I wrote this for the J back in the day, and the editor decided we didn't need the length on the film, and also, it was (what?) five years ago and I was still developing into the J style (my style for it might have been called the dishy style), and I was developing as a writer. Anywho, here it is, warts and all:
The summer action movie has no greater fathers than partners Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson. Though the genre had it's earlier models, ranging from 1968's Bullit to 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (one could argue Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was the first), it was the release of Top Gun in 1986, which safely removed any political or philosophical underpinnings and modified action movies into the thoughtless visceral "Event Films" we know today. In comparison, a film like 1971's Dirty Harry is more a film noir, with its morally compromised main character, than a modern day action film (and one can see the effects of the Bruckheimer & Simpson style on the more recent James Bond films). As Star Wars revolutionized special effects, it was Tony Scott, and — perhaps more importantly — Bruckheimer & Simpson that made a film totally of the moment, with little to interfere with the visceral kick — never mind the homoeroticism.
Bruckheimer & Simpson found the perfect director to work with in Michael Bay, who made a name with the famous Aaron Burr "Got Milk?" ad. Bay is a Tony Scott without subtext (who'd a thunk it?), creating beautiful imagery free of meaning or relevance, meant to be consumed and forgotten. His first film was 1995's Bad Boys, a surprise hit for him and for Buckhiemer & Simpson, so the three followed up in a year later with The Rock , a more extravagant endeavor meant to fulfill all summer expectations. It was a hit and grossed more the $360 million worldwide, making sure Michael Bay could do whatever he wanted to — which became 1998's painful Armageddon.
The Rock was Don Simpson's last film after years of hard living, and the film — a monument to his work and life — is absurd from the get go: Frank Hummel (Ed Harris), a highly decorated Army General (and Black Bag operative), feels that too many of his men have died in vain and with no proper burial, so he gets a group of his loyal men to steal some deadly V-X poison (it kills you in strange and disgusting ways), and makes Alcatraz his base of operation using tourists as hostages. Hummel's demand: 100 million dollars from the Pentagon's slush fund to be distributed as he sees fit to the families of the men he's seen killed and his men, or he'll send out rockets filled with the nasty gas into the metro area of San Francisco.
To stop Hummel and his his top-notch trained killers from completing their mission, the government assembles Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage)- the FBI's best poison disarmer (or the rough equivalent thereof), John Mason (Sean Connery)- the only man to ever escape from the Rock, and a group of Navy Seals (headed by Michael Biehn) as the governments second to last resort — the last resort being blowing the island up with Thermite Plasma Bombs. Mason, a British spy, was incarcerated for stealing the FBI's microfilm on the answers to what happened at Roswell and who really killed JFK, and has since tried to escape every prison he was put in, so he's more than likely to try and escape rather than fight Hummel, but he's the only man alive with working knowledge of how to sneak around Alcatraz, so he's a reluctant hero. Stanley and John then become fast friends forced to work together as Hummel's deadline approaches, in the "too old for this shit" old cop-rookie cop fashion we've seen in many movies before.
Is it exciting? Sort of. Bay loves the quick cut style of commercials and he's a cinematographer's director, so the film has no substance but looks pretty; the plot is shopworn (it was written by 3 credited writers, at least four uncredited writers, the audio commentary mentions a polish by Robert Towne, and Nicholas Cage's takes credit for rewriting practically all his dialogue: it's amazing to think that this was the best all these people could come up with), and everything is so clearly telegraphed from the outset (do you really think they're going to kill everyone in San Francisco?) that the fun is in the delivery of what is expected. Jon Spencer, playing the head of FBI sums up the film best when he delivers a speech about how dangerous Mason is, and then has to close on the line: "And he's the best shot we've got!" It's a speech that always works well in film like this, and it points out the appeal of the film is based on our familiarity with the genre, the "last resort" films made popular by the likes of Escape From New York.
The themes of The Rock operate from two diametrically opposed positions: one is a that you can't trust the government as it does nasty unpatriotic things (cinematic backwash from JFK), and the other is the fetishizing of all things military, and the aggrandizing of military and governmental action, so one doubts that anyone connected to the film is opposed to the government for what it does in any way: this is the kind of film that questions the government in a way that the government would feel safe to endorse. The film doesn't have time to question politics (even if it suggests that the country does messed up things), it's too busy getting ready for the next set piece. That emptiness of purpose is the quintessential element of the Bruckheimer & Simpson partnership, and their ultimate achievement: it is all meaningless pop culturalisms, and therein lies its charm (because really, how many Oliver Stone's do we need?)
Everything in the film hinges on absurdity: at one point during the audio commentary Bay questions why Connery would have to roll through a giant furnace that's flames keep flickering on and off (designed by the Galaxy Quest people, one assumes) that would have no reason to be working, since the prison is just a tourist facility. Bay's suggestion is that "it's just entertainment folks, and it looks cool." My question is: why would Connery's character know the timing for something that he'd only have to roll through to get into the Rock, not out of? The Rock requires the viewer to believe that president would destroy Alcatraz with Thermite-Plasma bombs to save San Francisco, (and BTW kill all 81 hostages/tourists) instead of paying Hummel slush-fund money. One would think the Prez would happy to give up someone else's hidden money to hide the fact that one of his greatest military men had turned traitor, and not kill the 81 people with lives and family (like you could keep that a secret), but the Prez says it's one of the hardest decisions he's ever made (to send off the jets that will more than likely to be stopped in the nick of time by our hero), and since he's though long and hard we're supposed to be on his side — but never you mind, it's Entertainment! One, then, has to not only suspend one's disbelief, but forgo thinking for the entire course of the film to enjoy it. It's so hyper plotted that the film feels like a tale told by a fifteen year old after a Mad Magazine and Pixie-Stix binge.
If any one sequences captures this spirit and explain the appeal of the film, it's the chase scene where Mason steals a Humvee, and Goodspeed steals a Ferarri to catch him. The Humvee crunches through any thing in its way destroying cars, water trucks, and eventually a trolley — hey, it's San Francisco — that flies into the air from a fiery explosion (an electric powered trolley!), yet never manages to kill anyone. Basically, the "Fruit cart gag" is endless repeated (as Roger Ebert [who also wrote the liner notes] has sighted in almost all car chase scenes there's a "look out, fruit cart" moment), but it's the size of the cars, the explosions, the expense that makes it hard not to enjoy — as Nicholas Cage says — the "Oh well, why not" flavor of it all. The Bruckheimer & Simpson style is that things are destroyed, not people (though military in films like this are relegated to object roles — summed up by one of the nameless bad guys: "killing marines is one thing.") It's fitting that when Bay wants to show the danger of the rockets on San Francisco, he shows buildings to represent the threat, not people.
As in Top Gun, the real violence of warfare is kept to a minumum of impact, but explosions are kept at maximum. Does it make sense? Who cares? There are some tense moments and some good Spielberg steals, but everything in The Rock is meaningless, and any dramatic event is forgotten ten minutes after the fact, but the film is anchored by three good actors: Cage, Harris, and, of course, Connery. This film was the turning point for Nicholas Cage, as it turned him into the action star he's become (for better or worse). He brings some interesting moments to the film for it, since he's the comic relief character and he gives the film any depth it has. Ed Harris has the hardest role, and bespeaks the problems of action films in the 90's. He's a tragic villain, forced into villainy by the American government: he doesn't want to do what he's doing, but will gun down marines if need be. The idea that only the faceless grunts are killing machines makes him somewhat saintly in his fumbled quest, and that strangeness of his goals gives the film an energy that I don't even think Michael Bay understands. Connery, as always, makes a fun leading character, and he understands the silliness of it well enough to rise above it. If nothing else it's nice to see him return to Bond-mode, even if one wishes it were under better circumstances. The supporting players are also the kind one likes to see in films (to name a few: David Morse, Tony Todd, William Forsythe), and the women, though little used and little seen, are — bluntly — Hot.
Arguably, the film is junk, the writer also likes to drink beer, and likes it a lot. Though I wouldn't advocate the filmmaking style of Bay or Bruckheimer & Simpson (nor the drinking of beer while underage — unless, of course, at a real bitchin' party), I do like watching things explode, and this may be Bruckheimer & Simpson's ultimate achievement. On that level — and that level only — I appreciate the spectacle, as it's familiarity makes it an amusing ride, even though I'd probably argue the world would be a better place if Michael Bay were never born. We don't want to shake our indie credibility, but in terms of what it accomplishes, and what it set out to do The Rock succeeds better than Michael Bay's other films, and other films of its ilk.