WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: A renegade unit of Marines take hostages on Alcatraz with the aim of gaining justice for their fallen comrades, their demands backed up by stolen VX nerve gas pointed at San Francisco. The only way to prevent an outrage is for chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed to break into the jail, but that seems an impossible task given that no-one has ever broken out. At least, that’s the official story…
Beatle-loving FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) has a stressful afternoon as the bureau’s foremost chemical weapons expert, and his day is made no calmer by his girlfriend Carla’s (Vanessa Marcil) news that she is pregnant, or her subsequent proposal. What could top it all off? Perhaps the news that a group of rogue Marines, led by Brigadier General Hummel (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Major Tom Baxter (David Morse), have taken up residence on Alcatraz with 81 hostages and 14 missiles carrying VX gas – capable of killing tens of thousands of innocent San Franciscans.
Hummel demands $100 million to compensate families of unrecognised colleagues killed in ‘Black Ops’ missions, a ransom FBI chief James Womack (John Spencer) can’t countenance. The only problem is, there’s no way to destroy the VX without killing the hostages, and Alcatraz itself is impregnable. Or so everyone thinks. From a dark, dank cell Womack conjures former British SAS hero John Mason (Sean Connery), a man who uniquely escaped from ‘the rock’ and who has some of America’s biggest secrets stashed away. After a haircut and a hair-raising chase down the streets of San Francisco, John is persuaded to accompany an equally reluctant Stanley on to the island; but when their military protection is ambushed, the former soldier and the green agent face overwhelming odds to disarm the rockets and defeat the General – who himself has to contend with discontent in his ranks.
There are plenty of films that demand careful consideration and close analysis to explain why they work or fail to deliver as they should. Thank heavens, then, for Michael Bay movies. For Bay, any form of complication is a barrier to enjoying the action, and although there’s a smidgen of complexity and conflict amongst the villains – Hummel is a hero who makes an extreme decision for outwardly noble reasons – it’s basically a case of good guys rushing to stop the bad guys.
The set-up allows for action scenes at regular intervals and each of them – Hummel’s appropriation of the missiles, the cable-car ruining mayhem* surrounding Mason’s escape from his hotel room to visit his daughter (Claire Forlani), the entire second half of the movie – is filmed in an exciting, hyperbolic style. It’s not realistic in the slightest, of course, but that’s hardly the point when you’re willing Goodspeed and Mason to disarm the missiles before they’re detonated.
Were The Rock simply a sequence of generic action scenes, it would become tiresome well before its time was through. Luckily, although many of the characters are stock figures, especially those around the table of the emergency committee, the film is leant a good deal of personality by the presence of Connery and Cage. Cage’s Goodspeed is half-geek, half-dude and does a good line in unconvincing assertiveness, while Connery (perhaps for the last time) really enjoys himself in a role which combines wit, suavity, a little bit of acting and even a smidgen of action.
The sly references to spying and British intelligence make Connery the perfect choice for the role – Mason is the Bond left to rot in a foreign jail that Brosnan couldn’t live up to in Die Another Day. Connery, or his stand-in, even gets to do a bit of Thunderball-style sub-aqua work. Harris also does good work, giving Hummel a dignity despite his actions, reflecting a pre-9/11 America where terrorism could be allowed to have a rationale, however misguided.
Another feature of The Rock is that it is prototypic of later Michael Bay films, for good (Armageddon) and bad (Pearl Harbor). There’s the love of flags, military hardware and Armed Forces running in slow motion; there’s the girlfriend fretting in the control room while the guys put their lives on the line. Hans Zimmer’s score is also something of a dry run for his later work on Pirates of the Caribbean.
Also typically, and more problematically, the film won’t be rushed: interesting though it is to see Hummel bidding farewell to his wife, Mason bonding with his long-lost daughter, or Goodspeed being talked (or something like that) into marriage, these sections slow the film down to little effect. We never revisit Forlani, so it seems a bit pointless to introduce her in the first place. During the gaps in the action, you have time to mull over other difficulties, such as the script’s unnecessarily foul mouth and casual attitude towards significant events (Mason stole a film revealing what “really” happened to JFK), or the amateurish design of the VX gas, which looks more like bubble bath than a lethal toxin. Additionally, there are silly contrivances such as the shaft that Connery initially negotiates to get the good guys into Alcatraz, a trial by blade and fire that either belongs in an Indiana Jones-type fantasy or computer games – but as I say, realism isn’t exactly a priority here.
The Rock is at heart a bombastic piece of gung-ho nonsense, but it’s lifted by Connery’s venerable, deadpan turn and Cage’s reluctant hero, and fortuitously comes early enough in Bay’s career for it to be brash but not overwhelmed by noise and special effects. Exciting, and not excessively excessive.
NOTES: Or Bayhem – see the Transformers review, or a million other websites.