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THE ROCK (CRITERION)

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse
Director: Michael Bay
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1 Surround
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 136 Minutes
Release Date: March 13, 2001

Film ****

Director Michael Bay has become somewhat of an acquired taste for fans of cinema. There are some who consider him to be somewhat of originality as far as filmmaking has concerned, and there are those who consider him to be the creator of movies that epitomize eye candy and nothing else. When his big sci-fi adventure Armageddon blasted onto the screen in 1998, it was a warm welcome to some, but a bad ride for most of the nation’s top critics, who sent it soaring to the top of the worst film list of that year, including Mr. Ebert himself, who I think still to this day, was too harsh on the film. I enjoyed Armageddon very much, and found it to be one of the more entertaining films of that year. And by now, everyone I know, as well as myself, is anticipating the release of his next movie, Pearl Harbor, which from the looks of it, will be a different kind of film from the director.

But for now, it is his 1996 action extravaganza known as The Rock that I hail as his current masterpiece. It might seem strange enough, but this film actually scored high on my ten best lists for 1996. It’s a remarkably thrilling and intense action film, filled with a mind-blowing, if not completely believable plotline, and some serious supercharged action sequences. Thankfully, the people at Criterion are fans of Michael Bay as well, as this is the second of his films that have made it to their library, following the milestone disc for Armageddon, which came out nearly two years ago.

The film starts off on a somewhat serious note concerning the movie’s villain. General Francis X. Hummel, played by Ed Harris, leads a group of mercenaries to take over Alcatraz island to pose a devastating threat to San Francisco. Hummel’s goal is to obtain payment from the Pentagon, whom he claims denied payments of any benefits to the families of soldiers who died under his command. He gives the Pentagon a 48-hour deadline to make payment. If no payment is made, Hummel will launch missiles loaded poison chemical gas that is deadly enough to wipe the skin off a face. The military plans to fight back by releasing aging prisoner John Mason (Sean Connery), who is credited as being the only human to ever escape from Alcatraz successfully. Also brought in to help diffuse the chemicals is FBI chemical specialist Stanley Goodspeed, played brilliantly wired Nicolas Cage. The unlikely two are backed up by a highly trained nave SEAL team, and race against the clock to save the hostages on Alcatraz, and diffuse the deadly poison gas.

The Rock not only succeeds on an action level, but on a character level as well. Connery and Cage are simply a dynamite pairing. Connery’s Mason, we learn, was a former British intelligence who conceals such top-secret information as the truth about the JFK assassination and so on. Cage is at his witty best as Goodspeed, who’s a man with a badge, but has never experienced a situation involving combat, as his work reduces him to working in mainly a science lab. And perhaps the most intriguing characterization is that of Ed Harris’ General Hummel, who is driven by anger towards the government, but as the film progresses, we wonder if he really has it in him to kill millions of innocent civilians.

The Rock is all about action…and then some. Consider one surprising moment early in the movie when Connery makes an attempt to escape the authorities, feeling that he won’t get back his freedom at the end of the mission, and leads the FBI and police through a blazingly furious car chase through the streets of San Francisco, which results in a brilliant demise of a cable car. It’s amazing to see a big action sequence positioned in the film before the action scenes on Alcatraz even kick in. It would seem a bit risky and tedious, but strangely enough, it worked, and I bought it. And the movie’s final half contains enough shootings, explosions and corpses to last about two action movies, if you can believe that. Not just guns and knives are used, but ceiling fans, missiles and poison gas itself are all used as weapons. Now if that aspect doesn’t knock you out of your seat, I don’t think anything will, my friends.

The Rock is simply a masterpiece of its kind. Not since the original Die Hard has such an entertainment package like this blown me away out of my seat. To call any action film a masterpiece is very much a rarity, but Michael Bay’s sophomore effort is likely to stand the test the time in that regard. I have only two words of advice, buckle up!

Video ****

I am extremely grateful to both Criterion and Disney for taking one of the studio’s early, non-anamorphic releases, and giving it the proper re-issuing, because this presentation had me very much rocked to the fullest. Criterion has given this movie the anamorphically enhanced treatment it needs, and the result is an absolute knockout. The video is thoroughly crisp and sharp for it’s entire running time, and colors appear as perfect as they can be. Even darkly lit scenes in tunnels and underwater areas come out great. Criterion, once again, has made a disc for the time capsule.

Audio ****

Disney’s early release of The Rock was a memorably striking transfer as far as the audio was concerned. As a matter of fact, none of Michael Bay’s movies have suffered bad audio on DVD, so the great treatment is sort of expected. The movie is given three audio tracks this time around; 5.1 Dolby Digital, 2.0 Dolby Surround, and even a DTS track, which I don’t think Criterion has ever offered before, though I could be mistaken. At any rate, the 5.1 track is likely to blow you out of your seat and through the window (just kidding, hehe). Explosions, gunfire, and every loud sound imaginable is captured perfectly in the knockout of a presentation.

Features ****

Four words: Criterion Two Disc Set. That says it all, my friends. You will recall the 2 disc set release for Armageddon, and all the great features it contained, and The Rock is equal in every way and maybe a little more as well. On disc one, the main extra is a wonderful commentary by Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, and technical advisor Harry Humpheries. On disc two, labeled The Vault, some extraordinary features, including an interview with Jerry Bruckheimer, various documentaries on the making of the movie, some neat individual featurettes on the making of certain action scenes, a series of some truly intense outtakes, which includes Ed Harris losing his temper massively. Also included is some publicity material, including trailers and TV spots, and even a small segment capturing the premiere of the movie on Alcatraz island. A wonderful package of true effort from Criterion!

Summary:

The Rock is action movie making at its best, and most extravagant. Filled with dynamite performances from its leads, an arsenal of memorable action sequences, and a brilliantly frenetic pacing, this is sure to keep you glued to your seat with each viewing.