Tuesday, March 7, 2017

THE ROCK (1996) - ***1/2

Rated R for strong violence, language and a sex scene.
Running time: 136 min.
Release date: June 7, 1996

Things explode real good. Car chases are had. Slow-motion action scenes are plentiful. People stare up at the sky. Meanwhile, a pounding musical score drones away underneath the surface, never resting for a single moment. Rest assured, The Rock is a Michael Bay film, but this is also a Simpson/Bruckheimer production. Bay's film prior to this, Bad Boys, marked his feature debut and had earned him mixed reviews, but his star was definitely on the rise. With the duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer behind him, The Rock is a strong follow-up to Bad Boys and essentially lays out the template that Bay will use in future films. It should be noted here that Don Simpson died before the film was completed due to years of drug abuse. This makes The Rock the final film for the collaboration of Simpson/Bruckheimer, who brought us Beverly Hills Cop 1 and II, Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Crimson Tide.

Ed Harris plays Gen. Frank Hummel, a disenchanted career soldier who leads a team of rogue Marines into a plot that involves seizing a stockpile of rockets armed with VX gas, then making hostages of a group of tourists on Alcatraz Island, "the Rock" of the movie title. Hummel threatens the government and the city of San Francisco with the gas unless his demands are met. Those demands: $100 million from a secret slush fund to be paid to the families of soldiers who died under his command on covert missions; missions so secret that the men did not even get a proper burial. The Pentagon teams with the FBI to devise a plan to retake the island using a team of Navy SEALS. They require the assistance of the FBI's top chemical weapons expert. Enter Nicolas Cage as Stanley Goodspeed. His quick thinking and poise under pressure during a chemical attack early in the film lands him the task, although he lacks experience in the combat field. Now, how does the team traverse the various tunnels hidden under Alcatraz? Easy. They reluctantly spring former British SAS captain John Mason (Sean Connery) from prison, where he has been for over thirty years for stealing super-secret files from J. Edgar Hoover and never turning them over. His prison tour of duty includes a stint in Alcatraz. Having escaped from the island during his stay there, he has knowledge of the route needed to secretly enter the prison. Of course, Mason is going to take time to exact revenge on the guy who imprisoned him and then lead Goodspeed and the feds on a thrilling high-speed chase through San Francisco in a more chaotic fashion that would have had Steve McQueen gasping for breath. The pacing of the action is such that it takes some time to get the SEAL team into Alcatraz, as we get one action set-piece after another, only interrupted by a few moments of set-up dialogue. Of course, situations occur that require Goodspeed and Mason to handle matters on their own, because they're the odd couple of the film and everything hinges on the convict and the FBI guy with no combat experience working together. In taking a look at the plot, it is ridden with clichés, but the plot is constantly in motion and the clichés never feel dull. Surely, there is a much more diplomatic way for Gen. Hummel to call attention to his cause, but then we wouldn't have an action film plot, would we?

Michael Bay subscribes to the style-over-substance theory of film directing. With quick cuts, his use of slow-motion during action scenes, and gratuitous use of special effects, Bay appears to be making films for teenage boys who enjoy the pace of video games. There isn't a lot of downtime on-screen and Bay and his editor take liberties with the cuts so it almost appears as if a single shot doesn't get more than five seconds of screen time. It provides quite a frenetic pace to the film, which actually aids in the urgency of the plot, but can also speed things up so quickly that you feel like you need to catch up on something that just happened seconds earlier. To Bay's credit, you can never say that The Rock is boring, because it is not. Perhaps that is intentional so as to not give the audience a chance to stop and think about the plot holes.

The best element of the film is in the casting. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery have great chemistry together, as they bounce one witty remark after another off each other. Cage's Goodspeed is depicted as a chemistry nerd with an affinity for the stylings of The Beatles on vinyl, something a lot of us hipsters out there can relate to. He is actually the "average guy" who finds himself backed against the wall with no recourse other than to fight back the best way he can: with his brain. Meanwhile, Connery provides the action muscle, as he portrays a James Bond-type aged by several decades. Whenever Connery's Mason is on-screen, he seems to have it all pieced together within his stoic demeanor. The title "The Rock" could very well refer to Mason himself, who always seems so sure of himself, except during a scene where he reunites with his long-lost daughter (Claire Forlani), which would naturally be an emotional moment for him. Ed Harris has the most difficult role in Gen. Hummel. He and his Marines are the antagonists of the film, but because of the conflict within the character, Harris has to be able to make him sympathetic also, which he does successfully. Hummel is not a monster, as shown in a scene where he tells the children in the tourist group that they need to go back to their boat. Harris does yeomen's work here, providing depth to a role that could have been easily one-dimensional.

One of the more notable elements of a Michael Bay film is his use of music. In almost every single scene, you can hear a thundering orchestra or rocking guitars. Being a former music video director, Bay never truly leaves his roots, setting his film to music. It normally makes for a very loud experience, even if there is a short lull in the action. The score for The Rock is competently conducted and prevalent throughout and is only a mild distraction as the film progresses. Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith, with an assist from Hans Zimmer, the score pulses with the action on screen, even if it is a little too much at times.

The Rock accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to entertain an audience with fast-paced action. That pace may never really slow up, and at times can feel relentless, but thanks to a cast of professionals in Cage, Connery and Harris, along with a slew of character actors, the material is elevated and never really overstays its welcome. The plot has holes, of course, as most big and dumb action movies do, but in keeping a frantic pace and blowing up stuff real good, Michael Bay covers up the holes nicely.

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