Rock, The (1996)


Director:  Michael Bay
Cast:  Sean ConneryNicolas CageEd Harris
Plot:  A renegade general and his group of U.S. Marines take over Alcatraz and threaten San Francisco Bay with biological weapons. A chemical weapons specialist and the only man to have ever escaped from the Rock attempt to prevent chaos.

Genre:  Action / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Sound.
Runtime:  136min
Rating:  M18 for strong violence, language and a sex scene.

Michael Bay used to make excellent action films, or maybe just one. The Rock stands as an anomaly in the director’s resume that consists mostly of films that are trash such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) to the borderline watchable such as The Island (2005). 

After showing he could transit from shooting music videos to action features with his debut buddy cop actioner Bad Boys (1995), he pulls a quick rabbit out of the hat with The Rock, a film starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris in what is now considered one of the more memorable action films of the 1990s.

The Rock sees General Hummel (Harris) and his section of U.S. Marines going renegade by taking over Alcatraz, the notorious prison that lies off San Francisco Bay, and threatening to kill hundreds of thousands of nearby city dwellers with sarin gas.  Hummel wants a huge sum of money to pay soldiers their rightful due for their sacrifices for their country. 

As the deadline looms closer, options become severely limited. Not unless the U.S. government sends a chemical weapon specialist with no combat training, and a former prisoner of Alcatraz who is the only man ever to escape from “The Rock” to save the day.

Cage and Connery play the film’s two lead protagonists.  The performances all-round are excellent, especially if you make comparisons to “actors” like Shia LaBeouf or Ben Affleck today.  

For an action film, the characters in The Rock are well-developed in the first two acts, but Hummel’s motivation in the final act shows signs of weakness as it comes into conflict with what has transpired before. This seeming implausibility would have been a major sore point for some if not for Bay’s skills as an out-and-out entertainer. And yes, The Rock is remarkably entertaining, and we are in a forgiving mood.

The best action set-piece of the entire film comes in the first half – a thrilling car chase down the streets of San Francisco with loads of collateral damage, and ends with typical Bay bombast.  That means a yellow Ferrari has to be destroyed in the most heartbreaking manner possible.

The second half of the film confines itself in Alcatraz, with a mix of stealth and armed combat providing some testosterone-filled moments. Direct references to Aliens (1986) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) are evident as Bay takes command.

All this to the rock-inspired original score by Hans Zimmer, whose mid-nineties work marked a shift to a more epic sound that reached its zenith with Gladiator (2000).  And he has stayed at the top of his game ever since, perhaps even usurping John Williams as the most popular film composer working in Hollywood today. 

It is a compliment to say that The Rock is an old-school action film that satisfies by entertaining. It is also fair to say that it is Bay’s best film to date.  And considering the work the director has been churning out in recent years, I would be most surprised if he ever scaled such heights again.

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