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Should I Watch..? The Rock
What's the big deal?
The Rock is an action thriller released in 1996 set largely on the island prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Directed by Michael Bay and co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson (who died before its release), the film stars Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage and Ed Harris. It became a smash hit, becoming the fourth highest grossing film globally in 1996 and cemented Bay's reputation for bombastic blockbusters, even if none so far have been as well received as this film. The film is arguably one of the finer action films of the 90's and while its plot might not be as ludicrous as others (say Con Air (1), for example), its stylish action and breathless pace make it a great picture for adrenaline junkies.
What's it about?
A group of rogue US Marines, led by disgruntled Brigadier General Frank Hummel, steal several missiles armed with deadly VX nerve gas. The next day, they take over the island prison of Alcatraz together with the missiles and take several tourists hostage. Hummel's demands are simple: $100 million from the government to compensate families of those lost on unofficial missions under Hummel's command or San Francisco gets a dose of VX.
The FBI quickly come up with a plan - a team of Navy SEALS will retake the island and escort chemical expert Doctor Stanley Goodspeed to the missiles to dispose of the gas safely. Their only problem is they don't know how to break in. Typically, there is only one guy who can do it - a British national called John Mason who has been incarcerated for thirty years by the Government without charge. Mason was the only person to successfully escape from The Rock and now the fate of millions rests in his and Goodspeed's rather nervous hands...
Captain John Mason, SAS
Dr. Stanley Goodspeed
Brig. Gen. Frank Hummel
Major Tom Baxter
FBI Director James Womack
FBI Special Agent Ernest Paxton
Commander Anderson, Navy SEAL
John C. McGinley
Carla Pestalozzi, Stanley's fiancée
David Weisberg, Douglas Cook, Mark Rosner
Release Date (UK)
21st June 1996
Academy Award Nominations
What's to like?
Bay directing, Simpson & Bruckheimer producing, screenplay partly co-written by Tarantino, Connery as a British secret agent with a mysterious past... On paper, The Rock reads like an action fan's wet dream. Considering the names involved, it would be surprising if the film was a gentle stroll instead of a full-on, explosive excuse to blow endless stuff up. It's all in there - car chases (well, they are in San Francisco), jets carrying a fatal payload for our heroes, improbably pretty poisonous gas that only needs the faintest impact to start melting skin... It's wise enough to tick every action cliché in the book but few do it at such an electric pace.
But despite the high stakes and deadly situations, the film has another ace up its sleeve - a sense of humour. It does get a bit tongue-in-cheek at times and Connery has fun with some of his lines, hinting that Mason might be an alias for a previous (and more famous) role of his! Cage, for once, is happy to take second fiddle to Connery and tones down his wide-eyed mania. Harris is oddly sympathetic as the villain - his motives seem worthy, even if his methods are not. It all makes you care about the characters and the outcome, even if it's rarely in doubt. But The Rock feels like a greatest hits of action films rolled into one and it never stops being a full-throttle, white knuckle gripper.
- Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and Jonathon Hensleigh were all uncredited screenwriters on the film.
- The movie is dedicated to Jerry Bruckheimer's long-time producing partner Don Simpson who died during production.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for the Nicholas Cage part but turned it down. He was also considered for Cage's part in the 1997 film Face/Off (2).
What's not to like?
Having said that, it does take a little while to get going. The film only really gets into its stride once Mason starts trying to unsuccessfully escape from the FBI, leading to the most ridiculous chase San Francisco has ever seen - but then again, anyone who thinks a Hummer can outrun a Ferrari isn't going to have any problems suspending their disbelief. They probably also won't notice the numerous plot-holes the film contains, no doubt the result of so many writers contributing to the patchwork script.
The only other thing that discouraged me was its lack of imagination. The Rock is a stellar action picture, of course, but it doesn't try to be anything more. Everything, from the script to the casting (who hasn't seen Michael Biehn as a Navy SEAL?), feels somewhat generic and repetitive. I often describe The Matrix (3) as the first 21st century action movie, even though it was released in 1999. The bullet-time is the technical cherry on top of the cake - it's thought-provoking, unusual, imaginative and still finds time to be an excellent action movie by letting most of the action become dictated by computers. The Rock knows its role and shuts its mouth.
Did someone order wrestling jokes?
Should I watch it?
There are no shortage of action movies from the 90s but The Rock makes a great choice. It's exciting, noisy and full of macho-egotism, making it an ideal choice for a lad's night in. It won't change the world but it remains a solid watch today, relying on traditional stunt work and pyrotechnics instead of CG. This realism makes the movie worth tracking down and enjoying a couple of hyperkinetic hours in the company of Cage and Connery.
Great For: action nuts, San Francisco tourism board, long-haul flights
Not So Great For: thinkers, plot-hole spotters, Ferrari owners
What else should I watch?
The 90's were a veritable treasure trove of action films with ridiculous plots - try the previously mentioned Con Air or Face/Off for starters. An then there's the brilliant Speed (4) is also an obvious choice (and has an equally silly plot) while Bad Boys (5) focuses a bit more on the comedy than the action.
Of course, there are some hidden gems as well. I recommend The Long Kiss Goodnight (6) which is a great little shooter or if you wanted a film with an actual James Bond in it, the Nineties saw Pierce Brosnan take over the role in the under-rated GoldenEye (7).
© 2015 Benjamin Cox