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The Rock (1996)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE ROCK (1996)

Starring: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Tony Todd, William Forsythe, John Spencer

Written By: David Weisberg (also story), Douglas Cook (also story), Mark Rosner

Directed By: Michael Bay

The Short Version

Remember when Michael Bay couldn’t rely on CGI robots for everything?

The action’s preposterous, but that’s part of what makes it so much fun.

That, and the ham and cheese combo of Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.

The movie makes outstanding use of location, and I don’t just mean the prison.

The Rock is the action movie equivalent of comfort food; just kick back, enjoy, and forget the calories.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


For Connery & Cage, probably served on whole grain something or other at a Starbucks or an indie cafe, since they’re in San Francisco.

Pairs Well With...


Brew of choice for kicking back in the City by the Bay.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the Prom Queen!”

“Carla was the Prom Queen!”



Once upon a time, before the advent of gigantic CGI robots that trashed childhood memories even as they took audiences across China by storm, the phrase “directed by Michael Bay” didn’t fill me with loathing.  Specifically, I’m thinking of 1996, when he sat in the big chair for a little action extravaganza called The Rock.

The story is built on a pretty basic framework peppered by preposterous details.  A highly decorated military officer (Ed Harris, Snowpiercer), is fed up with how the government shafts the families of soldiers who die behind enemy lines, so he decides that the only way to get Washington’s attention is to turn rogue, hire a bunch of mercenaries, steal some really nasty chemical weapons (and the missiles to carry them), and take over Alcatraz Island as a base from which to wipe out the entire population of San Francisco with the aforementioned chemical weapons if the President doesn’t meet his demands.

Just to make things even more plausible, the Powers That be decide that the only way to successfully storm the island is with a Marine detachment guided by the only man ever to escape from Alactraz back when it was a prison: John Mason (Sean Connery, Goldfinger), a British SAS/intelligence agent who’s been socked away in solitary confinement since the 1960s for stealing the secret files of J. Edgar Hoover and refusing to cough them up after he was captured.

Tack on a high strung twerp with no field experience named Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage, Ghost Rider) as the only man who can actually disarm the chemical weapons once the good guys have stormed Alcatraz, and we’ve got ourselves a party!

One very ridiciculous, utterly preposterous, completely unbelievable party that looks a whole lot like Die Hard on Alcatraz with missile launchers.  And you know what?  That’s what makes it great.

The Rock works precisely because it embraces all of its inherent silliness while still playing it off with a straight face.  It’s a highly explosive ham and cheese sandwich put to film, brought to life by a brilliantly selected pool of talent that is exactly right for the job at hand.

Start with Sean Connery (who moved into the lead after Arnold Schwarzenegger said “no”).  There’s really no better word for his slightly understated but none the less hammed out performance than “delightful.”  Picture James Bond as a crotchety older man who’s been stuck in prison for thirty years.  That’s the way John Mason’s been tailored to fit Connery, and that’s how Connery plays him.  The man knows the score and he jogs with it.  (No need to run under these circumstances; acting muscles need only be flexed so far.)  His character and situation are just this side of ridiculous, but because of the actor’s inherent gravitas and the fact that you’ve already accepted him straight lacing his way through even more ridiculous escapades as 007, you go along with it all, and you enjoy yourself while doing it.

Similar rules apply to Nic Cage, whose overeducated, high strung twerp act just wouldn’t fly coming from anyone else, but because this is Cage – a man whose entire career has been defined by portrayals apparently based on extreme overdoses of caffeine and uppers – audiences can readily accept what’s on offer this time around.  Bounce the results off of Sean Connery’s crotchety Bond routine, and the contrast proves to be wonderfully entertaining.  Ham, meet cheese!

Balancing them off is Ed Harris, whose authority as the moralistic bad guy is impossible to question, and who is perfectly capable of selling that authority in a preposterous world even though he himself has absolutely no jokes.  He’s the ballast keeping the silly ship afloat, allowing the antics of Connery and Cage to occur without compromising the integrity of the action at hand.

Speaking of the action…

That a Michael Bay movie is loaded with action should come as a surprise to no one, but in the case of The Rock (which again exists in the pre CGI robot era), that action occurs at a speed that can actually be followed and processed by the human brain.  This means that the chases and the frieballs aren’t headache inducing, but are instead really fun to watch.  There are no complaints to be had with any of the combat sequences – or with any of the other explosions, for that matter – but the real standout is a superb car chase that takes wonderful advantage of the sloping streets of San Francisco to ramp up the excitement.  If there were nothing else good to be said about The Rock, that car chase alone would be worth the entire price of admission/rental.    

With that in mind, even forgiving eyes will find it hard to miss all of the holes in this story, and all of the silliness that doesn’t go away just because Mr. Cage gives it a quirky look or Mr. Connery goes “bah.”  The tropes involving the daughter who lives inside the potential target zone and the “guess what I’m pregnant girlfriend” routine (compounded with the ignored instructions that ought to have kept her out of the target zone) are just too damn tired to stand, and given all of the fun that everyone else is having, the merc stereotypes and the flip-flopping nasty government agent character get to be more than a little grating, too.  There’s also the matter of the way-too-dramatic introduction to Mr. Goodspeed, which is so overblown that even the loose standards of The Rock can’t properly contain it, thus inviting the viewer to get drawn away from the action.  For most audiences, these transgressions, while obvious, will be easy enough to pass by in favor of the boom-boom action eye candy and the constant joy of Mr. Connery putting Mr. Cage in his place (along with the occasional vice versa), but for me, while they are indeed forgivable, these things (and the silly but predictable coda at the end) keep The Rock at the level of “rental” instead of “ownership.”  

Bottom line, The Rock is enjoyable fun as in-one-eyeball-out-the-other action eye candy, with the bonuses of great usage of San Francisco Bay Area locales and the riot that is the ham and cheese duo of Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.  Though not really as great as its latter-day reputation would suggest, it’s still Michael Bay’s most watchable movie, and certainly worth the time should the opportunity arise.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October 28, 2014

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You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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