There are certain actors and directors in Hollywood who receive undue amounts of prejudice and hatred. Folks go out of their way to hate their movies and projects before they’re anywhere near completion and lampoon them endlessly when they are eventually released. Most people don’t realize that films don’t have to be artsy, well-acted or pretentious to be entertaining and provide an enjoyable moviegoing experience. Michael Bay’s 1996 thrill ride, The Rock, fits into this category admirably.
Showcasing one of the most honorable villains in action movie history, The entirety of The Rock takes place on Alcatraz Island which General Francis Hummel, played by a dignified and believable Ed Harris, takes over after he feels he has been deeply wronged by the country he has laid down his life for. Seething with frustration, Hummel decides to round up a squadron of fellow ex-military thugs who feel the same and take revenge on the government and people who betrayed him. After gathering his team, Hummel and his goons take Alcatraz hostage and use a biological weapon fashioned into rocket-propelled missiles to threaten the entire city of San Francisco.
Thankfully for San Francisco citizens, they have resident bomb and chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed, the ageless Nicholas Cage, to save their pathetic lives from the threat of bio-terrorism. However, a lab geek against a gang of military terrorists would be too impossible of odds for even the most contrived Hollywood action romp, so there is also a supreme badass thrown into the mix in the form of the only man to ever escape the “inescapable” Alcatraz prison: retired agent John Patrick Mason. Played by the original ass-kicker Sean Connery, Mason is the bread and butter of this action flick. He’s deadly, violent, and smarter than pretty much everyone else in the film. Mason is the only one who knows the ins and outs of the heavily-guarded Alcatraz prison and the government decides to throw him a bone regarding his life imprisonment in return for his help.
Now, I’m aware that both MIchael Bay and Nicholas Cage garner their fair amounts of public jeering, but I feel that it is completely unwarranted in this case. These Hollywood regulars should be judged on a project by project basis instead of a sweeping generalization.
This is Michael Bay’s magnum opus and the film is just bombastic and explosion-filled enough to satisfy his destructive spirit, but it also exhibits an engaging story that keeps the viewer interested from beginning to end. Despite the shallow characters in most of Bay’s work, The Rock’s characters are fairly well-rounded and believable and their motives are clear.
Goodspeed is only concerned with protecting his gorgeous girlfriend after learning that she is pregnant at the start of the film. While a brilliant scientific mind, Goodspeed lacks the cojones necessary for the mission and has to learn to come to terms with his fears and find the courage necessary to save the people he loves.
Mason, on the other hand, is forced into the role of helping out the government agencies that had him locked away for learning the truth about some ancient conspiracies. After gathering the information on priceless microfilm cartridges, Mason hid the evidence and refused to give up its location and, as a result, was illegally imprisoned and labeled a traitor. He is lied to and told that if he helps to foil Hummel’s plans, he will be given a signed pardon. Also on Mason’s mind is the fact that his long-estranged daughter lives in San Francisco and her safety is another concern.
General Hummel is also a very interesting character and a great villain. Being ex-military, he knows many of the government’s tactics and secrets and uses them to his advantage. Knowing the location of the VX gas missiles, for example, is the key to his plot for revenge. Using this knowledge, Hummel storms the compound containing the weapons and steals them all at the start of the film. Despite his evil intentions, he is always fair and a man of his word regarding the negotiations. Hummel wants the government to pay $100 million so that he can distribute the money to the families of his fellow troops that died in secret missions for the government and were unfairly forgotten and dishonored. His demands are selfless and he doesn’t really want to hurt innocent people, but he believes it’s the only leverage he can hold over the heads of such a powerful government.
Aside from interesting characters and an intriguing plot, the film is also a feast for the senses. The score punctuates all the most intense moments poignantly and takes the audience on a non-stop roller coaster. It has moments of nationalism-inspiring orchestrations and it’s a pulse-pounding wave of adrenaline blasting during more frenetic scenes.
It’s the action set pieces that really make The Rock so amazingly entertaining, though. The San Francisco car chase scene, the initial entry into Alcatraz through underground tunnels, and the final climax at the top of the castle-like stone prison are all unforgettable sequences that demand attention and satisfy blood lust.
Ultimately, if you’re a fan of explosions, gunfire, corny one-liners and fast-paced fun, you will enjoy the hell out of The Rock. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this film from start to finish, I suggest you heat up some microwave popcorn, get comfy on the couch, and turn your brain off for a few hours for the sake of a summer movie that stands as satisfying today as it was 17 years ago.