Today is a special day in the history of film because it is the 20th anniversary of the release of Michael Bay's The Rock, one of his best films to date. In commemoration of that occasion, I am reproducing the chapter dedicated to The Rock from my book, MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films.
The book is currently available on Amazon.com at a cost of $4.99 on Kindle or $10.99 in paperback. For more information about the book, you can check out this post.
The Rock (1996)
Release date: June 7, 1996
Story by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook
Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner
Produced by Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer
Budget: $75 million
Domestic box office: $134 million
Global box office: $335 million
Every iconic filmmaker has that movie that is not their first production, but the one that will dominate their filmography for the rest of their careers. For these truly brilliant directors, that masterpiece usually arrives within their first three films. Steven Spielberg had Jaws, George Lucas had Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino had Pulp Fiction, and David Fincher had Se7en. For Michael Bay, that movie is The Rock.
Whether or not The Rock is Bay’s absolute best film may be a matter of debate. It happens to be my personal favorite. When I want a film that will challenge me and make me think, I of course will reach for Transformers: Age of Extinction. As we have discussed, that film easily represents a creative pinnacle in Bay’s career. But when I’m in the mood for something with a less political bent and more rollicking good fun, I reach for The Rock.
Though Michael Bay is without peer, as I examine this film, I of course find myself paralleling him with Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh burst onto the indie film scene in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and spent over the next decade becoming known for unusual indie films outside the mainstream. It would not be until 2000’s Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich that Soderbergh would truly make a mainstream film with a major star. But even then, one could argue that its status as a true-life Oscar bait film salvaged Soderbergh’s reputation. No one would dare call it slumming to direct a film that won America’s Sweetheart her first Oscar.
This is why it was still jarring when Soderbergh dove headfirst into big-budget, star-driven, genre filmmaking with Ocean’s Eleven just a year later. With a cast that included superstars George Clooney and Brad Pitt, this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film aspired to be nothing more than a fun romp. It was the pinnacle of studio filmmaking, elevated by the technical skill and keen directorial hand of the auteur. Ocean’s Eleven will probably never be named first when cinephiles are debating what his best film is, but that doesn’t take away from how perfectly structured, masterfully performed and expertly executed it is. It’s certainly among the best in its genre. What Ocean’s Eleven represents to Soderbergh, The Rock represents to Michael Bay. Yes, we know that deep down, Bay is capable of far more complicated work than this, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of The Rock any more.
Many of Bay’s later productions saw him being brought on in the early stages, sometimes developing the screenplay from the ground up. That is not the case with The Rock, which began life as a screenplay from David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook. It was originally bought by Disney for Caravan Pictures, but found its way to Simpson/Bruckheimer. They commissioned rewrites and by the time the script made it to screen, at least seven writers had their crack at it, including Mark Rosner and Aaron Sorkin.
However, Bay’s closest collaborator was Jonathan Hensleigh, who was denied screen credit following a Writers Guild of America arbitration proceeding. (Bay would later write an open letter to the Guild in The Los Angeles Times decrying the verdict.)
Still, the point is that this was not a project initiated by Bay so much as it was reshaped by his influence. The result was a compelling thrill-ride that showed how good an action movie Bay could make even when coloring within the lines on a killer high-concept premise. The hook: tourists on Alcatraz Island have been taken by rogue Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris), a decorated war hero with an entire group of U.S. Marines on his side. They threaten to deadly VX-Gas at San Francisco if their demands are not met - $100 million paid to the families of soldiers who were killed on secret missions, soldiers whose families never got compensation.
To get onto “the Rock,” the Pentagon and the FBI need to recruit the only man ever to successfully escape Alcatraz, John Mason. Mason – played by Sean Connery – is a British spy that they’ve been holding for the better part of 30 years. Mason and chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) are sent to the island with a SEAL team in order to lead them through the same security measures and uncharted tunnels Mason himself used to escape back in 1963. Unfortunately, the entire SEAL team is killed upon arrival and it falls to the British spy and Goodspeed – who’s never been in the field before – to stop the missiles and end the hostage situation.
This is flat-out one of the best premises Bay has had to work with in his career. It’s such a good premise that it would have been easy to get lazy in the execution and simply coast on the hook. However, even as Bay amps up the scale of the action scenes, he introduces a lot of depth in places where we don’t expect it.
One of the most critical and subversive moves of the film is that it introduces the “villain” first. Hummel has some humanizing moments at a military funeral and then at his wife’s grave. It’s a very deliberate decision to not have his first scene be the more conventional entrance when he leads the team on a raid to steal chemical weapons, or later when the team seizes control of the island. A lesser film would see Hummel as a plot device, just an antagonistic force to motivate Mason and Goodspeed onto the island. Here, he’s allowed to be a human, complicated character. He’s possibly the most multi-dimensional of any of Bay’s antagonists.
Harris’s performance sells Hummel as a man who commands respect the instant he walks into a room. You believe this is a man who has made his bones in the military. There’s no effort at making him into a lunatic or a suave, wise-cracking madman, as so many action villains are. He’s there to do a job and he’s fully accepted the consequences of that task. Further cementing him as the anti-Hans Gruber is the moment just before taking hostages where he tells kids from a school group that they should find their teacher and get back to the mainland. He needs hostages, but he’s not putting kids in harm’s way needlessly.
It presents an interesting dilemma to the viewer. Is Hummel wrong? Do we even want to see him fail? Of course, the U.S. government cannot give in to terrorism, so Hummel and the military are on an unstoppable collision course. Even when Hummel’s men kill the SEAL team, it doesn’t tarnish our view of him. He first tries to get them to surrender and when a sudden crashing spooks Hummel’s men, they open fire and kill all the SEALs before the confusion is sorted out. It’s clear Hummel finds this regrettable, but from his perspective, these men were enemy combatants who made the confrontation necessary.
With all the possible motivations and villains Bay could have chosen, this was the one he was drawn to. This version of Hummel was the one who emerged after seven writers, many more drafts, and a lot of reshaping of the script over years. It’s no accident or whim that Hummel was developed like this. After later films like Pearl Harbor and Transformers, Bay got tagged as a very pro-military artist. While that’s not necessarily untrue, Bay’s willingness to criticize the military through the character of Hummel shows that he’s not the military hawk/stooge he’s often painted as. It’s rare to see this direct a criticism of the military, but one should remember this was made pre-9/11, in the peacetime days of the Clinton Administration. The attacks on the World Trade Center would change much of the culture, including Bay’s films.
It’s also possible to read into this film a criticism of America’s foreign policy. Though most of Hummel’s team is made up of soldiers he’s directly served under, some of them, like Tony Todd’s Captain Darrow, are new to his unit. Darrow and a few of his men take to their role as mercenaries perhaps too easily. They’re younger than Hummel and less disciplined than the career military man. While Hummel sees his actions as a regrettable necessity, Darrow and his men appear almost thrilled at the prospect of committing violence. Every step of the way, they are the unstable force pushing Hummel to commit more reckless and violent acts. It suddenly becomes clear why supervillains like Lex Luthor tend to employ henchmen who are merely benign idiots rather than trigger-happy head-cases.
This conflict comes to a head when Hummel cannot bring himself to execute a hostage and then ensures that a rocket he launched gets redirected out to sea before it detonates. Realizing he’s been beaten, the leader calls for an abort to the mission, but Darrow and two other men revolt when they realize this means they won’t be paid for their efforts. A Mexican standoff ensues and when the dust settles, Hummel is dead and it’s up to Mason and Goodspeed to find and stop the final rocket before the other men can launch it.
Is Bay making a statement about the military of old and the military of the present? The old guard joined up because they believed in honor and patriotism. Their values would not allow them to harm civilians. The military that Darrow represents is a blunt instrument, concerned only with their own self-interests. When those interests align with the military, things go well, but honor and pragmatism seem not to dictate the mission.
This challenging of a black-and-white past with a more complicated present is a theme continued via the character of James Mason. This British spy has been locked up since the Cold War because he stole some of J. Edgar Hoover’s most prized secrets. As one of the film’s more arch lines tells us, “This man knows our most intimate secrets from the last half century! The alien landing at Roswell, the truth behind the J.F.K. assassination. Mason's angry, he's lethal, he's a trained killer... and he is the only hope that we have got!”
It’s left to the viewer to weigh the morality there. Mason might have stolen secrets, but it was on behalf of a government that was not in conflict with the U.S. then. Further, we’re reminded that these secrets were cultivated by J. Edgar Hoover, who “kept secret files on prominent Americans and Europeans. De Gaulle, British members of Parliament, even the Prime Minister… this guy had dirt on everybody in the world.” That this isn’t a simple black-and-white matter feels very deliberate, as campy as it is to claim that aliens actually came to Earth and that there’s a JFK conspiracy that was known all along.
Remember, Mason escaped Alcatraz in 1963 and there was only one month and eight days left in that year after JFK was shot. The implication is that either Mason discovered the truth about the assassination very soon after it happened, was caught quickly and then escaped just as swiftly… or somehow, he uncovered the conspiracy before the assassination. In fact, that is the only scenario that’s possible because the prison itself was ordered closed on March 21, 1963. The script tap-dances around this, but the larger implication seems to be that the Kennedy Assassination was a government conspiracy that, at a minimum, Hoover knew about long before it took place.
And people think that Bay can’t be subtle when he wants to be.
One also cannot discount the obvious connections between Connery’s character and his iconic role as James Bond. It’s fairly easy to read Mason as a stand-in for James Bond himself. In his prime, he was skilled enough to escape difficult incarceration at least once, but likely more. (His Alcatraz escape happened in 1963, but his daughter was conceived in the mid-1970s. This suggests either he was on the run for a decade, or that he was recaptured soon after Alcatraz and then sprang himself again at a later date.)
On one hand, it’s an expression of incredible patriotism to depict that America was able to keep James Bond behind bars for most of the last 30 years. On the other hand, these are the men who stopped James Bond from preventing a Presidential assassination. The Rock takes place in an alternate reality where James Bond failed and the bad guys won. It’s a dark slap in the face to the escapist nature of the ‘60s spy films. That Bay buries all of this subtext inside of what appears to be a mere casting in-joke only underlines how much brilliance permeates this film.
The only explanation for how The Rock failed to achieve an Academy Award nomination in the face of such brilliance and political criticism that the Academy was unaccustomed to finding such depth in a simple action film. The five nominees that year were The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, and Shine. It was clearly a year where the Academy made a point of rejecting conventional Hollywood films, and only a bias against the genre, Bay and Simpson/Bruckheimer can be responsible for the omission here.
Fortunately critics were not so blind. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars, saying, “Director Michael Bay (“Bad Boys”) orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense.”
Ebert’s praise of Cage is not misplaced. The actor’s Stanley Goodspeed is a true anomaly in the Bay canon: a leading man who isn’t a man’s-man. The everyman is not a frequent visitor to Bay’s world, and more often than not, that type is treated as the comic relief. (Transformers’ Sam Witwicky might also be a notable exception.) Goodspeed is not a field agent, he’s a chemical expert with the FBI who happens to be in the right place to get caught up in the Mason situation. His knowledge of the chemical weapons means he’s drafted into the field, making him a true fish-out-of-water.
What works about this is that Goodspeed’s more nerdy qualities aren’t just there to make Mason look more masculine by contrast. Goodspeed is allowed to handle himself pretty well for a novice, where other films might have turned him into an annoying sidekick that the British spy was saddled with. This is a true two-hander, with both men earning each other’s respect. Two early interactions sell this. The first is Goodspeed’s interrogation of Mason, where he stammers nervously until eventually trying to put on a tough guy act. Mason’s bemusement at this unpolished agent actually helps humanize the prisoner a bit. As his gentlemanly tone starts to win over Goodspeed, it has the effect of disarming the audience as well. It’s a deft ballet that both characters emerge from more fully developed.
The second moment comes a bit later after Mason’s provoked a chase through San Francisco. He arranges a meeting with the daughter he’s never seen before. Goodspeed figures this out and calls in Mason’s location. As Mason concludes his chat with his daughter, several police cars pull up. The daughter recoils, assuming that her father broke out of jail and these men are here to take him back. Goodspeed allows Mason to preserve some dignity, saying that he’s with the government and “Your father is helping us to resolve a dangerous situation.” The audience thinks better of Goodspeed for doing Mason that kindness and Mason’s appreciation of the same also conveys that he recognizes the significance of this as well. With those moments out of the way, the stage is set for the film to become a true two-hander.
Cage is the perfect actor for Goodspeed, perfectly deploying his manic energy. He’s able to sell Goodspeed’s nervousness when he’s out of his element and then quickly shift to his authority when he’s on familiar terrain. To wit, there’s a scene where a still-twitching body unnerves him, but then a minute later, he has no problem snapping at Mason when he fears Mason’s ignorance of the chemical weapons might accidentally kill all of them. Cage’s performance allows Goodspeed to have some “action hero moments” without compromising his everyman qualities. Mason could not have stopped the bad guys by himself and the film is wise to make Goodspeed every bit as integral to the situation as the British spy is. Bay takes a “normal guy” and evolves the film to the point that he’s able to shoot him like a hero. It’s a welcome change from the then-current Schwarzenegger and Stallone action types who sprung to the screen as fully formed bad-asses, akin to Athena bursting forth from Zeus’s skull. When it comes to the characters in The Rock, Hummel has depth, Mason has charisma, but it’s Goodspeed who has the true character arc. A character like that is the key to an effective action film.
This would also seem to be the place to take stock of how the women fare in this Bay outing. This is a very testosterone-heavy film, with only two women of any real significance. One of these is Mason’s daughter, who only appears in one scene and is more significant for how she motivates Mason than for any agency of her own. The second is Goodspeed’s pregnant fiancé Carla. She too has little significance beyond giving Stanley an emotional tie outside the mission. As played by Vanessa Marcil, she’s got a little spunk to her, even proposing to Stanley when she realizes she’s pregnant. However, she makes little impact on the plot.
It is worth noting that neither of them yet conform to the prototypical “Bay-type” of woman. As attractive as both actresses are, they are dressed like regular women, not rock video extras. There’s no undue leering at their curves and neither one conveys the idea that they exist largely to be eye candy. Eventually, the supermodel-in-a-music-video female visualization will become a Bay staple, but not yet with this film.
This film was also the first true translation of Bay’s music-video aesthetic to feature film. The camera is frequently in motion from shot to shot even as the pacing of the shots is exceptionally fast. The “Trivia” section for this film on the Internet Movie Database claims that there are about 2900 shots in the two hour and six minute running time. The average shot length is 2.6 seconds and the median shot length is 2.5 seconds. I recall at the time, some viewers complained that the film itself seemed to have Attention Deficit Disorder, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t make for a powerful viewing experience.
With this film, Michael Bay changed the look and pacing of the action film forever. James Cameron had been the reigning god of action films up to this point, but going forward, Bay’s influence would become more apparent in the works of Brett Ratner, Peter Berg and Simon West.
In 2011, Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge said, “Michael Bay has recognized the energy of an action sequence can replace the logic of it… By getting in there and mixing up the angles, he creates the same sense of excitement and confusion through editing and camera placement that you would if you were actually in the fight.”
Perhaps intentionally invoking Bay’s history as a commercial director, Debruge put his finger on the method of the Bay aesthetic, “If you look at a Michael Bay movie, you’re watching 2 1/2 hours of money shots and quotable tag lines. Every shot is designed to send tingles up your spine. When I watch a Michael Bay feature, I feel like I’m watching a full-length trailer.”
This sort of visual style is critical to decoding every Michael Bay film. It began in The Rock and continues throughout all of his other films, no matter the subject matter. The story and subject bend to Michael Bay, not the other way around. In many ways, he’s the purest embodiment of the auteur theory.
The commentary on The Rock offers further examples of Bay’s meticulousness and his understanding of his audience. In the second half-hour of the film, Mason makes an escape attempt and leads a massive car chase through the streets of San Francisco. It’s a good opportunity for Bay to blow up cars and even a trolley, though by the end of the sequence, Mason is back in the hands of the authorities. Explaining his motivation for this, Bay says:
“Actually, I had a fight about the car chase with one of the writers, because I felt his is a way for me to help, after all this complicated setup, to help suck the younger audience back into it… one of the writers said ‘I've never heard of a director talking about demographics.’” Bay says he gave him a simple answer “If you’re given 60 million dollars, you’d better fucking know who you’re selling this movie to, because it could be the last time they ever give you 60 million dollars again.”
An audience will forgive a lot if they are enjoying themselves. Bay understands this like no other. So much of his visual language is built around triggering certain emotional responses and touchstones. Other artists try to achieve this connection with their audience through a strict adherence to story logic and meticulous visual coherency. What Bay comprehends is that this inherent order is a lie. Film is a symphony of emotion, and if you as an artist know the right stimulus/response buttons to trigger, you can evoke that experience without being dependent on the old “rules.”
Certainly Bay makes movies he wants to see, but buried within that desire is a yearning to make movies that the audience will enjoy. Because of this, it’s tempting to affix him with the label of “Sell-Out,” but ultimately, his concern is with customer satisfaction. Elsewhere on the commentary, he talks about how he observes an audience during his test screenings: “When they start to fidget, when they start to look at their watch, you know you've got a problem with your film.”
Michael Bay’s films are designed for audiences. They are built for that theatre experience and his obsessive determination to get this right marks him as a true showman in this business. The Rock is a film that can please on superficial levels, but still carries enough weight to appeal to those viewers hoping to find something deeper. It is a banquet for all appetites, and Michael Bay is dedicated to ensuring everyone has all they can eat.