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Review: The Rock (1996)

The Rock (1996)

Directed by: Michael Bay

Premise: A renegade group of Marines take over Alcatraz and threaten to attack San Francisco with chemical weapons. A former Alcatraz inmate (Sean Connery) and a biochemist (Nicolas Cage) join a SEAL team in an effort to thwart the terrorists.

What Works: It has become fashionable among film critics to regard Michael Bay as the personification of the worst elements of Hollywood filmmaking. Truthfully, the director brought it on himself by repeatedly and solely making loud, obnoxious, and stupid movies like Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers series as well as producing ill-advised horror remakes like 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. But before he was the scourge of the critical establishment, Michael Bay proved himself to be a filmmaker who was capable of extraordinary showmanship. The Rock was only his second directorial feature but it remains his best film and the picture is a standout entry in the action genre. The Rock was made in the mid-1990s at a time when computer generated imagery was used sparingly and like Die Hard with a Vengeance and Speed the movie benefits from a favorable combination of practical and digital effects. Even though the action sequences of this film are big, the filmmakers maintain a credible scale. The sets and the violence retain their grit and the fights and shootouts have a peril and panic that is missing from similar movies. The Rock also demonstrates a balance between action and story that is missing from much of Bay’s later work and it includes a cast of compelling characters. The story begins with a disillusioned Marine general (Ed Harris) who extorts the United States government under the threat of a biological weapon. But the character isn’t motivated by greed; he is protesting the unrecognized and uncompensated deaths of the men under his command and that gives the character a sympathetic motive that makes him much more complicated than the standard action movie villain. The villain’s complicated motives put something very real at stake and—quite amazingly for a Michael Bay film—give the story some substance. The leading role of The Rock is played by Nicolas Cage as a nerdy biochemist. Cage has since become a fixture of action movies but in 1996 this was an unusual role for the actor. Cage does not overplay the toughness or the weirdness as he has in later performances and his awkwardness makes him a much more interesting lead character. The Rock also features Sean Connery as a former prisoner of Alcatraz and he brings a lot of gravitas to the role both as an action star but also as a dramatic actor. Connery and Cage form an action odd couple familiar from movies like Lethal Weapon and their comic banter is funnier than a lot of other buddies-in-action movies.

What Doesn’t: The shortcomings of The Rock are often minor versions of major flaws in Michael Bay’s later movies. The Rock includes nowhere near the excess of Bad Boys II and Transformers but the car chase in the middle of the film is gratuitous property destruction that does not forward the story. The movie also foretells the racist robots of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with tangential African American characters who behave like racial caricatures. Many of the entries on Michael Bay’s filmography suffer from pompous self-importance and fascistic deference to the military and The Rock has shades of this as well. Because the premise of the story puts so much at stake and because the military characters are so complex, these elements are easier to take in The Rock than in Bay’s other movies but some of the dialogue sounds silly instead of macho.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, outtakes, interview with Jerry Bruckheimer, trailers, and TV spots.  

Bottom Line: The Rock is one of the great action movies because it balances the showmanship required by the action genre with a compelling story and memorable characters. It’s a shame that Michael Bay lost his grasp of these elements in his later movies but The Rock remains an excellent example of what an action film can be when it’s made by a skilled filmmaker with a talented cast and a good script.

Episode: #434 (April 7, 2013)