|Rock, The (Criterion Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 13 March 2001|
'The Rock' was one of the best thrillers of 1996, surpassing 'Mission: Impossible.' But Michael Bay's next film, 'Armageddon,' was so awesomely awful that it's easy to forget how entertaining -- if improbable -- 'The Rock' is. It's usually remembered for the spectacular, but over the top, San Francisco car chase that comes early in the proceedings. This terrific DVD set from Criterion will remind everyone what a fun time can be had on 'The Rock.'
Unlike most action movies, one standout element here are the characters and star turns from Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, as well as a particularly good supporting cast. It's not all just slam-bang action and effects, though there are plenty of both. The second disc includes a fairly interesting look at how the effects were done.
Marine General Francis X. Hummel (Ed Harris) leads a completely illicit raid on a weaponsdepot, using a hand-picked, loyal (he thought) assault team. They steal chemical weapons -- on the commentary track we learn the eerily green deadly stuff is played by Prell shampoo -- then head to San Francisco where they seize control of the Rock itself: Alcatraz Island, once the highest-security prison in the U.S., now a pleasure jaunt for tourists. Hummuel sets up missiles, aims them at San Francisco, and demands ransom for the city. He's a very serious man with a very serious goal: he's not after money for himself -- he's out for justice for the families of servicemen killed in covert operations.
We also meet Beatlemaniac Stanley Goodspeed (Cage), an FBI chemicals weapons expert, who's the only guy who can disarm the missiles, but is hardly a field operative (and is currently having some problems with his long-time girlfriend). The only guy who can get him into Alcatraz to do that is John Mason (Connery), a long-imprisoned British spy who's the only man ever to have escaped from Alcatraz. Promised freedom, Mason is flown to the rock with a jittery Goodspeed, accompanied by a Navy SEAL team -- but of course, things go spectacularly wrong, and only Mason and Goodspeed are left to take on Hummel and his team of skilled soldiers.
Director Michael Bay sets up a slam-bang pace that never slackens, even in the dialog scenes; he never lets the humor slip, either, even in the most action-crammed sequences. The only thing that prevented 'The Rock' from being a model of a modern action movie is that Bay over-stylized the action sequences to occasional near-incoherence. Also, the premise is not exactly persuasive, though that's equally true of other action movies.
But 'The Rock' is expertly done in almost all areas, and never takes itself too seriously. It's not a comedy, but director Bay and writers David Weisberg, Douglas Cook, Mark Rosner and the numerous others who worked on it uncredited, know that the premise is absurd, and so they drop in bizarre jokes, and ignore reality whenever it's good for the action to do so. On the other hand, the script also has its share of holes, imponderables and omissions, possibly a result of a rushed post-production period.
The commentary track reveals that Connery chose to make the film largely because he'd be working with Nicolas Cage, who -- on that track -- seems to be surprised, grateful, awestruck and proud, all at once. And who could blame him? Connery is one of our last, great, old-time movie stars, an icon we all, including Cage, grew up with. And as it turns out, they work together splendidly.
Stanley gradually undercuts Mason's cold, the-hell-with-everyone attitude; the older man is willing to do the work, but initially only because his long-estranged daughter lives in San Francisco. Stanley uncovers his compassion. Meanwhile, Stanley goes from a guy who really likes his job, as long as it's done in a lab, to a confident hero, without ever loving his sense of humor. Many of the funniest lines were written by Cage himself, although sometimes his delivery leaves a bit to be desired. Cage and Connery (who's obviously playing a variation on James Bond -- that's part of the fun) work splendidly together; a sequel to 'The Rock' is still a possibility, and a potentially welcome one. (The sequel plot suggested by producer Jerry Bruckheimer in the commentary track, however, stinks.)
Michael Bay showed a good deal of improvement here over his direction of 'Bad Boys,' but 'Armageddon' was a major, shockingly bad step backward. Here, the commentary track, including his own, suggests he's trying to directly compete with James Cameron, not a good idea; the upcoming 'Pearl Harbor' is all too obviously Bay's attempt to top 'Titanic.'
That commentary track features Cage, Harris, Bruckheimer, technical advisor Harry Humphries (the latter two are heard only rarely) and director Bay. Despite the rages discussed in the track and shown in the weak collection of outtakes, Harris' comments are intelligent and welcome; Cage sounds thoughtful, committed, relaxed and like a guy you'd love to hang out with. Bay sounds like an egomaniac, and actually not all that bright, the kind of self-obsessed bore you'd drift away from at a party.
The big chase scene is a tremendous triumph for DTS and DVD: it will shake your bones and rattle your house. The movie had superb sound in theaters -- in fact, it received an Oscar nomination for sound -- and it's reproduced faithfully for home theaters. As with all great mixes, it's not just about volume, but about silences as well, and excellent use is made of the surround features, though you might not notice this if you get involved in the story. And of course, that's what the filmmakers want.
But the chase demonstrates Bay's biggest weakness: how he cuts and shoots action scenes. He uses jittery hand-held closeups almost to the exclusion of any other kind of shot, and the individual takes are too short to convey a sense of impact. The San Francisco car chase was a reshoot when Bay (or someone) concluded that teenagers would get bored if something didn't blow up pretty soon. It's clearly intended to outdo the classic from 'Bullitt' and just as clearly doesn't, though it served its function. The exterior shots, of a Humvee vs. a Ferrari, are fun; the interior shots of the drivers are irritating.
'The Rock' is one of those movies that can easily be used as a demonstration of the power of a home theater setup. Chapter 11 features the car chase; chapter 15 is the incursion to the rock; in Chapter 17, things go noisily wrong in a shootout in a huge shower; chapter 22 features a highly unlikely mine-cart chase (reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie). From Chapter 28 to the end, it's all action, though except for a few jet fighter fly-bys and an explosion or two, this sequence isn't notable for sound.
The DVD's extras are a mixed bag. There's a too-long sequence demonstrating military pistol techniques, that pretty good TV documentary on the effects, and a handful of outtakes that are at once well-chosen -- they illustrate some of the commentary track -- and pretty dull, although Ed Harris' rages are awesome (and a bit scary; you wouldn't want to be on a set with him). There's an interview with Bruckheimer, selections from a documentary on Alcatraz, and the usual trailers, TV spots and the like. Some of this stuff seems added solely to fill up the two discs.