This article contains The Rock spoilers
Michael Bay has made a career out of big, explosive, action movies. That’s sort of his brand. His 1996 film The Rock fully fits that category, but it is somehow more than the sum of its bullets and bravado. Even amid the carnage, the film never loses sight of the human stake, something that sadly can’t be said for most of his other films.
The Rock stars Nicolas Cage as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, a FBI chemical weapons specialist shanghaied into storming Alcatraz and neutralizing the warheads controlled by a group of disgruntled US Marines. He is assisted by John Mason (Sean Connery), a former inmate of Alcatraz who is more than meets the eye. The Rock is one of the finest performances of Connery’s late-stage career and just a great movie all-around.
1. General Francis Hummel, Reluctant Villain
The Rock goes to great pains to show General Hummel (Ed Harris) isn’t a mustache-twirling maniac. He’s a hero at the end of his rope, a man tired of sending young soldiers to their deaths just to have the US government shrug and do it again. Even resolved to this path, he is restrained and reluctant. Hummel has several scenes where he demonstrates that he is a man of his morals, such as when he sends the school kids away from Alcatraz before his team seizes the island.
Hummel’s decision to fire a missile when the deadline passes surprises us because that’s not who he is. Mason even tells Dr. Goodspeed that Hummel won’t do it. “He’s a soldier, not a murderer.” Hummel is sort of coerced into it by his overly-eager men, but he still gives the order. Our disappointment becomes delight when Hummel slyly diverts the missile into the ocean. He’s a flawed man, but he’s no killer.
2. The Rock
In the American psyche, few locations inspire the dreadful awe of Alcatraz. It’s a haunted house and a somber Siberian prison in one, surrounded by icy-cold, shark-infested waters. The Rock does a wonderful job evoking the island’s mystique, both obliquely as the Navy Seals skulk through the island’s underbelly, and more directly when the Park Ranger narrates some of the prison’s history, making the location itself an important character in the movie.
3. The Great Escape
Mason’s introduction is one of the best parts of the film. In somewhat hushed tones, the FBI discusses bringing in Mason to help. It’s clearly a matter of last resort. The setup makes it seem like Mason is a dangerous killer, and though he is that, the truth is a bit more nuanced. We are therefore naturally wary of him, even if simultaneously charmed by Connery’s brogue.
Later, while singing rather poorly in the shower, Mason conspires his next in a long line of escapes. He orders enough room service to bury the FBI agents in bagels and slips the shower’s clothesline up his sleeve. Connery ends up using the clothesline like a noose, dangling the duplicitous FBI deputy director off the balcony by his wrist. Dr. Goodspeed is forced to rescue the director, letting Mason slip away.
4. John Mason’s Special Assignment
After a prolonged car chase that destroys at least 100 cars and one trolley, Mason escapes from the Feds. Dr. Goodspeed discovers Mason has a daughter in San Francisco and watches from a discrete distance as Mason tries to reconnect with a woman he hasn’t seen since she was 10. The reunion is interrupted by sirens. Mason painfully admits they are coming for him.
Before the Feds can lead Mason away in cuffs, Goodspeed intercedes, telling Mason’s daughter that he is working with them. It’s a beautiful gesture toward a man who just destroyed half the city and–to Goodspeed’s knowledge–is a dangerous killer. Any other FBI agent would’ve thrown Mason to the ground and slapped cuffs on him, but Goodspeed is a compassionate man. It cost him nothing to grant Mason that little kindness. The seeds of the eventual friendship between the two men were first planted here.
5. The Shower Room Face-off
There is an interesting bit of cat-and-mouse that occurs throughout the film’s first half. General Hummel is intimately aware of the military’s tactics and its capabilities. Nonetheless, the military sends its finest Navy Seal team. What else can they do?
The Seals infiltrate the island and move about successfully, but eventually trigger an alarm in the shower room. Hummel’s men surround the room from an upper balcony. They have all the high ground, enough to make Obi-Wan proud. Despite the suicidal disadvantage, the Seals won’t back down. The stalemate is finally broken when a bit of broken concrete stumbles to the floor, triggering itchy fingers on both sides. Hummel shouts for a ceasefire but is drowned out by the onslaught.
It is a gut-wrenchingly tragic scene as the Seals are slaughtered. Neither side views the other as the enemy (apart from a few working with Hummel). They are brothers-in-arms, forced into conflict by circumstance. At literally any other time, they would’ve been fighting for each other.
6. John Mason 2, Alcatraz 0
As the film races toward Hummel’s deadline, our heroes find themselves locked in cells. Goodspeed starts monologues in that meandering, somewhat off-kilter way that only Cage can. All the while, Mason silently works on engineering a way out of his cell. It eventually dawns on Goodspeed that Mason was in this situation before and somehow escaped. He calls out to Mason as respectfully as he can. “How in the name of Zeus’ butthole did you get out of your cell?” The answer: an improvised grappling hook made using the wheel from a cot and strips of mattress cover.
This genius bit of improvisation aside, the scene marks a definite turning point in the men’s relationship. To this point, they have been adversaries and allies of convenience. For the first time, despite ample evidence of Mason’s ridiculous competency, Goodspeed is genuinely impressed. He begins to see Mason as more than just a convict and he begs Mason to help him disarm the remaining missiles.
7. The President’s Speech
I think we can all agree that Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day is the gold standard when it comes to rah-rah presidential speeches given during action movies. But the speech given by the President (Stanley Anderson) in The Rock is just as moving.
As he debates giving the order for a missile attack on Alcatraz that will neutralize the chemical weapons and kill everyone on the island, the President monologues his internal dialogue. “These past few hours have been the longest, darkest of my life. How does one weigh human life? One million civilians against 81 hostages.” He regrets that they have failed such a revered soldier as General Hummel and then makes the call. It’s a stirring sequence. No action, no bullets, just a man grappling with something far larger than himself.