Review: The Rock (1996)

The Rock is the perfect synthesis of the Michael Bay formula. This being the case, it’s also his best movie. It’s a rigorously entertaining action film with colourful characters, an intriguing conceit, and Bay’s typically-invigorating style. If you’re looking for one Michael Bay film that you don’t have to add a bunch of qualifiers to enthusiastically champion, The Rock is for you.

The plot of The Rock concerns a disgruntled brigadier general (Ed Harris) who holds the city of San Francisco hostage from Alcatraz, using M55 rockets armed with VX nerve gas to demand money and transportation out of the country in payment for what he sees as mistreatment by the United States government. The task of stopping him falls to chemical weapons expert, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), and political prisoner and former SAS captain, John Mason (Sean Connery), who is the only man known to have escaped from Alcatraz.

Similar to other nineties blockbusters like Independence Day, The Rock abounds with cliché in terms of plotting. Characters are defined by their necessities to the plot, ancillary characters pop up to shout zippy one-liners that deliver exposition, and the film’s conflict is resolved through improbable, but emotionally-satisfying, coincidences and changes of heart. But The Rock executes these cliches with such gusto and precision that the film becomes stirring. As well, like with Bad Boys, The Rock is not about clever plot machinations, but about how the plot allows for fanciful demonstrations of formal technique and braggadocio.

The Rock also solidifies and clarifies many of Bay’s primary interests. If the swagger and lustiness of Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) in Bad Boys established one major character type in the films of Michael Bay—the sexed-up macho man—The Rock establishes the other archetypes that fascinate Bay. Here, our hero is Stanley Goodspeed, the sort of high-energy nerd who presages Sam Witwicky in the first three Transformers films. Goodspeed’s strength is his mixture of intelligence and morality, but he’s also quick-witted and not afraid to use a gun when he has to. He is a reluctant hero—he only agrees to the assignment because he believes it will be an advisory role—but when all other options are exhausted, he rises to the occasion and saves the city.

Mason here represents the other dominant character-type in the films of Michael Bay. He is the no-nonsense mentor who operates outside official structures, but has the intelligence, strength, and unwavering sense of morality in the face of damnation that is required to save the day. For instance, Mason often comments on his lack of care about the fate of the city, but when the SEAL team is killed and Goodspeed is in a fix, he returns to save the day and assure the city’s survival. In many ways, his mixture of gravitas and frank determination anticipates the other aging heroes of Bay’s filmography, from Bruce Willis’ Harry Stamper in Armageddon to Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton in Transformers: The Last Knight.

In fact, The Rock does a lot to clarify Michael Bay’s philosophy beyond mere character types. If Bad Boys showcases Bay’s interests in swagger and sex, The Rock outlines his distrust of institutions and his unwavering belief in the righteousness of individuals. For example, the central conflict of The Rock is precipitated because the government of the United States has failed to uphold its promises to those that serve its ranks. Harris’s Brigadier General Hummel only takes the city of San Francisco hostage after the US government refuses to compensate the families of dead marines who served under him in shadow wars over the past decade. Hummel’s dejection at the failure of governmental institutions is mirrored by Mason’s hatred of the US government because it illegally imprisoned him for 30 years.

Both men are justified in hating the government, and yet, both men demonstrate their inherent virtue in the end by protecting the society that has failed them through its institutions. Hummel ultimately refuses to use the rockets on San Francisco and take civilian life, sacrificing himself in the process, and Mason risks his life to complete the mission of the men who kept him captive for 30 years. For Bay, the individual compensates for the deficiency of the institution.

It is true that Bay does fetishize aspects of institutions and the government. He loves military procedure and ranks and the weaponry that the army has access to, but in his films, the military is never an uncomplicated good. It is merely the means of acquiring whatever tools are necessary to save the day. The hero is never a grunt within the military structure itself; instead, he is almost always an outsider who takes over where the military has failed, whether that means Goodspeed and Mason finishing the job the Navy SEALS failed to complete in The Rock, or Bruce Willis and his drillers saving the world when NASA astronauts could not in Armageddon or Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager saving the world when the government and army have been compromised in Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Last Knight.

Michael Bay believes in exceptionalism and militarism and the need for strong men to use big weapons to save the day, but he is not trusting of institutions and the blind loyalty they demand. He believes that a few extraordinary individuals will save the day and that institutions like the military and government are (at-best) embraced with caution. Despite his reputation as a shiller of empty American exceptionalism, this is a shallow reading of Bay. Even his most openly patriotic film, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,is about men acting against orders in order to do the right thing and make up for institutional failure.

While The Rock is essential to figuring out Bay’s worldview, it’s primarily a great action film. The kinetic movement of his camera, beginning in the opening scenes where Hummel and his men steal the VX nerve gas, recalls the kineticism of Hong Kong action filmmakers like John Woo and Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Bay pushes film action to its limits, disregarding the laws of physics in favour of impact and style. Bay understands that the camera is not tied to the reality of what it is depicting; in fact, the camera can obscure the deficits of reality and exaggerate ordinary movement. For example, in The Rock, even a simple action like breaking a man’s neck is worthy of a full-speed dolly push to accentuate its energy.

The Rock also finds Bay experimenting with intensified continuity years before it became popular in Hollywood. In particular, the car chase of Goodspeed pursuing Mason down the hills of San Francisco is barely-less fragmented than the Tangiers chase in The Bourne Ultimatum. Shots last fractions of seconds and the camera coverage constantly shifts between dozens of angles of the cars hurtling down the streets, destroying everything that stands in their way. By shooting in this manner, Bay is exaggerating the action on screen, expanding its scale without changing the physical reality of the scene. For instance, if he shows one car getting demolished from three different angles, it’s as if three cars have been destroyed instead of just one, but he doesn’t need to actually destroy three cars to achieve this impact. It’s a cunning way of using the freedom of the camera and the cutting room to balloon impact without ballooning costs. It also makes the action on screen inescapable. Adrenaline is saturated when action is occurring at dozens of different angles every second.

Michael Bay is furthering his filmmaking ability in The Rock at the same time as he is cementing his worldview. This is his best film and is as rock-solid an example of nineties action cinema as exists. The Rock is not free of Michael Bay’s excesses or his sometimes-objectionable way of viewing the world; but it does contain the most perfect channelling of those excesses in the service of entertainment.

Just as Mason’s line “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen” demonstrates Michael Bay’s macho worldview, The Rock demonstrates Bay’s filmmaking abilities. This is a very good movie. It is not smart, but it is coherent and especially cunning in the ways it invigorates the viewer. Pop cinema is rarely as satisfying.

8 out of 10

The Rock (1996, USA)

Directed by Michael Bay; written by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner, based on a story by David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook; starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, Vanessa Marcil, John C. McGinley; Gregory Sporleder, Tony Todd, Bokeem Woodbine.