REVIEWS: The Rock (1996)

Check out George’s full review below (click here to listen/download the podcast episode)

In a nutshell

Alcatraz is taken over by terrorists with chemical warheads and a rescue team go in to save hostages and defuse the weapons, with the help of a former inmate and a chemical specialist.

No time to read the article? Listen or download the podcast episode here!

Review

When I mentioned we were going to cover The Rock in the next Retro Ramble episode, most people would take a moment to pause and go, “The person or the film?” Understandable as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appears to have a new film out every month and apparently the nicest man in Hollywood. It’s sad to think that some may have neglected the film, as there’s much to enjoy- a cracking cast led by Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, some stylish over the top action and some memorable one-liners.

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Whilst not as snappy pitch as “Die Hard on a Plane” or “Alien in the Jungle”, The Rock has a solid premise – a great setting of Alcatraz – the (near) inescapable prison, an interesting twist on the buddy cop formula and a compelling villain with some very nasty weapons. Brought to us by 80’s and 90’s powerhouse producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – it’s everything you’d expect from the makers of Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Bad Boys.

Stylised action, cheesy music, military hardware and beautiful sunsets. Simpson/Bruckheimer had a mostly successful formula and whilst this was the last as a partnership (due to Simpson’s death mid-production) Bruckheimer has continued to have a midas touch at the box office (Con Air, Armageddon, Pirates of The Caribbean) and all the small screen (the many, many CSI series).

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The producers definitely had a talent for sniffing out…talent. Whilst the plots, on the whole, are cheesy, patriotic and over the top, you can’t help buy into it because there’s usually competent people in front of the camera. It’s hard to deny that these guys turned Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith into box office stars.

The Rock is no different, by wisely casting Cage, fresh off his Oscar win for Leaving Last Vegas (1995), quickly turning him into a credible action hero. Whilst Cage was known for his more twitchy, eccentric types, it didn’t stop audiences lapping up Con Air, Face Off, Gone in 60 Seconds over the following years. Cage brings a real energy and heart to the role of Stanley Goodspeed, making him him a great foil to a grizzled and grumpy Connery, playing Bond in his twilight years – 0070, if you will. Their casting and relationship are the main reason I keep coming back to this film, their zingy dialogue cuts through a lot of heavy exposition throughout the film.

Whilst our heroes are great fun to spend time with bickering, you also need a compelling villain and the ever-reliable Ed Harris certainly delivers. His General Hummel is a genuinely sympathetic and believable character, a man fighting for recognition of his fallen comrades and Harris seamlessly shifts from hardened soldier to a conflicted leader who realises he may have gone too far.

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Like a lot of our favourite films at Retro Ramble, there’s no shortage of great supporting actors on the sidelines: Xander Berkley (24, Air Force One, Terminator 2), Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens,), John C McGinley (Point Break, Scrubs) and Stuart Wilson (Lethal Weapon 3, The Mask of Zorro, Hot Fuzz) are just a handful of familiar faces amongst the good and the bad.

The visual template of Simpson/Bruckheimer films has been pretty much determined by two directors, Tony Scott and Michael Bay, both who come from a background in commercials and music videos and carry that frenetic editing style to their features. Bay’s calling card was Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (1993)  video which practically plays like a short film for Bruckheimer & Simpson.

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A lot of people give Bay stick, and rightly so, but it’s hard to argue that he has an eye for an action sequence – much like Zach Snyder who comes from a similar background. The Rock is fairly well paced with great sequences – Hummel’s raid on the weapons depot, a Humvee/Ferrari/Police chase that makes The Blues Brothers look tame and a tense final act which cuts between Connery and Cage taking names and diffusing rockets. Bay and his production team have fun with Alcatraz’s architecture, sewers, shower blocks, industrial furnaces etc, but frankly the mine cart sequence is one action scene too far.

Like a mine cart, the Bayhem is helpfully guided along on rails by a good story and witty one liners – apparently Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and the writing team behind Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehn Pet! all did polishes on the script as well as some improv from The Cage. Bar regular doses of pyrotechnics, the film doesn’t have the need to dissolve into the CGI-fests that Bay is now renowned for – the 90’s were a simpler time when most special effects were practical.

Whilst the films of Bay and Bruckheimer can be fairly formulaic, I’d argue The Rock holds up as it’s a delicate balance of spectacle and character. I think it’s safe to say that it’s Connery’s last good film and Michael Bay’s best film.

His best?! Losers always whine about their best….

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MVP – Admittedly a cop out but all three leads – Connery, Cage and Harris are key to the films’ success.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda – Arnold Schwarznegger was initially approached as a lead (conflicting reports say for both Mason and Goodspeed). Arnie claims he regrets not getting involved but he was approached when the script was in it’s earliest stages. Years later, Arnie would go on to play a similar role in Escape Plan (2013) with Stallone (worth a watch)

Fun (or terrifying) fact – In 2016, the Chilcott report on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War noted that one agent had falsified claims about observing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and had based his description of them on the VX gas missiles featured in The Rock!

 

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