The Rock remains the best film that Michael Bay has made. It might not have the action-bombast of Bad Boys 2, the satirical edge of Pain & Gain, or the overwhelming intensity of 13 Hours, but the film simply works on every level as a tremendous piece of audience pleasing, late 90’s, high-concept action filmmaking that has only gotten better over the years as countless genre entries have come and gone. Directed with slick and gritty efficiency by Bay, who was in major Tony Scott mode with his first big-time blockbuster after 1995’s surprise hit Bad Boys, The Rock features a trio of big, brawny star turns from Nicolas Cage (the reluctant hero), Sean Connery (doing a riff on Bond), and Ed Harris (the morally conflicted villain), with a ridiculous supporting cast in tow. Made back when you could make such a picture for a somewhat affordable price tag and far more reliant on practical effects than excessive CGI, this is exactly the sort of movie we aren’t getting in cinemas these days, and that’s a damn shame, because when done correct, you get summer popcorn fun like this.
Successfully merging the buddy picture with formula elements from Die Hard, Bay was able to tap into his lightning-quick visual sensibilities, creating a super glossy San Francisco in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; while viewing this film on the Blu-ray format, one marvels at the filmic quality to the entire presentation. Bold, saturated colors dominate the endless horizon, almost always seen at sunrise or sunset, a classic visual motif that has been a signature shot for Bay in almost every single one of his features (if not all…), as John Schwartzman’s gorgeous cinematography set a modern standard that so many would ape in the following years. Richard-Francis Bruce’s dynamic editing was in perfect synch with the loaded visuals, while the tremendous musical score by Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Hans Zimmer is a bonafide all-timer, becoming sampled by numerous trailers over the years. The action was huge, from a breathless car chase throughout the crowded S.F. streets, to the all-out assault on Alcatraz that comprised much of the second and third acts.
The impact that The Rock has made on the action movie landscape is nearly indescribable, and stands as one the greatest Simpson-Bruckheimer collaborations, primarily because of its script. As written by David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner (with additional uncredited work done by Aaron Sorkin, Jonathan Hensleigh, Quentin Tarantino, Dick Clement, and Ian La Frenais), the film presents a semi-plausible yet still over the top scenario that’s just believable enough, but far-fetched to the point that the audience can disengage a bit and watching something extremely cinematic unfold. The decision to ground Harris’s chief baddie, General Hummel, in a fog of moral confusion and militaristic outrage has been one of the key ingredients to the overall success of The Rock, as it gives the film an edge in the character department. Because you’re able to understand General Hummel’s anger, his reason for action is all the more drastic and exciting. Harris brought his usual brand of steely intensity to every scene, and as a result, The Rock bristles with menace whenever Harris appears. But beneath the hostility were shades of confusion suggesting a complexity not normally afforded a gene picture such as this.
And then when you combine the Odd Couple-esque pairing of Cage and Connery, who honor the time-tested tradition of great buddy pairings, the narrative takes on yet another angle and runs with it all the way to the finish line. Cage got all the overtly funny lines, and would pave the way for his ascent into action hero mode with this quirky and sympathetic performance. And Connery, clearly having a blast playing a version of 007 within the more visceral confines of an R-rated picture, was all class at all times, bringing vigor and elegance to his role of an imprisoned spy who gets to use his old skills one more time to save the day. When you look at the list of actors in the supporting cast, the mind does somersaults: Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, Tony Todd, Philip Baker Hall, John Spencer, John C. McGinley, Vanessa Marcil, Claire Forlani, Stuart Wilson, Danny Nucci, Philip Baker Hall, Bokeem Woodbine, David Greg Collins, Gregory Sporleder, Brendan Kelly, David Marshall Grant, Xander Berkeley, and Jim Caviezel as F/A-18 Pilot. Bay had all the ingredients here – a disciplined screenplay, a phenomenal cast of actors, producers who knew exactly how to maximize every situation, and a populace of moviegoers who were extremely interested in this sort of decadent, big-budget cinematic pyrotechnics show. It still feels like yesterday that I went to see this film on opening night and then the next afternoon; 20 years have breezed by.
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