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Non-Review Review: The Rock

I think there’s a case to be made for The Rock as a pop culture masterpiece. And, no, I’m not being sarcastic or bitchy – I genuinely believe that. It’s tough to look back no in the era of huge summer blockbusters, but the movie really codified what we should expect from a modern summer tentpole. I remember the gasps of shock when the Criterion – the gold standard of DVD releases – announced that they would be including Armageddon as part of the Criterion Collection, in what was clearly meant to be a nod to the mainstream action movies. Being honest, they should have picked The Rock.

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?

The Rock is the gold standard for summer action movies. Not just because it really upped the ante in what audiences could expect from the annual blockbusters, because it actually did most of them surprisingly well. You might argue that a mindless action movie populated with explosions and bad dialogue is always a mindless action movie populated with explosions and bad dialogue, but there’s a difference between steak and beef stew, if you catch my drift. And this, my friends, is a fillet.

The two leading actors add a lot of class to proceedings. Of course, it’s hard to watch Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery here without knowing that they spent the rest of their respective careers making inferior knock-offs, but here they are two Oscar-callibre actors in an action movie. Okay, that might not necessarily help with the atrocious dialogue (“it’s a grunge thing”), but they somehow manage to craft distinct characters out of what are two action movie clichés, the action nerd guy and the sophisticated spy. There is something inherently classy about Sean Connery, even when uttering lines like, “I hope you’re insured!” during a central Seattle car chase. And, if I’m not mistaken, this was the first movie to give us Nicholas Cage emerging in slow motion from flaming wreckage (shot from a low angle, of course).

In fairness, part of the movie’s charm is it’s incredible commitment to what it is doing. It’s a straight forward hostage-taking, chemical-warfare-based, breaking-into-prison action movie. There’s no sense of uncertainty or any real attempt to offset the ridiculous amounts of action with human drama. When the marines arrive on Alcatraz and find a ridiculously pointless fire-and-gears death trap which the super spy must navigate to get them out of the boiler room, nobody asks questions like “Why is that there? Who on earth thought installing a fire-and-gears deathtrap in a boiler room made any sense?” Characters utter lines like “I got a bad feeling about this” without a hint of irony. Irony would have killed a movie as over-the-top as this, ricking alienating the audience. Instead, the movie plays it almost entirely straight, which – against all odds – works.

Michael Bay is the action director of our generation – like it or lump it. His recent efforts have demonstrated two things: first, he is not an actor’s director, he needs an extremely talented cast in order to make his movies work in any real sense, as he isn’t interested in that side of them; second, simple is better. Bay can make a car chase through San Fransisco in this movie seem like the end of the bloody world. Indeed, afterwords, when a character proclaims to the super spy that “You wrecked half the city!”, the audience is left thinking “only half?” All of the action sequences here are relatively straight-forward, but they’re all effective. They work due to the fact that they are all straight-up, allowing Bay to avoid the confusion of the Transformers films.

The supporting cast is incredible. John Spencer is fantastic as a shady bureaucrat. William Forsythe oozes testorone as the macho right-hand man. Among the terrorists are familiar faces like John C. McGinley, David Morse and Tony Todd. Claire Forlani even pops in for a few minutes as an estranged daughter. Michael Biehn heads up the crackerjack marine squad sent to resolve the hostage situation on Alcatraz. However, as ever, Ed Harris is the real core of the movie and the heart of what could be considered the human element. As the “bad guy”, he manages to evoke a fair bit of sympathy, but never seems truly ineffective – and its his performance which makes the climax work as well as it does. Harris has been doing this sort of quirky supporting role thing for years, and there’s a reason – he’s among the best there is.

I’d feel negligent if I closed off this review without making reference to the music. Like everything else, it’s fantastically over the top. And somehow just screams “patriotism!” It’s funky in that nineties sort of way, which is a way of saying it’s almost as cheesy as any eighties soundtrack, just with an orchestra instead of a synth. And it’s amazing how the heavy overbearing music compliments the action scenes. Even during the mandatory ‘quiet’ scenes (a father-daughter moment, for example), the music seems to be intent on reminding you how incredibly epic the whole thing is.

Admittedly The Rock is responsible for every terrible action movie that bay, Connery and Cage have given us since then, but I think it’s the higehst compliment to say that, in most ways, it’s worth it. The central problem for the disconnect between The Rock and the movies that followed is that there was simply no way to top the over-the-top gratuitous action of the movie. I honestly don’t think there’s been a better cast action movie made in the past twenty years.

Not to mention all the fantastically cheesy one liners. I could reprint a whole host of them, but personally I love the “how do you like how that sh** works?” exchange (“You’re the rocket man” indeed). Shakespeare it ain’t, but it is awesome in its own little way. Word is that Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin worked on the script and – being honest – I wouldn’t be too surprised.

Quite simply it rocks.

4 Responses

  1. Outstanding non-review review! Even to this day, it’s definitely not a bad movie to watch. Sure it’s cheesy and over the top but all the actors are so into it that it sort of makes up for it. Ed Harris really gave an underrated performance in this movie.

    • Yep, watching it, I was impressed both by how well it has aged (in that there have been dozens of movies ripping it off since) but also how Sean Connery managed to make even his profanity-laden dialogue work with that suave James Bond accent. “Why is it that losers always whine about ‘doing their best’? Winners go home and f*** the prom queen.”

      Or that bit where he breaks the two-way mirror and utters the immortal “Wallmack, why am I not surprised, you piece of sh*t?”

  2. “The Rock” is my guilty pleasure movie. Or maybe I shouldn’t call it that. After all, it’s got explosions. It’s got violence galore (the really exciting kind). There are shootouts and crazy escapes and a compound that melts off human flesh and Ed Harris going medieval on everyone’s asses. That kicks ass.

    OK, maybe I’m not so ashamed for loving it anymore!

    • Yep, I think Ed Harris singlehandedly manages to make it a legitimate movie by actually giving an incredibly solid performance – his character actually feels real and, for a Michael Bay movie, that is incredible.

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