Michael Bay didn’t know it at the time, but he made this movie for my mother. She’s an actor junkie who came of age in a time when movie stars were movie stars and the mainstream culture still surrounded them with auras of “respectability.” As such, she prefers her leading men play flawed-but-noble heroes…though she’s not opposed to the occasional flight of hyper-masculine fantasy (after all, she married my dad). So putting Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery in the same film was like ringing her personal dinner bell. And since I was thirteen at the time, I had no choice but to suffer through this at her side.
This was my – and a lot of people’s – real introduction to Michael Bay. Sure, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence might’ve headlined their own TV shows, but neither boasted the box office draw of the original James Bond…or the original Ben Sanderson.
Cage is (or was, at this point) primarily a dramatic actor, and Connery…basically gave up on acting after the 70s. Hey, I sympathize, and I can’t knock the man’s strength, on screen or off. If I made something like Meteor or Highlander 2, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself. Connery though – he’s so Bad Ass, he went right back to work, acting like those bad films never happened. After a certain point in your career, you really should win a special Oscar for things like that. Funnily enough, this was Connery’s second film of summer 1996, released barely two weeks after Dragonheart.
But let’s not get sidetracked by movies I actually like. This movie starts off with…Ed Harris smoking. And a confusing montage of fire. And Explosions. And mournfully-billowing American flags. And Marines, conducting a funeral in the rain. Ed plays General Francis X. Hummel, who kisses his wife’s tombstone before leading a squad of rogue Marines into a Navy weapon’s depot. The mutineers make off with a brace of VX nerve gas missiles and, within ten minutes of movie and two Introductory Action Scenes, General Hummel’s taken over Alcatraz.
No surprise this is – structurally – exactly the same film as Bad Boys. Both begin with brief dialogue bits that would introduce the main characters of any other film, before making way to Introductory Action Scenes (cuz talking’s so boring, as we all know – dude, there’s, like, nothing blowing up anywhere). Oddly enough, here, we meet Our Villain before we meet Our Heroes (though they’ll get their own chance to claim to spotlight).
With an entire tour group’s worth of hostages at his disposal, Hummel makes his demands known through a personal phone call to the office of FBI Director James Womack (John “Leo McGarry from The West Wing” Spencer). The security apparatus of pre-9/11 America proceeds to shit its collective pants at the news of a rogue general with a whole bunch of bio-weapons the U.S. isn’t supposed to have under international law. Remember: it’s the mid-90s, so by this point, General Hummel’s been collecting medals and special citations since he left ‘Nam. Mostly running covert missions the government likes to pretend didn’t happen…to the point of denying soldier’s families the reparations owed anyone who sacrifices a relative in service to
Holy Mars their country.
That music video in the credit sequence was a flash back to the last clandestine fuck-up Hummel presided over, which proved to be one fuck-up too many for his taste. Now an official supervillain in the eyes of his superiors (and the audience…supposedly), Hummel demands the U.S. government pay out one hundred MILLION dollars to the families of all those soldiers who died under his command over the years…using money from one of the Pentagon’s secret, Swiss bank account slush funds. (Gotta stash profits from all those arms shipments somewhere, I guess.) Should they refuse, Hummel promises to nerve gas San Francisco Bay, melting the flesh off anyone unlucky enough to be out doors at the time.
Oh, that’s right – in this universe, VX melts your skin off. In fact, the way its portrayed here reminded me of The Clench – a fictional strain of Ebola virus, not-so-accidentally release into the streets of Gotham City during the Contagion story arc. Now you know what was holding my attention in the Spring of ’96. Screw San Fran: I felt a much more personal connection to Gotham City and its slow death by exsanguination.
Back in this mess, Hummel told his dead wife that he hopes taking over Alcatraz will “elevate their thinking” back in Washington. These days, we all know this for the vain hope it is. Back in the mid-90s, certain crazy idiots truly did believed terrorist attacks would somehow “elevate” the thinking of America’s apathetic, attention-deprived populous. But not even Timothy McVay was crazy enough to think the government would treat with him reasonably, or give into his demands. Even your average bank robber is smart enough to know barricading yourself in a building behind some hostages is just signing your own death warrant. What do you think keeps getaway drivers in business?
But this is a movie, so we need Movie Terrorists and a Movie Terrorist Plot. I might actually have some sympathy with Hummel if his plan weren’t so obviously and stupidly doomed from the start. Say you get your money. What’s the chance you’d escape the Bay? (Ha-ha! Double entendre.) The only people willing to take your money would be the starving street children picking your pockets after you pass out in the gutters of Interzone. Say they don’t pay and you gas San Francisco? You’d become the most hunted men on Earth. Hope you planned on living out the rest of your life in Unabomber shacks.
Since we’re dealing with chemical weapons. Director Womack calls in the FBI’s premier bioweapon specilist…Peggy Sue’s old boyfriend, Charlie. Actually, Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed, that rarest of rare creatures – a Micheal Bay protagonist who seems like a honest-to-God nerd, if not an outright Scientist. Amazing, considering the anti-intellectualism and contempt for scientific principals that litter Bay’s later works. Yet Stanley’s still the prototypical Michael Bay Identification Character: mush-mouthed and awkward in every day conversation, he becomes a shouting Voice of Authority whenever a crisis arises. As in his second scene, where Stanley defuses a bomb full of corrosive gas and explosives. Because terrorists love that one-two punch.
“The world is being FedExed to hell in a handbasket,” he says. I wonder if they payed for that product placement or if that was the line as written. “I really believe that anyone considering having a child in this world is coldly considering an act of cruelty.” So, of course, Stan’s girlfriend Carla (Vanessa Marcil) is pregnant.
Unfortunately, she’s the same kind of shrill, clingy, annoying git we saw in Marcus Burnett’s wife, back in Bad Boys. See, there are only two kinds of women in Michael Bay films: Hot Chicks and Bitchy Significant Others Who Just Don’t Understand. Guess which one Stanley’s shagging?
“I’m Catholic, do you realize that? I am pregnant and I am unmarried and this causes a serious problem for me.”
Oh, so now your Catholic Guilt kicks in? Where was it while you and Stan were having unprotected, premarital sex? Visiting relatives at the annual Catholic Guilt Convention? In the john, puking its guts out at the thought of humping Nicholas Cage? The fuck did you expect, woman? Who taught your sex-ed class? The Penguin? (The one from The Blues Brothers, not the one from Batman Returns. Okay? Okay.)
I don’t have to ask what you were thinking, Mr. Goodspeed. The Shadow knows. We’re not suppose to talk about it since we’re two hetero guys in America…but come clean, Stan (no pun intended). It’s okay. You’re among friends and we all know, no matter how you tried, you just couldn’t keep it up and fumble with a condom at the same time. It’s a little road bump in modern sexual development we all get over eventually…if we want to (again, no pun intended) come away disease- and/or child-free.
But you didn’t want that, did you, Stan? No. Unlike the rest of us, you refused to man-up…or find a girlfriend who could slip condoms on with her mouth. Instead, you found a nice Catholic girl you knew wouldn’t force the issue because prophylactics are an abomination before her God. Now you have the gall to act surprised about the fact that she’s pregnant? Need I remind you of the Six Ps? Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance, Stanley. For example, your lack of planning has led to me to have a very piss-poor view of you, which is nothing but bad for both of us, since we’ll be spending so much time together.
See, Stan’s supposed to be identifiable cuz he’s a desk-jockey nerd who loves the Beatles and barebacking it. On a roof. Surrounded by candles. (Why don’t you just hang up a sign that says “Perverts, Start Your Cameras! And Wanking!”?) It almost works. Stanley’s not an asshole like Harry Stamper, Marcus Burnett or His Highness, the Fresh Prince. And he’s not a clueless douche like Shia LaBarf. In fact, he comes across as a very believable nerd. And since Cage is a such a big nerd in real life (just look at his name for crying out loud) that’s only natural.
Then the other shoe drops and it’s named Sean Connery, playing former-SAS Agent John Mason. The FBI caught Mason trying to sneak out of the country with J. Edna Hoover’s private files back in 1962. The British denied his existence, of course, and the FBI stuck him in a hole, where he’s remained for thirty years…without trial…or council…or access to the outside world…stop and think about that for a second.
Here we have a film made ten years before the Military Commissions Act of 2006 took the right of habeus corpus out into the street and shot it. Yet it posits a world where the US regularly detains “enemy combatants” indefinitely, and has don so for at least the last thirty years. In that time, Mason’s managed to break out of three prisons, one of which was Alcatraz. Now the Security State needs him to help their own team of (oo-oo) Navy SEALs infiltrate the island and get the drop on Hummel’s bunch.
The first fool they send in tries to play hardball, even after Director Womack tells him not to. Thankfully, Stanley’s on hand to do his Hero Bit and convince Mason to join up, saying they don’t have time for the usual routines. That’s a good point, Stan. How much time do you have again? How long did it take everyone to get to San Francisco? Where did you and Mason fly in from, the Moon?
Through diplomacy, Stan convinces Mason to help save the hostages in exchange for his freedom, a shower, a shave, and a suite at the Fairmount Hotel. The man Director Womack described as “a professional escape artist” takes the opportunity to escape. Surprise, surprise. Here’s where this movie lost me, and we’re only forty minutes into a two hour and ten minute let-down.
You’re telling me no one thought to lock down the hotel elevators? Your holding a “professional escape artist” for God sake! STUPID! You’re so STUPID! The gratuitous car chase that follows, once Mason steals a HUMMV, is the least this FBI deserves for its rank STUPIDity. I want the seven minutes of my life this chase scene eats up back. And I’m willing to breach the walls between dimensions in order to get it. As if in penance for letting Mason escape, Stanley Goodspeed rushes out and steals the first Ferarri he finds, suddenly transforming from a Jeff Goldblume nerd into a Grand Theft Auto Protagonist. Because we can’t rip-off Bullet without our Hero Cop, now can we?
Awww, shucks, the invisible Bay-apologists I conjure up in order to have strawmen to bash say, they were in San Francisco. Why not take advantage of it? Because this whole chase is one big Big Lipped Alligator Moment. Cut from Connery leaving the hotel to Connery meeting his long-lost daughter, Jade (Claire Forlani), in the park and you’d save seven minutes for the actually fucking film. A film that was doing fairly well up until this point. A film that actually had something to it.
Like a great cast. And an Action Movie Villain ambivalent enough to actually stand out in a crowd of generic terrorists. He’s a career soldier, a decent man who’s spent his life doing indecent things for his country. In the end, he had enough and he found whole team of “elite Marines” who’d had enough, too. He only has a stupid plan because this is such a stupid film, exploiting the recognizable cache of a historic landmark for its cheap action set pieces. Compare that other great, Alcatraz-centric Action Film, The Enforcer, which I’m almost denigrating with that designation. The fact that things wound up on Alcatraz was supposed to be one of that film’s key “surprises,” the answer to its eventual mystery. Only then did it become a scenic stage for a shoot-out.
Speaking of which, once the car chase is over, we have an awkward scene with Mason’s long lost daughter that only pays off when all the cops come roaring in to break things up with guns drawn. Stan tries to paper over that by acting all casual like, managing to be both a Nice Guy and an authorial cipher. Despite Director Leo’s protestations that Mason just “wrecked half the city” we’ll never hear about this car chase, or its consequences, again. Ah, well…
Back at Mobile Command (because every Action movie needs at least one) it’s…Michael Fucking Biehn? What, was there a 2 for 1 sale on cast members from The Abyss? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Believe it or not, our old friend Corporal Hicks suffered quite the career slump after Navy Seals. Sleepwalking through the same role for Bay must’ve looked like a step up after getting killed by Doc Holliday. Biehn’s subsequent career’s sure as hell proved that wrong.
Oh, now we get a ticking clock, now that everyone’s suiting up and helicopters are taking off. Gee, thanks, movie. We do love our helicopters, don’t we, Michael? They’re all over this. Flying away from sunsets, flying low over water, taking off, landing, taking off again, dropping people into water for clandestine incursions…Helicopters full of Manly Men explaining Manly Man things to Nic Cage, who’s reverted back to Awkward Nerd Mode now that he’s rolling with the SEALs. “Don’t fuck with me on this,” one says as he hands Stanley a hypo full of Obligatory Antidote. “It could save your life.” And it will. Otherwise Bay wouldn’t waste time setting it up.
So, after some futzing about in the Rock’s bowls, Biehn’s SEALs make it to the prison shower room. An apt place for a royal screwing, now that I think about it, since the SEALs are quickly wiped out by Harris’ Marines. This leaves Mason and Goodspeed to overcome a series of Action movie contrivances until the Inevitable Showdown, the Inevitable Bomb Diffusion scene(s) and that one shot of Cage praying to the Supersonic Screaming Death God that gives this review its featured image.
As with every Bay film, those contrivances serve as all purpose plot padding since the broad character strokes we’re shown are obviously good enough for any film released in June…never mind one of Bay’s. For example: after crawling up the sewers, Mason leads the SEALs to a locked door. The only way around it is through a death trap that looks more at home in the bowls of a James Bond villain’s lair or the engine room of the NSEA Protector. You know…the ship from Galaxy Quest? It’s only J.J. Abrams’ favorite “Star Trek film” in the whole wide world, so I’ll assume you’ve all dutifully re-watched it and remember the Useless Room Full of Pistons and Fire Spouts. Staring at it, one of the SEALs has a Han Solo moment and says, “I got a bad feeling about this.” Don’t focus on your anxieties, anonymous schlub who’s about to die in a slow-motion shoot-out. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.
The first hour and fifteen minutes are really just an elaborate excuse in set-up. After that, Stan comes clean about the nerve gas, giving Mason the much-needed Personal Stake, since his daughter and Stan’s fiance are now both In Harm’s Way. Now begins the actual film, with lots of Cage and Connery running around, ripping off other, better action movies. Like Temple of Doom, complete with an underground rail cart ride, ready made for the theme park planners.
The only real drama comes courtesy of Harris and his team of Marines. As their deadline approaches and the Security State hems and haws, dissension breaks their ranks and a power struggle ensues between Harris – playing the Good Soldier, Fighting for What He Believes is Right – and Tony “Candyman” Todd, who plays the one-dimensional Mercenary, Only In It For the Money. This eventually dissolves into a Mexican stand-off and shoot-out, allowing the film to kill Harris without sullying its heroes’ moral purity.
It’s a wimpy film, made all the weaker by its pretensions of substance. Sold to us as Bay’s, Bruckheimer’s and Don Simpson’s ultimate Love Note to the U.S. Armed Services (and the last one Simpson made before he died), it exploits their suffering (whether official or otherwise) for its own narrative convenience. It “needs” a “sympathetic” antagonist, so it throws a dead wife and some dead Recon troops at Hummel’s feet. Then it forgets all about them, because dwelling on sad stuff might make Hummel too sympathetic.
In point of fact, he is. Hence Tony Todd’s sudden-but-inevitable-betrayal. Hence the Personal Stakes in the Action, shoehorned-in so that our two leads might command a tenth of Hummel’s sympathy. Connery’s character slides by thanks to the power of his name, while Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed both annoys and fascinates in equal turn, sometimes in the same scene.
In the end, though, it’s the same kind of boringly-predictable crap better directors spent the previous twenty years churning out. It’s “Die Hard on Alcatraz,” from a period when you could get anything made so long as you pitched it as “Die Hard on (a/an) ____ .” The only genuinely interesting thing about all this is, The Rock marks Bay’s first out-and-proud championing of Conspiracy Theories.
Unfortunately, as with every other non-pyrotechnic element in his films, Bay puts the least possible amount of thought into this championing. So, out of all the things Director Womack could’ve explicitly mentioned to illustrate how dirty those little secrets Mason stole really were, what do you think he comes up with? Remember, this is pre-9/11 America, so any guesses involving the word “Truth” are automatically disqualified.
The answer is obvious, really, to those of us who grew up in these times: who really killed JFK and what really crash-landed at Roswell. Even at the time, we rolled our eyes and thought, “Gee. How. Bloody. Original.” Especially in a film centered on the pissed-off ex-commander of a Black Ops squad. You could’ve gone with anything there. Who was really responsible for the rise/fall of communism, the deaths of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, the Atomic Bomb, the rise and fall of regimes in every Third World country from Mexico to East Timor…but no. You went with JFK and Roswell. Pussies.
So that’s The Rock: a posturing, pretentious POS with all the subversive force of an X-Files episode from Season 9…that Year of Hell even the most ardent X-Phile has purposefully blocked from memory. At least a better cast ensures The Rock‘s nowhere near the painful slog Bad Boys (fuck you, Marcus), Pearl Harbor (fuck you, Rafe McCawley) or Armageddon (fuck you, Harry Stamper…and fuck your Steve Buscemi, too) were (and are), so at least there’s that.
Personally, though, I got my biggest kick out of the film’s denouement by pretending the various Conspiracy Theories infecting the live-action Transformers movies (growing less-intelligible with each iteration) got their start here, with Stanley Goodspeed and his new wife driving a hot car (naturally) off into the sunset (more natural still). “Honey, you wanna know who really killed JFK?” No, Stan, I really don’t. But something tells me it’ll have something to do with alien robots who get shunted into the backgrounds of their own movies to make way for more footage of Megan Fox’s tits. Which is silly, since we all know the Comedian did it, anyway.