The Rock (1996)

“I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” Oh yeah!…I love Vampire’s Kiss.

Whenever people look through my collection of Criterion DVDs they always stop at the mid 90s (they’re arranged chronologically) and scoff “The Rock is on Criterion?” My answer to them is always “Hell yeah it is!”. You see, our good friends at Janus films and the Criterion label have dedicated nearly three decades to making the finest and most important classic and contemporary films available for home release. Each disc is handled with absolute delicacy and passion, providing viewers with the best possible restored picture, high quality sound and extra supplementary features. To be in the Criterion collection means a certain director or actor has truly “made it”. The Criterion Collection is the home to pioneers and legends in filmmaking including Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, etc. They represent the finest examples of a certain filmmaker or genre. So what better way to show appreciation for the thriving business of the action genre in the 90s than the release of Michael Bay’s critically-accalimed box-office smash The Rock.

The reason one can place Michael Bay in the same category as the notable auteurs above is because Bay is a master in technical filmmaking. Say what you will about the scripts, plot holes and sometimes cardboard acting in recent films such asTransformers or Pearl Harbor, but there is no denying that Bay knows how to use a camera and use it well. The 360 degree camera angles that pan around the film’s stars, the sunset-drenched color palette, the Spielberg-esque lens flares, all the elements he is known for today (and parodied so well in Team America) were all original movements in 90s filmmaking. He has created a unique style and approach to material (whether it’s futuristic clones or asteroids heading for Earth) and every Bay film can easily be identified as a Bay film. He has a movie magic that’s comparable to Paul Verhoeven of Total Recall and RoboCop (also on Criterion) or James Cameron. The man creates master opuses in destruction. Opera concerts of violence and loud things going boom. Works of Bayhem.

Of all of Bay’s works The Rock actually is the most complete film in terms of story and acting. It features a tight, energetic and often hilarious screenplay with a killer hook: terrorists have taken over Alcatraz, captured hostages and plan to detonate deadly nuclear rockets on San Francisco and the only man ever to escape the notorious prison is our last hope for survival. The characters go deeper than you’d expect from a Die Hard-scenario like this. The villain, played by Ed Harris, is portrayed as a noble military man and his nefarious plan is actually a somewhat honorable attempt at seeking restitution for lost soldiers and their families. As the film progresses his cause becomes clearer and more amiable and we find ourselves sympathizing as the situation becomes increasingly out of control. Sean Connery as the Alcatraz escapee John Mason is like an old renegade version of his classic Bond. Still suave, still sexy and can still tear your throat out. There’s a stellar ensemble that is every action fan’s wet dream including Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, Tony Todd, John C. McGinley, Bokeem Woodbine and Philip Baker Hall. The Six Degrees game just got that much easier.

But of course there is the classic everyman performance of Nicolas Cage as Stanley Goodspeed. Goodspeed is one of Cage’s first action performances and post-Oscar starring roles. And man is he cool. Goodspeed is a Beatle-maniac, a groovy twist on his Elvis loving characters ala Wild at Heart. His introduction features his chemical weapons specialist diffusing a nuclear bomb and nearly jabbing a needle into his heart, a device that will come into play in the final act. Goodspeed knows how to deal with life and death situations but has limited field expertise and therefore the least likely candidate to lead a team of Navy Seals into the heart of darkness. Cage’s humor and vulnerability makes the character just like its audience members, in over there head and making the most out of a deadly situation. It is because of his characters innocence and blue collar sense of humor that attracts John Mason into helping take on the terrorists instead of escaping custody.

Cage and Connery have an unbelievable chemistry topped with Cage’s keen sense of comedic timing. Just watching him switch over from sincerity to sarcasm in a second (“What’s say we cut the chit-chat A-Hole”) is the pleasure of the mind and acting of Cage. His deliveries of some lines are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. He delivers lines with such awkward pauses and emphasis on random syllables that it recalls Christopher Walken without the speech impediment

“Look, I’m just a biochemist. Most of the time, I work in a little glass jar and lead a very uneventful life. I drive a Volvo, a beige one. But what I’m dealing with here is one of the most deadly substances the earth has ever known, so what say you cut me some FRIGGIN’ SLACK?”

“You know, I like history too, and maybe when this is all over you and I can stop by the souvenir shop together but right now I just… I just wanna find some rockets!”

These are the line readings of either the greatest actor of our time or a mad genius.

-John

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