THE ROCK (Michael Bay, 1996)
Usually people attempt to break out of prison, not into it. Yet that’s exactly the challenge facing the crack team assembled by the United States government in THE ROCK.
General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) is a decorated military man, but the government’s failure to acknowledge the deaths and compensate the families of some of his soldiers has driven him to desperate measures. General Hummel organizes a squad to steal poisonous gas. Next they take the tourists visiting Alcatraz hostage and set up their base on the site of the old, closed prison. They point several rockets containing the gas toward San Francisco. Hummel informs the government of his demand and intention. He orders the transfer of $100 million, which will be distributed to the families and those helping in the mission, or else he will unleash the efficiently lethal poison on an unsuspecting populace.
FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) specializes in chemicals and is called to be part of the unit. Stanley is a straight arrow--a Boy Scout, if you will--who works well under pressure but doesn’t have much practical experience in the field. He’s used to sitting at a desk instead of penetrating a highly guarded base run by domestic terrorists. A team of Navy SEALs will assist in the siege on Alcatraz, but there’s one major problem. No one knows how to find a way around the prison, no one, that is, except for the mysterious John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery).
Mason is a British spy who was forgotten in jail and has been rotting there ever since. He is the only person to escape alive from Alcatraz, so naturally he is brought in to delineate a plan of action for traversing the Rock. The FBI superiors don’t intend for Mason to go with the squad, but as he explains, the only map he had of Alcatraz was in his head. Reluctantly, he is placed on the unit. The team lands on the island under the cover of night, beginning their attack.
THE ROCK director Michael Bay was groomed in the Jerry Bruckheimer-Don Simpson school of action picture filmmaking. (Until this summer's THE ISLAND Bruckheimer served as producer on all of Bay's films.) The kinetic camera work and quick cutting that dominate Bay's style bring a sense of urgency to the wild action scenes dispersed throughout the film.
THE ROCK'S fast pace also sets up the story in a relatively short period of time. We know the identity of the villain, who will try to thwart his efforts, and how they will go about the process. The screenplay, attributed to David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner but honed by several others, does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title.
These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.
A distinguishing characteristic of THE ROCK is the shades of gray involved with General Hummel. He could easily have been a moustache-twirling villain concocting his evil scheme and cackling the entire time but he isn’t. Hummel is infinitely more interesting because he is conflicted in his actions but feels he has no other recourse. Harris gives a marvelous performance. His steely eyes and strong cheekbones make him look like a force with which to be reckoned. Hummel is an unyielding man driven by moral certainty, and Harris comports himself in such a way to communicate this strongly.
Cage and Connery have a lot of fun in their roles. Connery gets to play James Bond if he were a politically oppressed prisoner. He has that movie star twinkle in his eyes, which shows he’s having a good time. Cage has good screen rapport with Connery, and their forged relationship is the source of many of the film’s laughs. In addition to the three major actors, THE ROCK has a healthy supporting cast of familiar character actors, including Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, and David Morse, to enliven the film.
A rousing action picture with generous dashes of humor, THE ROCK remains the much-maligned director's best film.
(This is a revised version of my Criterion DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)