The Rock (1996)

Directed by Michael Bay


Michael Bay gets a lot of flak, and he only deserves most of it.  His movies are kind of… I don’t know, silly?  He makes loud, obnoxious movies that are to its 13 year old audience what a Nancy Meyers movie is to its 63 year old audience.

Of course, there is something still very enjoyable about a Michael Bay movie, just as there is about a Nancy Meyers movie (The Intern).  In a Bay movie, the camera never really stops moving.  Every moment is heightened and overdramatized with a fast-swooping camera, a heavy use of the parallax effect, and every shot comes in at a low angle, aka the ‘hero shot.’  Bay finds his characters Sexy, and he wants to make sure you do too.

The Rock is his second feature film, after 1995’s Bad Boys.  It’s a movie that is so incredibly Michael Bay (“Bayhem”), that I can’t believe that he either had this much conviction this early in his career or that he hasn’t evolved in any way since.

Maybe that’s not fair, but The Rock is as Michael Bay as any of his other movies.  It’s full of cliches, “cool” characters who get the girl and are never not cool, as well as cartoonish villains, explosions and more explosions.  It’s kind of an ongoing joke that every Bay movie is full of such spectacles.

If you look up Michael Bay online, these are the kinds of photos you find:

It’s like he’s directing a circus.  There’s no intimacy in his sets, just a fear of falling objects and loud noises.

So Michael Bay kind of is the leading character in any of his movies.  There are a lot of big name actors in his movies, but they all serve the explosive nature of his movies.  Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Nic Cage and others all play each other, the same stoic but occasionally funny hero.  This is a guy who may initially find himself out of place in this world but who quickly adapts to it.  In some instances, as in the first Transformers and Pain & Gain, there is much more comedy mined from the hero’s unlikely involvement in such a story, but for the most part this character becomes just another suave leading man.

Alright, so in The Rock our hero is Nicholas Cage.  He’s ridiculous.  Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, wait, let me check, no he does indeed play a man named Stanley Goodpseed.  So Goodspeed is an expert on nerve gas, but he admits to being a sort of nerdy dude.  Goodspeed, you see, works in a lab, which is where nerds work.  He’s not cool at all, except he totally f*ckin’ is.

We first meet Goodspeed in one of those traditional action movie set pieces, something mostly unrelated to the A plot but which demonstrates the hero’s particular set of skills which will come in handy later in the movie.  Here, a mysterious package arrives while Goodspeed and co. complain about how boring their job is.  Goodspeed goes on and on about a record he loves by The Beatles before turning the switch and leaping into action. He and his partner struggle go into quarantine to deal with a mysterious package which spews toxic gas.  Under threat of death, Godspeed deals with the problem (I honestly forget how).  He then returns home, and when his girlfriend arrives, Goodspeed is casually noodling on the guitar.

‘I had quite the day,’ she says, or something like that, and Goodspeed, the badass that he is, casually says, ‘me too.’

Anyways, other characters will mock Goodspeed for being a nerd, and he lives up to it, basically saying, ‘yeah I am a nerd,’ but he’s a goddamned hero.  Is he weak or powerful beyond measure?  The movie makes it seem like he’s both.  Several moments finds Goodspeed crushing it like the action hero he is, and other moments demonstrate his pure ineptitude, as if he shouldn’t be anywhere near this story.  There is a lot of that kind of stuff that doesn’t quite add up in this movie because it doesn’t need to.  This is an action movie in which everything serves the plot or the lukewarm sense of humor.

So there’s a plot by these ex-military dudes, led by badass General Hummel (bad ass Ed Harris).  This group of rebels include badass Dr. Cox from Scrubs (John C. McGinley), badass David Morse (one of those familiar-looking character actors), badass William Forsythe (ditto as Morse), and badass guy from Season 2 of Fargo.  Each actor’s job is to stand on his mark and look cool as sh*t.  And I guess they do, but it’s all pretty silly.

So, this group of rebels pretty easily takes over Alcatraz, the “rock” in the San Francisco Bay.  They use it as their home base and threaten to release a couple missiles which will detonate in San Francisco and release a deadly gas unless the government gives them millions of dollars.  It’s a classic villain, with a classically silly villainous plan, but there is some attempt at meaning behind Hummel’s villainy.  Hummel, we learn, was an American hero, a soldier who honorably served his country in multiple wars but who is driven nearly mad by what war has done to him.  So, that’s a thing, it gets at PTSD and what we put our soldiers through, etc.  So Hummel is a conflicted villain, but he’s certainly a villain.

Anyways, the government is like, “what do we do?”  Snake Plissken is too old to call upon, so they contact our humble hero, Stanley Goodspeed.  Goodspeed knows how to tackle the gas, but how do they infiltrate Alcatraz?  Well, that’s easy.  Just reach out to the one living man known to have escaped the island prison, John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery).

Pretty soon, following a scene of intense carnage which marks the movie’s midpoint, Goodspeed and Mason find themselves working together underneath Alcatraz to reach Hummel.  Everyone else has been killed, and now our heroes find themselves in set piece after set piece, narrowly evading Hummel’s disposable henchmen, actors cast on how well they smolder, scream or look while falling to their deaths.

Jeez, this is taking me a while to write about.  So, in the end our heroes win, or something.  Yeah, I mean, that’s what happens, and everything is at the last moment.  Hummel shows that he’s not such a bad guy, considering he viewed the missiles as nothing more than a bluff.  He’s killed, and the real bad guy, the Goebbels to Hummel’s Hitler, takes over.  The last missile is shot by Goodspeed into the last remaining villain, and it pushes the villain out the window and into the air where he and the missile explodes.  Awesome.

So at the same time, the military is prepping to blow up Alcatraz as a last ditch effort, and of course Goodspeed’s girlfriend is in the room with the FBI as they make this decision, just so she can stand there and look distraught, something we apparently need to remind us why we don’t want Goodspeed to die.

So the planes nearly blow up Alcatraz, but Goodspeed lights a flare to tell them it’s all good.  One of the bombs is dropped, and it flings Goodspeed into the water where Mason dives in and saves his life.  Then Mason flees, and Goodspeed lies, saying he was killed, just so he can escape like he did before.

It’s all a mess, I suppose.  So much of this movie flew by in a blur, but the plot is exactly as you might expect it.  The memorable moments are the absurd set pieces.  There’s a car chase through the famously hilly streets of San Francisco, culminating in an exploding cable car.  There’s an Indiana Jones-esque chase on an underground railroad beneath the prison.  There’s a missile that nearly blows up Candlestick Park during a 49ers game.  There’s a series of hand to hand fight scenes.  There’s a boat chase, probably.

It’s a lot, and it’s certainly entertaining only because it’s so over the top.  The Rock is a funny action movie made with no sense of self-awareness.  It’s played straight down the middle, but it’s just so on the nose, so much a parody of itself, that you have to think Bay meant for it to be as such, right?

Later Michael Bay movies, or just the one, Pain & Gain, has a lot of fun with the absurdity of its own plot and its own characters.  It’s a movie that embraces what is inherent about all of the movies he has ever made.  It’s just Bay admitting he knows how silly this all is, but I guess the fun comes from how seriously he handles such silliness.

Up Next: Reservoir Dogs (1992), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), International House (1933)

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