From the Shelf: The Rock (1996)

The “From the Shelf” segment is a series of reviews that were written months ago, but until now have sat, well, on the shelf.

By Christian DiMartino

For many years, I was convinced I’d seen The Rock. Not Dwayne Johnson (who hasn’t seen that Samoan God?), but the 1990s Michael Bay movie. Typically, when discussing Bay’s mostly unfortunate filmography, it was a film I referred to with enthusiasm. As the film began though, it dawned on me that… well… I hadn’t actually seen the whole thing, but what I had seen was pretty cool. So, if we’re going to get technical, this was a first time watch.

Turns out my somewhat enthusiasm was actually for a good reason, because The Rock happens to be, perhaps, Bay’s best film. Not all of them are bad- Transformers, Armageddon, Bad Boys, and Pain & Gain each have their merits. Yet he is a filmmaker who is often obsessed with bombast and stereotypes. Sure, the billion dollar budgets he garners are usually put to explosive use, but his films are often so absurdly loud it’s really difficult to care.

Watching The Rock, it became clear that this was, perhaps, the only true Bay film with something of a brain. Here is a thriller that is weirdly well crafted, but it goes deeper than precision and impressive action sequences. What is most surprising about The Rock is its three central performances and characters, each of which are oddly-dimensional, and in the hands of these actors, they actually provide a Michael Bay action movie with (wait for it) something to care about.

Said three performances come from Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris. Why these performances work, I’ll dive into in a second. Cage, like Sylvester Stallone, loves a good ridiculous name, and here plays Stanley Goodspeed, a chemist who has ties to the FBI. Harris, of course, is the villain, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. Harris is a multiple medal winning General named Francis Hummel. Hummel, with assistance from other frustrated soldiers (Hummel has his reasons) delivers a hostile takeover at Alcatraz, taking hostages and what not. But wait, there’s more: if his financial demands are not met, he will threaten a catastrophic nerve gas attack from Alcatraz that will be a doomsday to San Francisco.

So, yes, parts are assembled from other action movies. Yet sometimes the way these parts are assembled is what makes it count, and that’s what makes The Rock a success. That, and my next point. The film’s fun truly begins with the arrival of Connery. Here Connery plays a former spy and current prisoner who once escaped Alcatraz himself- the only person to do so. They turn to him for help because they need a way to infiltrate Alcatraz stealthily. He of course is reluctant to help, but ultimately does because his daughter is a San Francisco resident.

Cage and Connery get most of their screen time together, and what sounds like a weird combination is actually a match made in bizarre heaven. Here are two excellent actors having the time of their lives, partaking in whatever badassery is dealt their way. I particularly re-fell in love with Connery here, who at 66 at the time manages to channel into his inner Bond, in that he’s smooth and of course really cool. Harris is a surprise too. Here is a great actor who has played a plethora of villainous roles over the decades, yet here is something a little different. One gets the sense from his opening scenes that he is pretty scary, but there is something a little deeper to him, and his motives also feel pretty believable.

The Rock is a triumph of glorious action sequences and, often times, some pretty sharp comic timing. This is the kind of film Bay should be making more of. It’s funny that his career would make such an idiotic left turn with Armageddon after this, because The Rock, despite its somewhat familiarity and occasional holes, is a slam-bang action thriller that works like a charm. Even though I’d convinced myself it was good before I saw the whole thing, after seeing the whole thing, I say, yes, it is quite good.

Grade: A-

Note: This review was written in September of 2020, but initially I didn’t bother to post it. With the recent passing of the legendary Sean Connery though, it seemed like the right time.

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