The Rock at 25: Michael Bay’s Finest Hour

The word “restrained” doesn’t seem to exist in Michael Bay’s filmmaking vocabulary, where he prefers all things excess and gratuitous. His past two films including Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) and 6 Underground (2019) were among the ill-fated examples here. A far cry from what I used to enjoy his works back in the 90s era, where he made the first three films (1995’s Bad Boys, 1996’s The Rock and 1998’s Armageddon).

His second film, The Rock, released twenty-five years ago today, showcased Bay at his top form. A prime example of how to make a well-acted, yet entertaining popcorn blockbuster minus all the overindulgent approaches that he’s later notoriously known for.

The plot, in case you have forgotten, involves a nerdy chemical weapons specialist (Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed) and an ex-con (Sean Connery’s John Mason) team up with the Navy SEALs — led by Commander Charles Anderson (Michael Biehn) — to infiltrate the Alcatraz Island. Apparently, a group of rogue U.S. Marines led by General Hummel (Ed Harris) has taken control of the former maximum-security prison and held 81 tourists hostage.

The threat: The U.S. government will have to pay US$100 million worth of compensation to the families of the deceased Marines — all of which were killed and left for dead without even given a proper military funeral during the black-ops missions under his command. Hummel would order his men to target San Francisco by launching the rockets loaded with poisonous VX gas if the demand is not met.

Ed Harris in "The Rock" (1996)

Blessed with a US$75 million budget, The Rock fired straight to the top spot with a then-impressive US$25 million during the June 7-9, 1996 opening weekend. It even easily outperformed The Phantom, another big-budget film which also opened in the same weekend. The film did great business both stateside and overseas, raking in as much as US$335 million worldwide.

Looking back at The Rock, among the significant things that distinguished Bay’s films from most of his other filmography happen to be its overall snappy and even quotable dialogues. Something that you won’t really find in, say Bay’s Transformers films. David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner may have officially credited as the screenwriters of the film.

But interestingly enough, the film has additional and much-welcomed inputs from uncredited Jonathan Hensleigh of Die Hard with a Vengeance fame as well as Aaron Sorkin and yes, even Quentin Tarantino. I guess without them, we won’t be hearing Sean Connery get to say the film’s best and most memorable line: “Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f*** the prom queen.” Or a scene where Nicolas Cage quoted Elton John’s famous song title “[You’re the] Rocket Man” before he switched on the button and fires a rocket towards Captain Darrow (Tony Todd).

At the time, Sean Connery was 64 years old when he appeared in "The Rock" (1996)

The Rock also benefits from a great cast, beginning with Sean Connery’s charismatic performance as John Mason. He may have been 64 years old at the time he played the character but somehow, he still has what it takes to carry an action role.

Then, there’s Nicolas Cage, who initially seems like the worst and not to mention bizarre casting decision to see him in a major Hollywood action blockbuster. Besides, Cage’s prior roles seen in the likes of Raising Arizona (1987), Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Wild at Heart (1990) and Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Particularly when it involves the idea of having Nicolas Cage venturing outside his comfort zone.

And yet, that’s the beauty of it. Cage is spot-on to play the kind of a nerdy chemical weapons specialist role, who also willing to spend US$600 on a classic Beatles LP because “these sound better” than a CD. The oddity of his character does help strike a fine balance with the seen-it-all John Mason, making them an unlikely but perfect buddy-movie pairing. Cage even does well in some of the action scenes, notably the part where he pursues Mason throughout the streets of San Francisco in a yellow Ferrari (more on this later).

At the time, Cage was suddenly on the roll during the 1996-1997 period. Following the success of The Rock, he would appear in two more successful action films including Con Air and Face/Off — both of which were released the following year.

Of course, a great action film requires a worthy adversary and thankfully, The Rock has it in the form of Ed Harris, who plays the disgruntled US Marines seeking justice for his fallen comrades. It also helps that Harris is surrounded by reliable co-stars, namely David Morse and John C. McGinley as Major Tom Baxter and Marine Captain Hendrix.

The chase scene from "The Rock" (1996)

Speaking of action, The Rock‘s high point in this area has to be the extended car chase throughout the busy streets of San Francisco. Bay’s penchant for quick cuts and yes, the shaky cam can be seen throughout the chase. But the scene itself remains thrillingly-staged with the help of Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer’s energetic score.  From the Humvee hitting through a truck carrying loads of water dispensers to Cage’s Goodspeed f***ed up a Ferrari F355 Spider after the overturned tram crushes it, the chase scene is packed with enough propulsive moments to make this one of the best of its kind during the 90s.

And here’s the thing that might surprise you: the otherwise unforgettable San Francisco-set car chase wasn’t originally intended in the first place. It was after the early screenings that Bay insisted on adding the scene. Even he did get his wish, it wasn’t an easy shoot at all with Bay calling it as far as “the biggest clusterf*** [he’s] ever done in [his] entire filming career.”

The Rock was, unfortunately, the last time Don Simpson co-produced a film with Jerry Bruckheimer, where they both famously involved in high-profile Hollywood blockbusters like the first two Beverly Hills Cops, Top Gun (1986) and Crimson Tide (1995), just to name a few. He suffered from drug-related heart failure and passed away at the age of 52 in January 1996, just a few months before the film made its premiere.

It’s a shame that we never get to see the sequel to The Rock. If it happens, Bay’s idea would follow Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed, who’s finally married to his girlfriend Carla (Vanessa Marcil) and has microfilm in his possession containing many of the U.S. government’s top secrets. After finding himself a target by the government, his only hope is to enlist the help of John Mason. No doubt this is one of those interesting cases of what-if scenarios. By now, the chances of the sequel happening is absolute zero, especially after the long-retired Sean Connery has sadly passed away last October at the age of 90.