They say that no man is an island but Michael Bay seems to stand alone in the realm of action movies. Not only is he one of the most well-known directors of the genre but his explosion-heavy style of filmmaking is so recognizable, it’s colloquially known as “Bayhem,” as to convey the controlled chaos exhibited in his films. Even before his Transformers pentalogy, the one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor codified Bay’s penchant for star-spangled pyrotechnics and chest-puffed melodramatics in indiscreet fashion. If these two films sum up Bayhem, then 1996’s The Rock could fittingly be seen as “proto-Bayhem,” where the director was still figuring out how he wanted to commit action to celluloid without having the same tricks on which to fall back. Most consider it his finest achievement, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.
After a title card with emblazoned letters shooting toward the screen, the movie opens on Ed Harris’s Brigadier General Francis Hummel as he suits up in full military garb to set flowers on his wife’s headstone. As he walks among the tombstones, an American flag is carefully folded in slow motion as the rain beats down on a soldier’s casket. The color grading is so blue in this opening sequence, it makes both Ozark and Tobias Fünke envious. It turns out Hummel has a dangerous plan in place to steal a cache of missiles loaded with a deadly nerve gas known as VX and threaten their launch on American soil unless the United States government pays reparations to the families of fallen Marines with whom he served. Along with a band of new recruits, Hummel plans to set up shop on Alcatraz Island (whose nickname gives the film its title) and take tourists hostage as a contingency.
Amid a $100 million demand and tight timeframe to complete the deal, the Department of Defense calls forth an unlikely pair of foils for Hummel. The first is Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), a self-described “chemical superfreak” who helps the FBI defuse “care packages” loaded with goodies like C4 explosives and sarin gas. The second is John Mason (Sean Connery), an off-the-books inmate who is allegedly the only person to ever escape Alcatraz during its days as an active prison. Backed by a Navy SEAL team, their combined knowledge of how to neutralize VX-loaded missiles and move about the island undetected by Hummel’s men, represents the best shot at stopping Hummel before time runs out.
The Rock succeeds where many other Bay endeavors fail because he properly sets up the characters, the scenario and the stakes before the inevitable action setpieces kick into gear. The fundamentals of an action classic are set up beautifully in the first act: an empathetic villain, a credible threat, a ticking clock, a pair of underdogs and men desperate to one-up each other in the machismo department whenever possible. Pushing the urgency is an iconic musical score from Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer, which has moments of reverence with snare taps and mournful trumpet but also pulsates with intense strings and crashing cymbals. It’s the kind of soundtrack that’s difficult to listen to and not feel like whatever mundane activity you’re doing is the most important task the American people have ever asked you to carry out.
There are plenty of stock military characters in The Rock, from the no-nonsense commander of the Navy SEAL team to the no-nonsense Major who plays sidekick to Hummel on the island. What allows the movie to distinguish itself among scores of actioners is the characterization it sets up outside the standardized tough guys. Cage’s Goodspeed is such a wimp he chooses “friggin'” and “a-hole” over traditional curse words, even in situations when it makes no sense to censor himself. He’s a Beatlemaniac whom we first see wasting time on a mildly incendiary Rube Goldberg contraption before being called to investigate a suspicious package. Bay even throws in a pregnant fiancée who has literally no agency in the movie but makes Goodspeed’s survival to the very end even more of a priority than it already would have been.
Then we have Mason, a charming and ruthlessly intelligent codger whose agreement with the FBI feels tenuous and secondary to his desire to reconnect with his estranged daughter. We get the sense early on that Mason has been a pawn between governments for decades and would probably be a free man if he wasn’t so important as a tool for political gamesmanship. Because he’s played by Sean Connery, it’s also fun to hear him say things like “successfully” and “San Francisco” in his quintessential Scottish accent. At one point, Mason requests “a suite, a shower, a shave and a suit,” and I can only assume uncredited screenwriter Quentin Tarantino won a bet against the three credited screenwriters about how long of a Scottish-suiting alliteration he could sneak into the script.
Of course, it comes down to Goodspeed and Mason defeating these highly trained Marines on their own, and Goodspeed would be thrilled by the super-freaky chemistry Cage and Connery have together as heroes. It’s a classic pairing of opposites, the eccentric wuss who revels in a life of beige-tinted boredom and a hardened Army man looking for action after toiling away in prison for most of his life. Goodspeed schools Mason in exactly how VX can waste any living organism in 90 seconds while Mason shows Goodspeed how to prep scuba gear without fumbling around. Cage gets the talkier role, and we’re all the better for it; at one point, he invokes “Zeus’s butthole” while lamenting their imprisoned state as Mason quietly works to spring them from their jail cells. Nevertheless, Connery ends up with the film’s most memorable line about the difference between winners and losers. If you don’t know it, that’s reason enough to see the movie right away.
But at the end of the day, The Rock is an action movie and it delivers those goods time and time again with brutally effective setpieces that make excellent use of their geography. A lengthy car chase through the hills of San Francisco is the most recognizable as a Michael Bay specialty, with rapid-pace editing, demolished cars and explosions whenever even remotely possible. There’s more than a little Indiana Jones influence on two specific sequences on the island itself, one in which Mason deftly navigates a barrage of timed flame bursts and another involving a cart chase through a mine shaft. It’s odd to think of this movie as modest in any regard, but the excesses of Bay’s mega-blockbuster output afterward almost make The Rock seem like an indie film by comparison. If Bay on a budget means that we get more gems like The Rock, then I say tighten up the purse strings and let him rip.