Ricky Church revisits The Rock on its 25th anniversary…
The Rock contains so many hallmarks of 1990s movie-making: rogue army operatives, a deadly MacGuffin, a buddy cop story of two completely different personalities and, of course, Nicolas Cage acting his zany, goofy yet somehow still serious self. And when you have Nic Cage starring opposite Sean Connery of all people in a film directed by Michael Bay, you’re going to be in for something memorable no matter how you feel about it.
Released 25 years ago this week, The Rock follows a group of soldiers led by Ed Harris’ General Hummel, a legendary and honourable officer who recruits several of his men and other disillusioned soldiers to take control of Alcatraz Island with plenty of hostages. In order to right a wrong done to the deceased men under his command, Hummel has stolen a very deadly and unstable nerve gas and is threatening to unleash it on San Francisco unless his demands are met. That’s when the FBI brings in Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed, the Bureau’s top specialist in chemical weapons, and Connery’s John Mason, an ex-British spy who has been held captive by the US government for three decades and is the only known person to have ever successfully escaped Alcatraz. Together, they have to sneak into Alzatraz with a team of Navy SEALS and stop Hummel from launching his viral missiles.
The Rock is a pretty entertaining thrill ride from start to finish. The stakes are set very high immediately as General Hummel’s team effortlessly breaks into a military base and steals the VX nerve gas. Not only that, but there is an accident as one bead of nerve gas breaks and kills a member of Hummel’s team which lets the audience witness the full danger this gas poses should it be released on a citywide level. The Rock is also interesting for another aspect. So many films which involve a prison usually focus on breaking out, but this is one of the few where the heroes are attempting to break into one. It adds a new element of intrigue to the plot as Mason has to retrace his steps, quite literally as he can’t recognize the path he took on a blueprint but still remembers his path all the way from his exit point right back to his cell. And then, this being a Michael Bay film after all, there are plenty of gunfights, fistfights, explosions and graphic deaths as Goodspeed and Mason quickly become the only two squad members left against a huge force of Hummel’s veterans, turning their situation into Die Hard on an island.
It also has a pretty impressive cast of character actors that, apart from the main trio of Cage, Connery and Harris, includes John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, Philip Baker Hall, John C. MgInley, Gregory Sporleder, Tony Todd and Bokeem Woodbine in one of his earliest roles. With all of them having different degrees of supporting roles, they all make their scenes pretty memorable. Biehn’s stand against Harris’ Hummel is one of the best scenes of the film as he makes a passionate plea both to Hummel and his men to remember their oaths as United States servicemen even when he knows he will most certainly die in their ambush. Forsythe has some great back and forth moments with Cage and Spencer and Connery do so well together as hated enemies who reluctantly have to work together, but still try to find ways to screw the other over. Tony Todd, who was already well known for Platoon and Candyman, stays almost in the background for most of the movie, but still gives off an uneasy feeling as he and his men don’t seem quite as collected as Hummel’s do. He goes really off the rails in the third act when he goes rogue against Hummel and hams the villainy up by holding a knife to Goodspeed, saying “Do you know how this shit works?” There are plenty of memorable beats from the smaller characters all around.
One interesting piece of trivia regarding the making of the film is how action star extraordinaire Arnold Schwarzenegger was to have played Goodspeed before passing on the role. It would be a decidedly different role, if not an entirely different film, were anyone but Cage playing Stanley Goodspeed. He brings such an air of awkward, nerdy charm to Goodspeed that would not have worked with Schwarzenegger. The fact Goodspeed can stay focused under the pressure of a ticking bomb and chemical agent in the early part of the story, but is completely outside his element doing a basic interrogation or holding a weapon is a pretty hilarious aspect to the character. Add the fact Goodspeed never actually swears but says “golly gee”, “friggin” and “how in the name of ZEUS’ BUTTHOLE.” He is still quite capable and intelligent though, not only in his field of expertise as a chemical expert but in how he recognizes Mason speaking Latin or puts together Mason’s references to Greek or religious figures as an insinuation he is innocent of whatever crime he’s jailed for.
As for Harris, despite being the villain he gives a lot of sympathy to Hummel and makes him a three-dimensional character. He doesn’t hesitate to take hostages, but he warns a group of school children to leave beforehand so they won’t be put in danger. He’s honourable and noble in a way as he’s fighting solely to ensure the men under his command who were forgotten by the government receive proper memorials and their families taken care of. Even when he has ambushed Biehn’s SEALS, he doesn’t want to kill them and even tries calling for a cease fire when the shooting begins. Most of all, despite his posturing to launch the nerve gas into San Francisco, he’s extremely unwilling to cross that line of killing civilians and deliberately sabotages his missile before it can detonate. It’s all about honouring the memory of his soldiers and righting a wrong instead of the ransom money, a sentiment he learns too late not all his fellow mutineers share.
Connery is definitely the star of the show as Mason. It’s a fun little riff on James Bond, being an ex-British spy disavowed by MI6, but unlike his career defining role Connery’s John Mason does not exude the same amount of charisma as Bond. Mason may be charming and intelligent, but he is much more blunt, brash and irritable as he really just doesn’t want to be there but views the experience as a better day than his normal routine in a cell. It’s not until Goodspeed reveals to him the true purpose of their mission and Hummel’s threat Mason begins to take it more seriously, especially since his daughter lives in San Francisco. He is also much more sarcastic than some of his other roles and gives a nice blend of seriousness and humour to Mason, such as his response of a simple thumbs to Goodspeed asking what his plan was. Connery delivers great one-liners of his own, none more so than Goodspeed saying he’ll do his best with Connery deadpanning “Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and **** the prom queen.” The fact Connery also helped the film get more financing after Disney, who owned the film’s production company Hollywood Pictures, started breathing down Bay’s neck just by showing up to a meeting and telling the shell-shocked executives to leave Bay alone speaks volumes to both Connery’s character and legendary status.
The Rock is arguably Bay’s best film. This was early on his career before his films started becoming a bit too-Bayish (see the Transformers franchise), but all the tropes Bay films are known for are here in their infancy: the huge slow-motion explosions, military jargon, the camera looking up at a character as it pans around them, practical visual effects and a mix of character archetypes. Its legacy with its action and cast makes it a really entertaining and fun film to watch – especially since this was a few years before Sean Connery’s retirement from acting, it is great we got to see him starring in one last big action movie. Even after 25 years, it is still great to revisit this standout of 90s action movies.
SEE ALSO: Michael Bay’s Crowning Glory: The Rock
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.