made uncredited contributions to the script, while Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were apparently brought in to improve Sean Connery’s dialogue. Their contribution wasn’t mentioned, either, with only David Weisberg, Douglas Cook and Mark Rosner mentioned as writers in the credits.

While this jumble of writers results in some awkward expository lines and muddled sympathies (the movie stops short of making Hummel the out-and-out villain of the piece, which is quite unusual in an action film such as this), The Rock also contains some great oneliners, most of which are given to Connery.

While The Rock‘s plot touches on a few serious modern themes (terrorism, patriotism, the treatment of war veterans), it’s a pure boys’ own action fantasy at heart. In fact, parts of The Rock could even be described as The Goonies with more guns in it. The dark underbelly of Alcatraz Island, as depicted in the film, is a maze of mine carts, deadly jets of fire and rickety walkways.

You could, of course, spend hours picking fault with The Rock‘s factual inaccuracies and acrobatic leaps of logic. It’s worth noting, for example, that the chemical weapons that Goodspeed has to find and disable look more like 60s ceiling decorations than something that could kill thousands of people.

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All of this daftness merely adds to the fun. There’s loads and loads of great, improbable action throughout The Rock, from a gravity-defying tram, a villain dangling with his legs on fire, to another hapless goon knocked through a window by a speeding rocket, Wile E. Coyote-style.

Even Bay’s frenetic, relentlessly showy filmmaking style lends itself well to The Rock‘s breezy action. The director later demonstrated that, when he turns his hand to swooning historical romance, as he did in Pearl Harbor, the results are horribly insipid. This is probably because Bay’s far more interested in stuff happening than people talking, and when he sticks to action rather than words, as he does in The Rock, the results are far more convincing.

As is the case in all Bay films, the camera never, ever stays still in The Rock. It’s like a fidgety child on a long bus ride. Bay’s shots whizz and pan, dolly and glide, pausing only occasionally to admire one of the film’s only female characters, Goodspeed’s girlfriend, Carla (Vanessa Marcil). It’s stated on IMDb that the average length of each shot in The Rock is a mere 2.6 seconds. This isn’t so much an action movie as a sugar rush of shooting and fruity dialogue.

Bay’s attention deprived eye, and the script’s absurd collision of the vaguely plausible (rogue soldiers going off the rails) and the insanely outlandish (Sean Connery crushing a VW Beetle in a stolen Humvee) is undoubtedly what makes it work so well as a big action movie.

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Of the numerous action movies that appeared in the 90s, two of which also starred Nicolas Cage, The Rock is surely one of the biggest, loudest, and most attention seeking. This is probably why, even fifteen years later, it’s still so much fun to watch.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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