Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Heavy Action: The Rock

Second time's the charm for Michael Bay.

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.
Enter Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), a chemical weapons expert who is called in to accompany a team of Navy SEALS and sneak into Alcatraz (The Rock), stop the terrorists and disarm the missiles. Here's the problem -- Alacatraz (THE ROOOOOOOCK!!) is impenetrable, and the SEALS have no way of getting in undetected. But wait! The U.S. Government remembers that they have been illegally imprisoning British national John Mason (Sean Connery) for 30 years, and he's the ONLY person to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz The Rock. Trouble is that Mason (rightfully) hates the U.S. Government and wants no part of the mission -- at least until he's promised a pardon and it is explained that an attack on San Francisco would result in the death of his daughter, the only person in the world he cares about. Mason gets on board, and the team makes their way into The Rock...

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.

The Rock deserves a lot of praise and an equal amount of blame (if not more) for being the movie that gave us Nicolas Cage, Action Star. That was one of its best qualities when it was released in 1996 -- not since Bruce Willis in Die Hard was there such an unconventional choice for an action lead (and, like Willis with Die Hard, the entire course of Nicolas Cage's career was altered by the movie's success). Without the success of The Rock, though, we could have been spared Bangkok Dangerous and Next and Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and any number of terrible, lazy movies that exist because this movie made him a bankable action star. In the words of Billy Wilder, we have to take the sour with the sweet.
Close to 20 years later, Cage's performance remains one of the highlights of The Rock, because he doesn't just try to play Regular Action Guy. He embraces his against-type casting and finds a clever way into the material, clearly having a good time running around and being goofy in this kind of big-budget blockbuster. Once upon a time, that kind of casting against type was exciting, especially because I was a huge Nicolas Cage fan at that point (and anyone who thinks Cage started "slumming" once he became a big star is clearly forgetting Trapped in Paradise and Guarding Tess and Fire Birds and Amos & Andrew, all movies made prior to The Rock) and his performance in the movie validated my support of all his weirdness and eccentricities. It's not often that action movies are memorable for the performances -- it's usually the quality of the action or the fight choreography or the violence or any number of non-acting qualities. But a huge reason that The Rock works and we're still talking about it 17 years later is because of Cage.

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.
About Sean Connery. He's one of the things that people like best about The Rock. He gets to be grouchy and cool and borrow your Humvee and say terrible lines about how winners get to fuck the prom queen. I like Sean Connery and all, but I don't get it. To me, he has always seemed openly miserable in The Rock, not really giving a performance as much as going through the motions. I'm sure it doesn't help that his only real character trait is that he keeps trying to leave (it gets ridiculous, like Brad Pitt walking over the hill to "come home" in Legends of the Fall), but he looks irritated, and not as a character choice. Maybe it was trying to act opposite Nic Cage's MEGA-ACTING (TM, Outlaw Vern) or maybe he and Bay didn't get along. A number of reports on the production support the latter theory, but Bay says on the commentary track for the movie's Criterion Collection laserdisc (!!) that he and Connery got on just fine because they're both guys who don't tolerate bullshit. Bay says he doesn't bullshit, and that sometimes he's even too honest. Ever notice that someone who describes him or herself as being "too honest" is probably just an asshole?

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.
The second big problem with The Rock -- and the thing that sinks just about every Michael Bay movie -- is the humor. TO BE FAIR, The Rock has waaaay less of it than every other Bay movie (further evidence as to why it's his best), and some of it is genuinely funny. Sometimes, it's a one-liner that's actually good, like Connery saying "Like what, kill him again?" Sometimes, it's just the craziness of Nicolas Cage's acting choices that gets laughs, like his refusal to swear or the odd word or phrase that he SHOUTS VERY LOUDLY. So in no way do the comedic aspects of the movie sink it the way they do the other movies Bay directs. But there are still signs of what's to come, like Anthony Clarke's effeminate hairdresser trying to score pandering, gay-panic laughs in the middle of a scene that's supposed to be setting Connery up as a revenge-minded badass. Bay hates gay people, who exist only to be mocked; the same goes for other races, overweight people and all women. When Harris and his soldiers take over Alcatraz, Bay yucks it up with a goofy tour guide wearing too-short shorts and a funny hat; later, he cuts back to "hilarious" black inmates making stupid jokes while being held prisoner by terrorists. The Rock is one of the few Michael Bay movies that feels like it has actual stakes, so why does the director keep undercutting them with his terrible humor?

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.


  1. I am by no means a "fan" of The Rock, but I will maintain it's the best I've seen of Bay's work, and for many of the reasons you mentioned, primarily the fact that it's high on action and low on stupid or offensive humor. Also, Ed Harris is always a welcome addition to any Michael Bay movie. I will admit that it has been several years since I've seen the movie, though, so my memory of it is a little fuzzy.

  2. Yeah, this one's my favorite Bay movie too. Though I haven't seen Bad Boys in years and years.

    Speaking of Sean Connery, what if we could retro-cast Dwayne The Rock Johnson in The Rock as Sean Connery's character? I know, it doesn't work, but think of some of those lines in his delivery. Like the one about the prom queen. And when Nic Cage asks "how in the name of Zeus's butthole did you get out of your cell---" then The Rock could say "IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW I GOT OUT OF MY CELL!"

    I think I'd rather see that movie. It'd be terrible, but I think I'd rather see it.

  3. How's Ed Harris in "Pain & Gain"? From the podcast you make it sound like Ed plays the only remotely human character that shows up, but is he any good?

    "The Rock" is peculiar because, even though the main villain and the heroes are cool and relatable, you don't get the sense of release when the showdown between them finally happens (like Matrix vs. Bennett in "Commando"). It's just done and taken care of, then the missile stoppage takes over. Like I said over the weekend though, "The Rock" rocks (sorry!) and is easily the best thing Bay has ever done... so far.

  4. I echo Patrick's thoughts on this film (although I actually do like the prom queen line.) One thing I remember hating about the film when I first saw it in theatres with my dad was that Michael Biehn is killed off in the movie, I was furious that Corporal Hicks wasn't leading the charge. I was just introduced to Aliens and The Abyss and for a brief time I considered him the best action hero of all time (my opinion has evolved since then.)

    Rewatching this film recently I do have to ask the folks at F this movie, would you answer the phone if you were in the middle of making hot passionate love with your significant other? It's something that a lot of action movies seem to have the hero do (this film included) that just drives me nuts.

    1. The answering the phone thing is stupid, but it gives Bay the chance to show the movie's only significant female character as a) a sex object and b) an annoying nag who complains that her FBI agent boyfriend might have to work when the country is under the threat of terrorism. Women are the worst!

      I don't "like" that Michael Biehn dies, but I think it's interesting in the way that it plays against our expectations -- like Steven Seagal's appearance in Executive Decision. The guy we always get to see kick ass in movies gets taken out, and we're left with the guy from Honeymoon in Vegas.

    2. Norm MacDonald has a bit on how women are able to answer the phone during sex (men are way too primal at that moment to do so) so maybe it's not that far-fetched?

      I don't remember this movie well enough from the one time I watched it when it came out but it sounds like it's worth giving another shot!