Gallant Chieft Justice Mike Jackson reviews this Big Dumb Action Movie, but does it deserve to be thought of a little more highly? Read his review to find out.
"You've been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?"
Jerry Bruckheimer. The name conjures up visions of flashy, action-filled summer popcorn flicks. Bruckheimer and his late producing partner, Don Simpson, are responsible for a string of action flicks—Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Bad Boys…the list could go on. These are kick-ass movies, but hardly what you would call great filmmaking.
So that brings me to The Rock. Is it a great film? No. But…it's a better film than it needs to be. Hold that thought; I'll be coming back to it later.
Facts of the Case
General Hummel (Ed Harris—The Right Stuff, The Abyss) is mad as hell and he's not going to take it any more. He's been involved in secret military missions his entire career, and now as a leader of men, he is tired of seeing the government abandon his men on dangerous missions and then denying benefits to the families of men who died behind enemy lines. So, he pulls off a daring mission as a statement to the government. He steals deadly chemical weapons and takes hostages on the island fortress of Alcatraz, demanding reparations for the families of his fallen soldiers or he will launch the chemical weapons into the heart of San Francisco.
Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage—Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas) is a chemist who works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He disarms bombs for a living, and at night goes home to his LP collection and his beautiful girlfriend. His beautiful, pregnant girlfriend. He gets the call to go to San Francisco, but he underestimates the severity of the situation and invites his girlfriend along.
John Mason (Sean Connery—I think you can name one or two movies he's starred in) is a former British secret agent…"former" because he's been locked away in American prisons for thirty years for stealing U.S. state secrets. He has the unique qualification of being the only person to escape successfully from Alcatraz.
So, there's your setup: three men at odds with one another, spinning out of control, two of them fighting to stop the third from killing over 70,000 people in the name of redeeming his departed comrades.
Describing the facts of The Rock, I could have talked about the action of the film. So, why did I choose to describe the characters? Because to me, that's what separates The Rock from its action movie brethren. Your conventional action flick does very little in the way of character development or exposition. In fact, by way of example, let's take a quick peek at another Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer movie: Bad Boys. In virtually every respect, it is your typical action flick: fast cars, lots of gunfights and explosions, scantily clad women, and a razor-thin plot tying it all together. At the top of the movie, we get a few showy shots to establish the exotic Miami locale (okay, so Miami is exotic compared to the mountains and pine trees and copious amounts of rain visible outside my Pacific Northwest window). Within the first two minutes, the two lead characters (played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence) have already been very clearly defined through their witty banter—or at least as clearly defined as they will be for the rest of the film's 116 minutes. At the two minute mark, the first action scene begins as hoods try to carjack Will Smith's Porsche. More witty banter ensues as the duo handily defeats the thugs. Ninety seconds later, the action beat is over and we've learned the only other important character fact: this "original Odd Couple" are cops! (Sorry, I can never resist slipping in Simpsons references.)
Comparatively, right off the top The Rock is much more deliberate and takes its time showing the characters' personalities and motivations. The first four minutes establish Major Hummel's history: men under his command have died because they've had no support from his superiors, and he has petitioned the government to honor their memories without results. Through Ed Harris' weighty delivery, both verbally and nonverbally, we can see the pain it has brought him, and we can palpably feel his resolve. His actions are not undertaken lightly; he even asks the forgiveness of his wife at her gravesite, symbolically placing his Congressional Medal of Honor on her tombstone to signify that he has abandoned his old life. These opening scenes show us that this man is not a madman who is committing treason, taking hostages, and threatening to kill a metropolis for kicks. The next four minutes of the film are its first action set piece, as Hummel leads a group to steal chemical weapons from a Naval depot. Like the carjacking scene at the top of Bad Boys, this also serves double-duty as an insight into the character's personality. Here, though, Bay takes us a little deeper into our antagonist's psyche. (In fact, it almost seems strange to call Hummel the "antagonist" at this point, as he never seems evil and could still very well be some kind of antihero.) Hummel is a man of resolve, but his is also a principled man. His soldiers use non-lethal force to achieve their objective (namely, stealing the chemical warheads), and when one of his men dies (conveniently to serve the plot's need to show the destructive power of the VX chemical weapon), we can see it causes him pain. Similarly, Stanley Goodspeed and John Mason are dissected for us to understand their character and motivation, perhaps in not as much detail as American Beauty, but in much more detail than a popcorn flick needs to go. That's what I like about it: it's a much better film than it needs to be.
Let's take that thought a little further, to the cast. Action flicks usually only require one marquee name—a Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwarzenegger—to be viable at the box office. It's movie stars that populate these casts, not great actors. While Nic Cage and Sean Connery carry cachet as stars, they're primarily actors—a thin distinction, to be sure, but one that I'm hoping you also share. The Rock was not necessarily Nicolas Cage's first foray into action films—there was the underrated Barbet Schroeder film Kiss of Death a year prior—but it was his first taste of big-budget action movies that he would follow up with Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds (both for Jerry Bruckheimer), Face/Off, and the upcoming Windtalkers (both for John Woo). At that time, he was better known for his quirky, deliberate acting in films like Leaving Las Vegas and Moonstruck. Ed Harris was no stranger to action films after The Abyss, but was also known for character roles like in The Right Stuff or Places In The Heart. And then there's Sean Connery, and do I really need to remind you that he was the James Bond? The guy has aged so incredibly well, with the suaveness of his youth and the wisdom of age rolled into the greatest screen presence of our day. Rounding out the cast is excellent genre and character actors. Michael Biehn (The Terminator, The Abyss) plays the Navy SEAL commander with steely reserve. John Spencer (The Negotiator, The West Wing) brings oily despotism to his FBI director. (Speaking of The West Wing, its creator, Aaron Sorkin, did uncredited rewrites on The Rock. Damn good writer, that Sorkin guy.) As the San Francisco bureau chief, William Forsythe (Virtuosity, Blue Streak) gives the same quiet ballsiness that he brought to his other police roles. Oh, and it's cool to see him share the screen with Nic Cage for the first time since Raising Arizona. (What? You forgot William Forsythe was in Raising Arizona? He was John Goodman's brother Evelle.) Playing on the other side of the good guy/bad guy fence, John C. McGinley (Wall Street, Se7en) is not given much to do as one of Hummel's men, but I always welcome his presence. Lastly, there's my favorite character actor: David Morse. He serves as Hummel's conscience of sorts, and carries himself with dignity in the face of adversity.
Lest you think The Rock is nothing but stuffy acting and exposition, let me assure you that it does indeed carry the flashy camera work and balls-to-the-wall action that are the trademarks of any Jerry Bruckheimer film. Michael Bay (for the most part) works in the action seamlessly with the story, heightening the tension and our emotional involvement. In typical fashion, the action is incredibly over the top. The car chase through San Francisco (culminating in a fiery cable car explosion) sets new standards for San Fran car chases. It is entirely and completely gratuitous, but it's fun nonetheless. The mine car chase (what is this? Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?) is very contrived, but it still serves to advance Goodspeed's character. There's a "Mexican standoff" that was lifted directly from Reservoir Dogs (which I'm sure in turn took it from somewhere else), but again it serves to advance the story in action movie shorthand. The action is derivative, but what action movie can claim to be completely original in our post-Peckinpah, post-Tarantino filmmaking landscape?
We've come to expect the very best from Criterion, and very infrequently do they disappoint. I have a few quibbles with this set, but I'll save my complaints for the next section.
The video, as the liner notes boast, was "Created on a high-definition Spirit Datacine and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, this new digital transfer was mastered from the 35mm interpositive." Compared to Buena Vista's original DVD release (which I've watched numerous times), it exhibits greater detail and better color reproduction. The previous release tended to be a little bright and undersaturated. Flesh tones are much more accurate here, and Michael Bay's stylized camera work is rendered much more accurately. However, it appears to be the same interpositive used for the previous transfer, exhibiting the same specks, scratches, and other imperfections. They're not distracting, but appear much more frequently than they should on a five year old big-budget film. The new DVD sports both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio tracks. The Dolby Digital track is much clearer and much more aggressive than that on the previous disc. It makes extensive use of directional effects, and your subwoofer will definitely be put through its paces. It's one of the best tracks I've heard yet. I could not test the DTS track, but as usual, I'm sure you can expect it to be just that much better than the Dolby Digital audio.
This being a two-disc set AND from Criterion, as you'd expect it has some spiffy extras. Leading off is a commentary track. First, the bad news: it's one of those commentaries where the comments were recorded separately and spliced together. The good news: you probably will not find a better collection of comments about a film. The contributors are director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, technical advisor Harry Humphries, and actors Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris. Bay and Cage are heard most frequently, sharing their deep thoughts (and no, I'm not being sarcastic) about the process of making The Rock. It's unfortunate that we can't hear their comments throughout the entire film.
On disc two, the supplements are divided into: Production Secrets, Publicity and Promotion, Stills Archive, Outtakes, Secrets of Alcatraz, and Jerry Bruckheimer Interview.
Production Secrets: Here you get about 30 minutes of featurettes. "On the Range With the Navy SEALs" show technical adviser Harry Humphries (who you might recognize from bit parts in The Rock, G.I. Jane, and Armageddon) putting a class through its paces, teaching them proper weapon handling and where to shoot people. (Note to self: next time you go on a shooting spree, aim for the groin.) "Dos and Don'ts of Hollywood Gunplay" shows just how inaccurate John Woo style theatrics really are. I scoff in their general direction. "The Rock on Movie Magic" is a snippet from one of those "how'd they do that?" shows that gives you a glimpse at the special effects work, mostly of the 3D modeling used to create the F-18 flyovers. "Special Effects: The Dive Sequence" will open your eyes about the effects used to create the underwater SEAL incursion sequence. Here's a hint: it's almost all done with animatronics. I had no idea.
Publicity and Promotion: Here you get the theatrical trailer (1.66:1 non-anamorphic, mono sound), a string of TV commercials, and a blurb on the world premiere of The Rock at Alcatraz.
Stills Archive: Here you get a weighty complement of storyboards, production design drawings, and photographs.
Outtakes: Eight minutes of Ed Harris blowing his lines and hurling obscenities at no one in particular, plus Nic Cage experimenting with a few things that didn't make the final cut.
Secrets of Alcatraz: This is a 15-minute excerpt from a documentary about the historical Alcatraz. Interesting, but all too brief. I recommend you read the book "Escape From Alcatraz" if you really want to learn the island fortress' history.
Jerry Bruckheimer Interview: 16 very interesting minutes of Jerry Bruckheimer giving his background and talking about his filmmaking philosophy. Yes, even guys who make lowly popcorn films have a philosophy behind their creations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All you sniggering wankers waiting for me to bad-mouth the movie can just pack it up and go home. It's not going to happen. But what I'm about to do makes me feel like I'm going to bad-mouth Hitchcock's Psycho.
I'm getting a little perturbed with Criterion.
Okay, so they publish some great discs. They release stuff that no other studio would touch. They lavish attention on older or obscure or foreign titles that studios like MGM wouldn't give the time of day. They came along in the halcyon days of home theater, when the living room was first considered a replacement for the multiplex (and could match the audio and video quality). They pioneered widescreen presentations and special edition releases. But now…to quote Star Wars, "When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master." Companies like Fox and New Line are now consistently producing DVD special editions that put even the best work of Criterion to shame. They also retail these superior sets at much lower prices—always a plus for budget-conscious people like me. I only have three Criterion releases in my 180+ disc collection, because I just can't justify the cost-to-return on their discs. I understand that their overhead is greater, but gosh…my bank account doesn't take that in consideration.
As for my complaints specific to The Rock, I'm disappointed that they went to the trouble of creating a brand-new anamorphic transfer without cleaning up the plethora of blemishes. Time and effort and Adobe Photoshop would have been all it would've required. A simplistic explanation, to be sure, but think about it. You go to the original interpositive. You color-correct the transfer, and make it look quite good otherwise, but you don't fix the nicks and blemishes? Why? The extras feel a little sparse, especially when judging this in such close proximity to New Line's Se7en set. It retails for $10 less than The Rock, provides higher value for the money, and is a much better film to boot. Don't get me wrong, because this is a welcome replacement for the old bare bones disc. Expectations are very high in the tight DVD market, and Criterion is going to have to take their efforts up a notch or watch their reputation and market share erode. I'll get off the soapbox now.
If you're not a fan of movie, my raving recommendation will probably not put a dent in your perception of the film. I have a soft spot in my heart for big, dumb action movies, and you might enjoy yourself a little more if you looked for their redeeming qualities rather than pooh-poohing them for their supposed flaws. Criterion's presentation may not be perfect, but it's certainly deserving of a purchase for any action movie buff.
Acquitted on all charges.
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