The Rock (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #75

Alcatraz.
Only one man has ever broken out.
Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (uncut, 1996) | 15 (cut on video, 1996) | 15 (uncut on video, 2002)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th June 1996
UK Release: 21st June 1996
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona, National Treasure)
Sean Connery (You Only Live Twice, The Untouchables)
Ed Harris (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)

Director
Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers)

Screenwriters
David Weisberg (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)
Douglas S. Cook (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Mark Rosner (Blanco, Empire City)

Story by
David Weisberg (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Douglas S. Cook (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)

The Story
When a rogue US General and his team of Marines occupy Alcatraz, threatening to launch a gas attack on San Francisco unless their demands are met, a field-inexperienced chemical weapons specialist is paired with the only man to ever escape from the prison to break in and prevent the attack.

Our Heroes
Dr Stanley Goodspeed is a mild-mannered vinyl-loving FBI chemist, as unlikely an action movie leading man as… well, Nicolas Cage once was. His new partner is John Mason, a former SAS Captain who’s been imprisoned without charge by the US for decades. He’s also clearly more skilled than both an entire squad of mutinous Marines and, therefore, the entire team of Navy SEALs who initially fail to stop them. That’s the SAS for you.

Our Villain
Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, a covert ops commander who is seeking recompense for his men who were killed in action but have gone unacknowledged due to the secretive nature of their missions. Fundamentally a good man, driven to less good methods. A particularly effective villain because he’s relatively sympathetic to the audience. Not all the men on his team are so trustworthy, however…

Memorable Quote
Stanley: “You’ve been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?”
Mason: “What, the feet thing?”
Stanley: “Yeah, the feet thing.”
Mason: “Yeah, it happens.”
Stanley: “Well I’m having a hard time concentrating. Can you do something about it?”
Mason: “Like what, kill him again?”

Memorable Scene
Flarey goodBelieving the mission lost, the military has launched its back-up plan: an airstrike that will destroy the poison gas but also kill everyone on the island. Naturally our heroes manage to complete their mission nonetheless, and as the jets streak across San Francisco Bay, Stanley attempts to signal abort with two green flares. In slow motion, of course.

Making of
The final screenplay actually has many more authors than credited — not unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the uncredited ones are of considerably higher profile. David Weinberg and Douglas Cook penned the original spec script, but Jonathan Hensleigh worked closely with Michael Bay on the final shooting script. When Writers Guild arbitration awarded the credit elsewhere, Bay wrote an open letter calling the process a “sham” and a “travesty”. Others who worked on the screenplay included Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, with British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought in at Connery’s behest to rework his dialogue, though they ended up rewriting everyone else’s too.

Previously on…
There’s a theory that Connery’s character is actually an older James Bond, incarcerated under a pseudonym. Obviously that isn’t actually there in the text, but is kind of a fun idea.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)
1 MTV Movie Award (On-Screen Duo (Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Action Sequence (for the yellow Ferrari’s chase through San Francisco))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Music)

What the Critics Said
“the movie’s best asset is the old-fashioned, buddy-movie interplay between Cage and Connery — Cage as the frantic, white-collar lab technician who doesn’t like guns, Connery as the weathered, resourceful old pro who’s escaped from three maximum-security prisons and has a one-liner ready for every big, scary guy he kills.” — Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“The screenplay […] does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title. These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.” — Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

Verdict

Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke, thanks to his tendency to let his movies get distracted by explosions, special effects, and young women, while not paying enough attention to the screenplay. However, in his earlier in his career — and sometimes in later years, too — he’s produced enough quality work to suggest he does know what he’s doing… or maybe he’s just lucked out a couple of times. Either way, this is probably the pinnacle of his oeuvre. While it functions well in Bay’s familiar wheelhouse of adrenaline-pumping action-thriller, it’s elevated by a screenplay that offers dialogue which, at times, can be witty and/or intelligent; and, most importantly, which creates sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t many actioners where you can say “the writing’s the best bit”, are there?

#76 will be… just a jump to the left…

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