Part 1: The Rock
Like most journeys, this one began with an irrational need for instant gratification. In this case, I needed me some Nicolas Cage. I’ll be absolutely clear here – I love watching Nicolas Cage more than almost any living actor. I love him in bad movies, I love him in okay movies, I love him in great movies, I love him in a fox with a box in sox. I could easily name ten amazing Cage performances off the top of my head without mentioning his five best movies (which are Raising Arizona, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Adaptation.). If I ever met the man I assume my head would explode a la Scanners.
So a while back I needed a Cage fix, and I decided it was time to watch The Rock “again.” It’s one of those movies that “I’m sure I saw.” You know the type – you must have watched it because there are scenes you definitely remember, but then you watch it and very little seems familiar. I did not remember Michael Biehn and the team of SEALS, nor much of what actually goes down before they land on Alcatraz, nor most of what does down after. I did remember a scene where the little green balls (that’s what they are!) broke and a character was turned inside out, and that isn’t even in the movie.
Here’s what The Rock is – pure 90’s awesome. It’s from the era when Hollywood figured out that these guys in Hong Kong were on to something and tried their best to replicate the over-the-top action of a movie like Hard Boiled. And The Rock is over-the-top. It has a chase through the streets of San Francisco that results in a streetcar coming off the tracks and just about everything exploding. Why does this chase happen? Apparently it’s the only way Michael Bay could figure out how to get Sean Connery’s character to his estranged daughter. Other directors would have probably just showed him quietly escaping custody and then cut to the meeting. Bay blows up half the city.
What’s interesting though is that The Rock doesn’t follow the typical action film model, where every action sequence is topped later on by an even bigger set-piece, until the finale. This is how nearly all of Woo’s good or great movies play out, it’s how Die Hard works, it’s how Con Air works, and it’s how 99% of the action films of the era (and any era really) work. The biggest most “action-y” set-piece is that chase through the streets of San Fran, and the movie isn’t even half over at that point. The finale is less of a fight or a battle than a race against the clock, as Cage tries to stop the bombers from taking out the island, which culminates in that iconic image of Cage beachside waving the flares, and by that point the “villain” (don’t worry I’m getting there) is already dead. There isn’t much destruction, of the city or even the island, besides a few bullet holes and a small explosion here or there (though that’s fair since the script has already informed us that should one of these missiles go off everybody dies, so extra points for not just ignoring the established reality of the film). When I tell people about why I love Face/Off I mention the boat chase. When I talk about why I love The Rock, I talk about the script.
That’s right, the script. I’ll be killed for saying this, but The Rock might be one of the smartest action movies I’ve ever seen. Here’s the story in short – Ed Harris leads a team of black ops soldiers who steal rockets armed with a deadly chemical weapon and take all the tourists on Alcatraz hostage. What do they want? World domination? The start of a new world war against Iran? Outer Haven? Or benefits and pensions for families of black ops soldiers who died during combat, paid by the sale of illegal arms by the US government? To call Ed Harris a villain is to misunderstand both the word and this movie. He’s practically a saint. And lest you say his intentions are good but he’s doing it the wrong way, consider this – for all of his posturing throughout the movie, when it comes time to pull the trigger and kill civilians, he can’t do it. Not because he lacks the nerve, but because he has a conscience. He tried to do the right thing the only way he knew how, through military might, and when his bluff fails he realizes that he’s done the wrong thing and he’s ready to accept the consequences, which results in his own men killing him. It’s almost sad when we see Harris realize that he has failed, not only his men, but his country. Actually no, it is sad.
If that were all the movie had going on it would be enough, but we also have Cage. Cage plays Stanley Goodspeed as the sort of professional that scientists never get to be in movies (especially other Bay movies). He’s smart and specialzed without being a “nerd.” He’s capable and competent and the kind of “expert” that is usually a supporting character or unintentional comic relief in other movies (think Charlie Day‘s character in Pacific Rim). Consider the scene where he first enters the interrogation room with Connery’s John Patrick Mason – we expect him to be all nerves and stutters, but he goes toe-to-toe with Mason and gets what he needs. I thought of this as I watched the scene – everyone who works for the FBI must at least have been partially trained in dealing with a suspect, even if they work in a lab. Goodspeed is smart, he’s in a little over his head, but he’s dead set on doing what he does well. There’s a scene where he’s disarming one of the weapons and the roles up until that point are reversed (Connery is now the one out of his element). It’s funny, but it doesn’t feel cheap because the film hasn’t relied on stereotypes and cliches to define the main characters.
I could go on and on about Cage, Harris, Biehn, Connery, etc. etc., but I’m here to talk about Bay. And I think The Rock proves two different things about Bay.
- Michael Bay knows how to make anything exciting.
Regardless of how you feel about how they add up into Movies, the individual moments that Bay crafts are usually compelling and intensely watchable. At this point in time Bay hadn’t descended into shaky-cam mayhem (and I’ll talk more about it later, but I don’t really think he ever truly did). The action scenes are shot with clarity and style and just the right amount of chaos. Woo took the Peckinpah influence and combined it with the ballet of kung fu cinema and made something that had a certain kind of kinetic beauty. But Bay never really set out to do that – his action is more about chaos and confusion. When this works, as it does here, it helps us identify with the characters and feel the tension. When it doesn’t, and we’ll get there soon enough, it’s a mess.
I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again – the man loves his canted shots. Also – low angles, shots that swirl around a character in nearly 360 degrees, and the slow push. How do you make a scene that amounts to close ups of two men in entirely different places talking over radio seem interesting? Push the camera right into their chin (this helps when these men have the chins of Connery, Cage, Harris and William Forsythe).
This no doubt is a skill he learned as a music video director. A music video doesn’t need to do anything but be interesting for however long the song is. There is a sense that Bay is often looking at the finished film as less of a story to be told than a series of scenes that each need to be as exciting as possible for as long as they last. This is why his movies often feel exhausting – he doesn’t let the audience rest for a moment, always throwing action at us, or action-ing up things that are otherwise boring. But few people alive really want a movie to be that “engaging.” You gotta give us room to take a breather.
The Rock actually does have a few quieter moments, such as the scene where Mason talks about his past (which sounds almost like what would happen to Bond in real life), and Goodspeed’s scenes with his girlfriend. This is perhaps why it is Bay’s most critically acclaimed film. But there’s another reason as well.
2. Michael Bay’s style + a good script = a good movie
Kurosawa once said a good script can make a bad movie, but a bad script can never make a good movie, no matter how good the director. (This won’t be the last time I reference that quotation.) The Rock is an undeniably good script. The credited screenwriters are David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner, only one of whom has any other credits in film, but the fingerprints of Sorkin are all over this (he did an uncredited rewrite). It’s quick, it’s witty, and it’s economical. (Tarantino supposedly did some dialogue polishing as well, but I wouldn’t say that anything jumps out as his except maybe one conversation about feet.) The action complements the story and vice a versa. Some have criticized the aforementioned chase scene for feeling dropped in out of nowhere (and that is a largely accurate way to describe it’s origin), but it gives us a sense of who Mason is and how much pent up destructiveness and anger he has after his extended stay in prison. The face off between Hummel’s men and the SEALs is another such set piece, defining the lengths both sides will go to for their country, and how little their country regards them.
Now what Kurosawa didn’t say was that a good script always makes a good movie, only that it is necessary. Plenty of good scripts have been made into terrible movies, and there’s a chance that Bay wasn’t the best choice to direct this. Would it have been better if John McTiernan made it? Or even Roland Emmerich? Maybe, but I really can’t imagine The Rock as any one else’s movie but Bay’s. It’s got a sincere respect for service-men that few other directors can get away with, and a fascination with weaponry and destruction and how they both protect and harm civilians. It’s equally distrustful of the government and institutional bureaucracy, something that continues to define his movies up to this past summer. And it’s a script that handles all of these themes and interests without being glib or overly reductive.
It’s also an earnest movie. But that’s a topic for Armageddon.
Most of all, what The Rock showed me was that this man Bay isn’t just some hack that found the key to the wallets. He’s got a style that is definitely (or defiantly) his own. He has a distinct cinematic voice. He knows how to stage a scene, be it an chase or a quiet conversation, and give it a charge and momentum. The question now is, “Does he have anything to say?”
Next time: Pain & Gain, or The Vulgar Scorsese