The Rock

It's got action written all the way through it...

Released in 1996, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 06 Jan 2003 by Craig Eastman
The Rock image

It's testimony to the power once wielded by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer that they could take what is frankly a ludicrous concept, attract some of the most respected names in Hollywood, take onboard a hitherto untested director previously known only for his work in commercials and turn out one of the finest and most enjoyable action movies yet seen.

The Rock succeeds where many have failed in taking the intrinsically eighties high-concept action movie aesthetic and transporting it successfully into a new decade, whilst leaving many of the dated facets the genre implied intact. One-liner plot? Check. High octane, testosterone-fuelled male macho nonsense action set pieces? Check. Mis-matched pairing of 'good guys'? Check. Crap pay-off lines at the demise of each expendable and thoroughly two dimensional bad guy? All present and correct. On paper The Rock looks like it should succeed admirably in being completely average, yet it transcends it's schlock action roots to become a thing of immense beauty.

The plot, such as it is, involves a bunch of U.S. Marines lead by Brig. Gen. Francis X. Hummel (the always outstanding Ed Harris) seizing control of Alcatraz Island. The reason for their grievance is the Government's refusal to acknowledge deceased members of covert military units and their families as eligible for compensation, since officially their actions did not take place. Perhaps a little silly, but we're not dealing with Citizen Kane here. Threatening to launch rockets armed with the deadly V.X. poison gas into the heart of San Francisco, it's obvious the rogue Marines must be dealt with severely, and the logical course of action is to send in an office-dwelling science geek and a geriatric S.A.S. has-been. Seems reasonable...

Nic Cage is Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical weapons expert who splits his time between shaking test-tubes and buying old Beatles LP's. With a girlfriend expecting their baby and a happily normal and excitement free working life, Stanley is understandably surprised at the suggestion he accompany a Navy Seal unit onto the island as their expert on the rocket devices. The unit will also be accompanied by Sean Connery as John Mason, a former member of the S.A.S. who spent most of his time in Alcatraz after the British government disavowed all knowledge of his actions digging up dirt on all matter of American issues from the Kennedy assassination to alien landings in the fifties. Mason will be the expert on the layout of Alcatraz Island, since he's the only person ever to have escaped alive, and so the contrived scene is set for the action to begin.

The Rock image

Except the action begins long before anyone sets foot on the island. In order for us to understand the deeper workings of our main protagonists, we must have a ten minute car chase. Perfectly understandable given the San Fran setting, director Michael Bay decides he'd better have a pop at the Bullitt record by having one of those free-for-alls where every car is an expensive one and pretty much everything blows up at the slightest hint of a collision. Witness the hitherto unknown combustible qualities of parked cars, trams and even lampposts. It's also one of those affairs where the most unlikely yet photogenically destructive of vehicles (in this case a truck carrying huge bottles of mineral water) get battered, and such ludicrous obstacles as a group of wheelchair-bound athletes who pick a poor time to cross the road en-masse wander into the fray. If you're not laughing your head off at the contrived lunacy of it all, you'll probably be gasping instead, because viewed objectively it's all very breathtaking stuff. Just silly too.

Car chase over, we can finally head onto Alcatraz, and from here on in it's pretty much wall-to-wall action. The Seal team are exterminated almost immediately, leaving Nic and Sean to put a spanner in the works for our troublesome troops. Nary a minute passes without someone being shot or something blowing up, and the only breather occurs when our two unlikely heroes get caught and slung behind bars (a situation Mason knows only too well how to escape from).

The Rock's greatest coup is it's cast. Only too aware of his image as a thinking man, Cage wisely steers clear of macho posturing in this his first action role. Instead he concentrates on building the off-kilter chemistry between his character and that of Connery, who is clearly not taking this malarkey too seriously. In fact, everyone bar Harris is clearly having a hoot. As the major protagonist, he is unfortunately faced with the only role that needs to be played straight, and as such he rather ironically ends up being the only one who comes off as slightly cheesy, though through no fault of his own. His Marines serve their purpose well, and as the tables turn on Hummel in the final act, a largely expendable cast of familiar faces become rather effective villains of their own and we can't help but relish their various inventive deaths. Special plaudits at this point go to Tony Todd for his Elton John inspired demise in perhaps the daftest and most contrived kiss-off ever committed to film.

If there's any criticism to be leveled at the film, it's that Michael Bay is a little too kinetic in his camerawork and editing. Throughout the running time the camera quite literally never sits still for a minute, and sufferers of motion sickness would do well to bring a sick bag. The visual flair of the piece can never be questioned, but a little less style and a little more still in the few quiet moments would have been appreciated. Overall though, for his first feature film, and with the weight and expectation of a sizeable budget and stellar cast on his shoulders, the boy done good. It's no surprise Bruckheimer asked him back to destroy half of Manhattan and blow up an asteroid in Armageddon.

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The Rock is a film that survives spectacularly against huge odds. Immediately silly, excessively OTT, and frankly downright ludicrous from it's very point of conception, it somehow emerges as one of the best action films of our time. Weisberg, Cook and Rosner must share much of the credit for their witty and always tongue-in-cheek script, but the fact that the cast are blatantly having the time of their lives also helps immensely and it's difficult not to get sucked into the melee.

It's hard to imagine such a film being made in the patriotic aftermath of 9/11, unless of course the Marines were substituted for generic Middle-Eastern hoods (or should that be towels?), and I doubt we'll see another 'enemy within' pic of this caliber for some time to come. It seems the action pic has come full-circle, and somewhere in the middle is this little gem that only ever set out to entertain for two hours. And it does just that, oh so very well.

Disko found his pelvis twitching uncontrollably after watching this movie. The meter gauged four distinct thrusts out of a theoretically possible five.

Michael Bay
Cast list:
Nicholas Cage (Stanley Goodspeed)
Sean Connery (John Mason)
Ed Harris (Gen. Brig. Francis X. Hummel)