October 2023

The Rock (1996)

DIRECTOR: Michael Bay

CAST: Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, John Spencer, Stuart Wilson, Philip Baker Hall, Vanessa Marcil, Claire Forlani, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, Bokeem Woodbine, Danny Nucci


Among the dime a dozen action flicks on the filmographies of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, The Rock is one of the stronger (comparatively speaking) entries. It’s still firmly in the “check your brain at the door” category, but a buddy movie element and the charisma of stars Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery helps give a needed bump to the proceedings.

The premise is kickstarted by the highly-decorated General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) having it up to here with the US government conveniently forgetting about the men who died serving their country on classified missions, and the lack of financial compensation for their families, a state of affairs he has decided can no longer be tolerated. To this end, Hummel assembles a crack team of Marines and hired mercenaries and takes a group of tourists hostage in the former prison Alcatraz, while he also aims a few missiles armed with deadly VX gas at nearby San Francisco to blackmail the government into paying up. In desperation, the government throws together an unlikely pair: dorky chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), who’s never been in the field before, and former British special forces agent and Alcatraz escapee John Mason (Sean Connery), who’s the only person capable of guiding a SEAL incursion team through Alcatraz’s labyrinth of underground tunnels. But when the operation goes south, the odd couple of Goodspeed and Mason are the only people standing between San Francisco and chemical warfare.

The Rock lightens up the goings-on with some action-comedy, especially in the “buddy movie” aspect that eventually takes center stage between the mismatched pair of nerdy Stanley and crusty veteran Mason. Twitchy oddball Nicolas Cage isn’t a conventional action hero type, but he provides enough quirky likability to get away with it, and Sean Connery—who in truth has always been longer on charisma than range—plays Mason a bit like what one might expect from an elderly James Bond (and shows he can still look debonair in a suit once he gets out of prison and freshens up with a shave and a haircut). Unsurprisingly, Connery gets plenty of tongue-in-cheek one-liners, and he and Cage manage to “click” despite seeming an unlikely pair. Meanwhile, Ed Harris (a good deal more forceful than in his listless performance as Sally Field’s husband in January’s off-putting Eye for an Eye) provides a “villain”—or maybe anti-hero—who’s more three-dimensional than one expects to find in a Bay movie. General Hummel is not a typical “terrorist”; he’s a fervent patriot and war hero brimming with righteous indignation about the unfair treatment of the men under his command by the government they were serving—his motives, if not his methods, may strike a cord with some viewers—and while he’s resorting to extreme actions to get his point across, it’s made clear that he’d prefer not to actually harm anyone. Alas, some of his subordinates don’t share his compunction (one could argue some of Hummel’s men are more villainous than Hummel himself). In smaller roles, we have Michael Biehn—a familiar “military man” type—as the leader of the SEAL team, along with character actors like John Spencer, William Forsythe, Stuart Wilson, and Philip Baker Hall as the FBI/Pentagon bigwigs assessing the situation (as always in these kinds of movies, they do lots of staring at monitors and throwing exposition back and forth), while David Morse, John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, and Bokeem Woodbine are on Hummel’s team. Apart from Vanessa Marcil in the thankless role of Stanley’s girlfriend and a bit part for Claire Forlani as Mason’s estranged daughter, this is firmly a boy’s club.

The Rock serves up all the expected tropes of a movie with Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s names on it; slow-motion, tilted camera angles, cars being incapable of crashing without exploding in excessive fireballs, and a confusingly-edited car chase (why is Bay so well-regarded as an action director?). There’s some eye-rollingly dopey dialogue and thuddingly on-the-nose exposition, and the running time could have been trimmed (there’s no reason why a generic action flick like this needs to surpass two hours), but the presences of Cage, Connery, and Harris help give a slight heft to the proceedings. It hardly breaks any new ground, but it’s an entertaining enough diversion.

* * 1/2