The name Michael Bay and the phrase "great film" don''t often appear together. Bay has proven with films such as Armageddon and the Transformers franchise to be the poster child of the current Hollywood "wham-bam-thank you ma''am!" style of filmmaking. That is...
The name Michael Bay and the phrase "great film" don''t often appear together. Bay has proven with films such as Armageddon and the Transformers franchise to be the poster child of the current Hollywood "wham-bam-thank you ma''am!" style of filmmaking. That is to say, the kind of filmmaking that emphasizes style over substance. And yet, back in the mid-1990s, Bay got the mix right for one film. That film was The Rock.
Part of which is down to the film''s cast and, in particular, its trio of lead actors. Sean Connery was having something of a comeback in the 1990s, and the film is a prime example of that. He exudes presence from his first scene nearly a half-hour into the film (despite his top billing) right up to his final shot. Whether he''s making quips ala James Bond (perhaps appropriately enough as his character of Mason is a former British agent) or taking on antagonists half his age while being a reluctant father figure to Nicholas Cage''s character, Connery is watchable throughout.
As are the other two members of the leading trio. The Rock seems to be the film that established Nicholas Cage as a bit of an action star, and it is here that his quirky but reluctant hero persona works best. That might be down to how well the thrown together relationship between his character of FBI chemical weapons specialist Goodspeed and Connery''s Mason works. Rounding out the trio is Ed Harris'' villain, Marine Corp Brigadier General Frank Hummel, the proverbial "good soldier" gone bad. What''s fantastic about Harris'' performance is that Hummel is in many ways sympathetic, a commanding officer who has seen too many men fight and die for their country without recognition. What he''s after isn''t some madcap take over the world scheme but a desperate, last-ditch attempt to have his men recognized but going about in a way that can only end tragically. Harris brings all these elements out in his performance, rounding off the lead cast with an underrated villain.
The supporting cast is strong as well, often featuring character actors. There''s the late John Spencer, on the eve of success in The West Wing (a series created by uncredited Rock scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin), as the FBI director reluctant to bring an imprisoned Mason out into the world again but forced to watch as events unfold. William Forsythe and Michael Biehn both come across well in their roles as the FBI special-agent-in-charge and as the leader of a Navy SEAL team sent in alongside Mason and Goodspeed. The highlights of the supporting cast though lie in the men occupying the former prison alongside Harris'' general from David Morse as his second in command Major Baxter as well as Tony Todd and Gregory Sporleder in stand out supporting roles where they offer a considerable amount of menace. They are just a few highlights from a strong cast.
Being a Bay film, it''s a visually stunning action film. From the stealing of the nerve gas by Hummel''s Marines to a destructive car chase across San Francisco, the film''s first hour showcases kinetic action sequences alongside its exposition to keeps the viewer''s attention glued to the screen. Once the film gets Mason and Goodspeed to Alcatraz in its second half, the film becomes a set of running battles involving the duo against the Marines. And yet, Bay proves he is just as capable of handling somber pieces such as the military funeral that helps form the opening credit sequence or the quieter scenes with Connery. Bay''s direction, the cinematography of John Schwartzman, and the editing of Richard Francis-Bruce make The Rock an action spectacle.
One with a difference, however. What separates this film from virtually everything Bay has directed to date (and his many imitators) is its script. The Rock is an intelligently plotted thrill ride full of intriguing characters and plot twists from its well-realized lead characters to its conclusion with all the complications that ensue. It also helps that the film is full of witty dialogue from Mason''s quips to many of the exchanges between Mason and Goodspeed. In a way, that the script is so good is a surprise given that a team of writers worked on it from the three credited writers (David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner) to uncredited contributions from Aaron Sorkin in addition to favored Connery script doctors Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. The result, however, is a better-written action flick than one might expect and the one example I can think of many hands producing a superb script.
The Rock then stands as perhaps the single best thing to come out of Bay''s directorial career. It was here that he found the right recipe between casting, action, spectacle, humor, and plot. Maybe that''s why, more than twenty years later, the film holds up as one of the best action films of the 1990s, as thrilling now as it was then.