Michael Bay's sophomore effort, 1996's The Rock, is generally considered in movie geek circles to be the director's best movie. Our own weekend poll confirmed as much. Maybe not everyone agrees; mainstream audiences would probably say Armageddon. 12-year olds and dummies? Transformers. This week, history is being rewritten to say that Pain & Gain is his best. And while I would agree that it's a much purer expression of Bay's view of the world -- he hates everyone and everything -- it's still not better than The Rock.
A disgruntled team of special forces led by General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) steal a supply of missiles armed with deadly VX gas (the kind of thing we wish we could disinvent) and break into Alcatraz -- sorry, "the rock" -- to take a tour group hostage and demand that the U.S. government pay them $100 million, which will be dispersed to the families of soldiers who died on covert missions and whose memories have not be sufficiently honored. Should the government not pay, Hummel and his team will launch the missiles at San Francisco, wiping out the population with VX gas.
And from there, things get exciting and violent and, surprise surprise, pretty compelling, with some standout set pieces, including one memorable one in the shower room, and another weird cart chase that recalls Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The screenplay, by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner, is maybe the best one Bay has ever worked with. It's no wonder -- in addition to the original writers, the script received uncredited rewrites from Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin, all Academy Award-winning screenwriters. Nicolas Cage came up with a lot of his own dialogue, too. There were a lot of cooks in this particular kitchen is my point. That's nothing new for a Bay movie; Bad Boys shot without a finished script, and at least nine writers worked on Armageddon. It's a miracle that he's able to piece together a movie at all under those circumstances, especially one that's as PRETTY GOOD as The Rock.
But the real reason The Rock works? It's Ed Harris.
Ed Harris is so good in The Rock. He's so good that he gets us to sympathize with the bad guy. He's so good that he gets us to sympathize with a human being in a Michael Bay movie for the first and last time. He is a great villain because he's not really a villain, just a guy who loves a country he feels let him down. He is still acting as a terrorist and his actions should not be condoned, but the film makes it clear that he is an honorable man who lives and dies by a code; most of the other characters on both sides of the good/bad line can't say as much. John Mason is, in many ways, a mirror image of Harris' Gen. Hummel -- a man betrayed by the people in charge, the ones who are supposed to be looking out for our best interests. Both are angry. Both hold a grudge. What separates them is what they choose to do with their anger. Hummel holds a city for ransom. Mason is able to put his anger aside to help, though it's established that it's really only because his daughter JADE ANGELOU (fuck you, screenwriters) lives in San Francisco, because who cares about nearly a million people when Claire Forlani's life is on the line.
Beyond the often obnoxious dialogue and uneven characterization, there are two big problems with The Rock that don't sink the movie, but which foreshadow some of the issues that would plague every subsequent Michael Bay film. The first problem is that it takes far too long for the actual plot to kick in. No joke -- it's a movie named after Alcatraz, about guys who take over Alcatraz and more guys who have to sneak into Alcatraz and the characters don't get to Alcatraz until an hour into the film. This is a problem that would repeat itself in a number of Bay's movies; think about how long it takes for the robots to really do anything in Transformers, or the endless wait for the actual attack on Pearl Harbor in Pearl Harbor. The first hour of The Rock is spent dicking around San Francisco, setting up character bits (like the fact that Goodspeed likes classic rock so that later on when he makes an incredibly belabored "Rocket Man" joke, we all think "Oh, right, because he listens to old vinyl records and that's why he made that quip before shooting a missile into a guy's stomach") and, most egregiously, staging one of the worst car chases in movie history.
The car chase is bad on a number of levels. For one, it has nothing to do with the story. It's a forced action beat -- an unnecessary NOISY sequence that neither informs nor reflects the characters. It's destruction for the sake of destruction, because Bay likes to orchestrate and shoot that sort of thing. And he's usually good at it; the car chases in both Bad Boys II and The Island are spectacular (probably because they're the same sequence). But the car chase in The Rock is one of the worst action set pieces Bay has ever put on film, losing almost all sense of geography (say what you will about Michael Bay, but he's usually pretty good at keeping a frame of reference in his movies) and faking energy and chaos where he shouldn't. Let's ignore that half of the city of San Francisco is wiped out for a chase with no stakes. The worst aspect of the chase is the way that Bay is constantly zooming and shaking the camera to manufacture "business." For some reason, Paul Greengrass takes all the blame for inventing the shaky-cam approach to action filmmaking with his Bourne sequels, but Bay was doing that shit in the mid-'90s.
Again, the examples are limited in The Rock, because the movie is mostly played straight. There are a lot of one liners, sure, but that's not out of place in this kind of action movie -- they pretty much go with the territory. It's gorgeously shot, because that's one of those things that Bay knows how to do: the explosions always look EXTRA ORANGE and those poison gas balls are as green as the Emerald City. It's a hard R-rated, mean-spirited movie, once again proving that Bay's best movies are the ones where he's let off the leash and allowed to be the sociopath he is at heart. Because his films are usually big summer blockbusters and make a ton of money, the majority of them get pussified and rated PG-13; he still tries to be as dirty and racist as the rating will allow, but the true Michael Bay is the guy who made The Rock and Bad Boys II and Pain & Gain -- all incredibly violent and, even more, mean-spirited in their violence.
Though there was a bounty of classic action movies released in the early '90s (we'll call it the Silver Age, though it's more realistically a continuation of the '80s Golden Age), the post-Speed half of the '90s were not really a great time for the genre. The Rock stands out as one of the better efforts of the decade's second half, and proved to be one of the most influential action movies of recent years. Just one year later, we had two action movies starring Nic Cage (the delirious Face/Off and Con Air, for which director Simon West even rips off Bay's style). The Bay aesthetic presented here became the go-to look for a lot of Hollywood blockbusters.
Maybe The Rock succeeds because Bay was still hungry. He had already had one success with Bad Boys, but this was the movie that would confirm him either as a successful director of big-budget blockbusters or as a guy who got lucky once. He still had something to prove. Plus, there are elements of the movie that he wasn't able to overshadow -- Cage's goofy performance, or Ed Harris' solemn sincerity. It's dumber and more bloated than a lot of people remember, but it's a good action movie that delivers much of what we want out of the genre. If every one of Michael Bay's movies had been at least this good, we wouldn't have so much to complain about.