Sunday 26 March 2023

The Rock (1996)

Director: Michael Bay
Writers: David Weisberg and Douglas Cook, from a story by David Weisberg
Stars: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, John Spencer and John C. McGinley

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s another movie I’ve missed out on for a long time because I thought I’d seen it. That proved not to be the case and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a Michael Bay movie this much, not that it converts me into a fan. After all, the talent he had to work with here guarantees an interesting film at the very least.

And thank goodness for that because it’s as overblown as we might expect even before we get past the opening credits. There are lots of uniforms and medals and a sweeping score by Hans Zimmer. If we didn’t already know that this was a Michael Bay movie, we wouldn’t be at all surprised when his name shows up.

It’s raining through all of that and it’s still raining as Brigadier General Francis Hummel and his men break into a naval depot, murder American soldiers and wander off with fifteen M55 rockets loaded with VX gas. We find out what that means when the sixteenth drops, a toxic ball bursts and the man who doesn’t get out before they lock the doors melts horribly.

Ed Harris is spot on as Hummel, an excellent example of a villain who’s the hero of his own story. He’s pissed that he’s worked numerous secret missions for the U.S. government and a whole slew of his men were left behind, their families not even compensated for their loss. And so, to highlight this in a way nobody can ignore, he takes over Alcatraz and points the rockets at San Francisco. $100m in forty hours or he’ll start pressing the red button. And, as Dr. Stanley Goodspeed tells us, one rocket will kill sixty to seventy thousand people. “It’s one of those things we wish we could disinvent.”

In what might seem like a surprising casting choice to us today, the good doctor, who’s the FBI’s preeminent expert on chemical weapons, is played by Nicolas Cage. In the context of the time, it’s not surprising at all as, regardless of his admirable condition, he wasn’t yet known as an action star; in fact, the only time he had tried that, in Fire Birds, had backfired horribly. This opened him up to the potential of being the thinking man’s action hero, a man of brain who could transition to brawn if needed. That worked well here and took him to Con Air and Face/Off, the last of his First Thirty.

We see a lot of him here, because for much of the first half of the film, he’s clearly a lead character. Hummel’s the bad guy. Goodspeed’s the good guy. We learn that in his first scene of tension, dealing with a doll filled with sarin gas that his idiot assistant lets out. In case that wasn’t enough, the doll is also equipped with a bomb, so he has to defuse it while his bunny suit gradually melts. He’s a lot less cool when his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant.

Of course, as we know from the poster, Cage is not really the lead actor, because it’s a Sean Connery movie, arguably his last decent action flick, even though he doesn’t show up until 28 minutes in. So, is Cage a sidekick or the other half of a buddy cop movie? He’s kind of both, but the dynamic between them is a good one that only gets better as the film runs on.

Goodspeed’s a bit of a nerd. He really knows his stuff, but he also spends $600 on a Beatles album. He’s an FBI agent but he doesn’t tend to be deployed to the field. He’s a decent shot but he’s not used to carrying on duty. On the other hand, Connery’s character, John Patrick Mason, was British SAS, meaning that he’s the best of the best, even if he’s spent the last few decades languishing in an American cell, sans trial, because he has dirt on everyone, even if they have no idea where he hid the microfilm.

Yes, that does mean that conspiracy theory nuts will dig this too. The final line of dialogue is, “You wanna know who killed JFK?” Mason does and he’s not telling.

The reason that Mason’s in the film is that Hummel chose his rockets well. The standard counter to this type of gas is to use napalm but that doesn’t work on VX, so the military have to shift over to experimental thermite and it’s not likely to be ready in time. That means that the only hope we have is Mason, the only man to have ever escaped from Alcatraz, and who can presumably therefore sneak himself back in, with Goodspeed as his expert and a team of SEALs led by a confident Michael Biehn.

It shouldn’t surprise that it quickly ends up being just Mason and Goodspeed, so creating that buddy cop dynamic. Oh, and in case you might wonder why Mason doesn’t just get the hell out of there, he has a daughter who lives in San Francisco, so it’s in his best interests to ensure the mission succeeds. For absolutely no good reason, Goodspeed’s girlfriend also flies in; he doesn’t need any incentive, so it’s just a little added pressure to perform.

The two actors do work very well together. Connery plays a tough character but he’s also inherently calm, understandably confident in his abilities. Cage’s character is clearly out of his depth, but also notably capable. He does a lot of two tone dialogue escalations, delivering half of a line and then doubling emphasis and volume for the second half. Both get plenty of opportunity to shine here and, quite frankly, their double act is the best thing on offer.

Behind them are the other character actors who do reliable work. Harris is excellent, but he’s far from alone. David Morse, Tony Todd, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn... all deliver strong performances with showcase moments and they all help the film greatly.

Of course, the worst thing on offer is how it all gets wildly overblown, but Bay fans will see that as a positive. I have to admit I got a kick out of the outrageous car chase down the San Francisco hills, with Mason’s Humvee crashing into everything possible to block the way for the pursuing cops and Goodspeed in a Ferrari. The rail scene in the tunnels under Alcatraz is more stupid, unless it’s secretly the Temple of Doom. Zimmer plays up all these scenes.

This is what it is. Anyone who likes Michael Bay movies should love this particular one, as it features plenty of chases, explosions and all the elements they’ll expect, but with far more substance than any of the Transformers films. I get intensely bored with their overkill but this didn’t

Biehn and Connery throughout, even when it turned into a videogame for no good reason. Where else did they get that obstacle with the fire and the wheels and the intricate timing?

So I guess I do like one Michael Bay film.

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