For one film, the director managed to wrangle all his fixations into popcorn nirvana.
There’s something strangely quaint about watching The Rock nearly 26 years after its theatrical release. It’s a bit like listening to the hard rock of a generation ago and hearing just how, well, soft it seems in comparison to what’s followed. (The kind of soft-ass shit Captain Darrow (Tony Todd) doesn’t like.) Considering where director Michael Bay will take his films after 1996, it feels odd to label this offering maximalist even though, objectively, it’s accurate.
Of course, much of what makes Bay the filmmaker he is shows up fully on display here. There’s the widescreen mayhem lovingly pored over, the fetishization of everything from women’s bodies to cars to military equipment, and the dumbest possible stereotyping. It’s loud and logically cofounding. It’s also an intensely watchable showcase of actor charisma.
It is easy to forget because of how he made five Transformers films in 12 years, each more (no pun intended) robotic than the last, but Bay made movie star movies. His scripts were junky, the plots ridiculous, and the politics a little stomach-churning, but he was very good at just letting charismatic people take you for a ride. Bad Boys is a snooze if Bay can’t give Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, and their supporting players room to work their magic on you.
The same goes for The Rock. Without Sean Connery’s disaffected cool, John Major reads bland and humorless on the page. If Ed Harris can’t sell you on General Hummel’s nobility, he’s just a thug in a military uniform. And then, of course, there’s Nicolas Cage.
We’re all familiar with “action” Cage now, but in 1996, the actor was coming off an Academy Award for playing the doomed and self-destructive alcoholic lead of Leaving Las Vegas. His reputation was mainly as an indie weirdo who sometimes showed up in romantic comedies of varied quality and success. The Cage of The Rock has more in common with that era than the action star era to come. Stanley Goodspeed isn’t a hero. He’s a nerd, an obsessive Beatles fan, and a chemical weapons SUPERfreak. He gets his shit together in the end, but it is mostly luck and performative even then. While one should never accuse Bay of this level of meta-commentary, Goodspeed is basically a method actor who finally catches ahold of his character on the day the curtains rise.
Because these are characters who, if not exactly deep, we can still invest in, The Rock’s center holds even as it grows increasingly bombastic. Does the shower room firefight work, in all its ridiculous operatic excess, if Bay doesn’t give us a moment of Goodspeed trying to stop Sergeant Rojas (Raymond Cruz) from climbing the ladder to his inevitable demise? The Bay of this era gave us some humanity amongst the spectacle, even if it was glancing.
That moment also highlights a staple of early Bay. He did love guns and tanks and planes, absolutely. But he was also in love with the idea of bravery. He was, and is, cynically skeptical of institutions. Being in charge was a one-way trip to corruption or incompetence. The Rock is shot through with that philosophy as embodied by F.B.I. Director Womack (John Spencer), Chief Justice (Philip Baker Hall), and the faceless government that screwed Hummel’s fallen soldiers. However, the director also has a lot of interest in, if not respect for, the workers of those organizations, be they agents, soldiers, or cops.
This attitude would curdle over time. In 13 Hours, Bay clearly has lost much of his faith in even American soldiers. That is a film that’s about this single group of people being good, not the larger class they represent. In 6 Underground, his nihilism reaches its zenith. The world is broken, people are basically bad, and only a small, wealthy (not coincidentally) cadre of people can make a difference. In The Rock, though, he seems positively optimistic. Hummel’s mercenaries are an aberration. The units led by Anderson (Michael Biehn) and Hendrix (John C. McGinley) are the truth. He films them as heroes—doomed heroes, but heroes nonetheless.
Picking nearly any of Bay’s films after this, there’s something off in the mix. Bad Boys II is so aggressive as to be hateful, The Island is short on humanity, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is shockingly racist, and so on. For this one film, however, the director seemed to hold all his obsessions and abilities in balance with each other. The Rock isn’t a perfect film, but it is a perfect Michael Bay film.