Michael Bay’s a punching bag. Often, deservedly so. The jock rock filmmaker’s explosion-heavy and quick-cut style has been parodied more often than his terrible, usually offensive sense of humor, but he’s one of few modern filmmakers where general audiences know what his name implies about the film. Beyond auteurism, there is Bayhem. But maybe that’s why The Rock, the 1996 film that struggles most openly with its director, is his still best. The prison break film (going in the reverse direction of most entries in its subgenre) is perhaps the only movie where Bay’s sensibilities have been reined in by his writers rather than the other way around. It is Bay at his most unintentionally insightful, where his restless leg syndrome shooting style and machismo-laden humor poke fun at (and even critique) a military-industrial toy box that he’d spend most of his career happily tumping over. 25 years after its release, Bay’s takedown of bombastic patriots and the country that grooms them—his trip through the Temple of Doom that (apparently) lurks under Alcatraz—still hits the spot like amaretto cream and peach sorbet.
Before understanding how the interlocking, over-the-top, contradictory elements of this film work together to create a morally greyscale, macho action figure bonanza, you have to understand the action figures themselves. Teaming up Sean Connery’s swaggering escape artist John Mason and Nicolas Cage’s manic chemical weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed to infiltrate the island prison is already a match made in charisma heaven, but how they’re deployed alongside the rest of the cast makes all the difference. If Bay was simply smashing a bunch of Expendables together, meaty A-listers ricocheting off each other’s clashing star personas, the film wouldn’t work. To take it back to the action figure analogy, an imaginative playtime session becomes imbalanced if every figure is vying for the spotlight.
It’s one of the reasons why most of the action storytelling in the MCU fails to satisfy: Aside from the subpar filmmaking (choreography, color, editing/camera placement choices), you are always aware that rather than watching fallible characters fight, you’re watching unstoppable brands bump into each other in marketable poses. Some characters have plot armor; some have capitalism armor. Disney’s so precious about its MCU heroes that it didn’t want them to be shown getting beaten up in fighting video games. Seriously. Extrapolated out to the modern-day action hero, this is just like how The Rock (a confusing person to bring into a discussion of The Rock, I know) and Jason Statham are contractually protected from losing an on-screen fight. While differing slightly in tone from these examples, The Rock’s use of its cast hits the sweet spot many of these films are missing when aiming for an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon.
It’s the inspired work of three smaller ensembles that hold things together: Cage and Connery; Ed Harris’ terrorist General Hummel and his main military subordinates, including David Morse, Tony Todd, Bokeem Woodbine and John C. McGinley; and the FBI team of John Spencer and William Forsythe. That’s enough top-tier character actors to fill at least one cell block—and a similar strategy producer Jerry Bruckheimer would take the following year as he and Cage reunited for Con Air. And, like Con Air, everyone—to borrow the phrase of the week—understands the assignment. Supporters are clearly looking to support, while the leads’ headbutting always feels enjoyably volatile. Cage splits the difference between some of his more off-the-wall ‘90s excess and the adventure-nerd he perfected in National Treasure. Connery similarly melds gruff Bond competence with his loving/condescending Last Crusade patriarch. Together, their balanced weirdness is just heightened enough, just as Harris’ sympathetic baddie is tempered by his increasingly bloodthirsty crew.
The seven different voices (with uncredited writers ranging from Jonathan Hensleigh to Quentin Tarantino to Aaron Sorkin) that contributed to the script actually make these groupings feel more realistically distinct…if we’re going to think about realism at all, at this point. Their range of tones—Harris’ serious, dramatic performance contrasting with Cage’s ad-libs, Connery’s quips and Forsythe’s flustered indignation—would feel disjointed if they were not all encompassed by Bay’s overwhelming aesthetic. Instead, it’s because of that overbearing style that the disparate personalities work. When Bay films you, you’re going to feel like you’re in a Bay movie no matter what kind of performance you’re giving.
“They shoot you head on, they shoot you from underneath, they shoot you right and left, they shoot you from above, they shoot you on the move,” explained Harris in the film’s commentary. “[Bay] just loved the camera.” Sustaining that energy over the film’s 136 minutes could be exhausting, but the weighty themes and over-the-top sequences need the kineticism to live. Rather than wearing you out, the full hour we spend with Cage and Connery—as they’re defined by massive, gravity-defying car chases, gas bomb disarmaments and near-literal disarmaments as Spencer is dangled off a balcony by a single limb—is just so MUCH that it’s intoxicating.
It’s an action movie buffet. You’re overloaded on meat-and-potatoes entrees, but every once in a while you’ll get a delectable little treat: Cage disarming rockets filled with neon strings of toxin-filled, BuzzBall-like orbs that’re primed and ready to melt the faces of San Franciscans rather than the insides of a desperate frat boy. But don’t worry, much of The Rock is designed to satisfy those frat boys. Connery snapping necks and growling out things like “Losers always complain about doing their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” A cable car flying dozens of feet in the air and exploding like it was filled with gunpowder. These are its run-of-the-mill doofus delights. But even these hold complexity. The wanton destruction feels almost critical when juxtaposed with its antigovernment plotline, especially in the film’s biggest moment.
The intensity of the prison shower standoff between Hummel’s forces and those sent to take them out generates unbearable anxiety because of Bay’s relentless repetition and perpetual adjustment of the frame. Where it and its eventual cathartic, eruptive end could otherwise be read as gleeful, the gravity of the script makes it an operatic climax. The gunshots, debris and blood linger in slo-mo, smothering the air and damning not only their perpetrators but our own action movie expectations, built up through the same lack of empathy Hummel’s raging against. You wanted this? Well here you go. Combined with Harris’ committed performance (perhaps the best in any Bay movie), we’re confronted with an action movie that’s not just self-aware, but at times even self-loathing. Its attempts at de-escalation are doomed to failure from the start, just as much by its genre as the gun-happy culture that shaped it.
Cage’s mini-monologue bops us on the nose in case we’re not getting the picture: “What is wrong with these people, huh, Mason? Don’t you think there’s a lot of anger floatin’ around this island? Kind of a pubescent volatility? Don’t you think? A lot of angst, a lot of I’m Angry At My Father Syndrome? I mean, grow up! We’re stuck on an island with a bunch of violence-for-pleasure-seeking psychopathic marines. Shame on them!”
But we sought this out. This is what we wanted. Shame on us too. That this shame is palpable in the text of the film itself makes it unique in Bay’s body of work.
Its military vs. military storyline, punctuated by jabs at patriotism and overbearing masculinity, shows a shifty FBI and an out-of-touch White House that’d rather melt a hundred hostages than pay up for its sins. Its heroes come to uneasy terms with fatherhood as soldiers die for their brothers-in-arms’ families, linking all this mess to the heteronormative notion of the breadwinning man. The only two named women in the film are those its heroes seek to protect, Stanley’s girlfriend Carla (Vanessa Marcil) and John’s daughter Jade (Claire Forlani), as if the only reason a man would have to stop a city from being obliterated would be a personal connection to a woman in that city. It’s engaging in tropes while laying them bare, making it all far more palatable than if it were one or the other.
This balance works the other way too. A near-death experience when a bomb’s wires are snipped at the last second isn’t just given catharsis, but silliness. We get Cage, winding down, naked with his guitar—though sources differ as to why he’s naked. Bay claims it’s because Cage wanted to be naked, while Cage explains that he wanted us to get that he was at home. It doesn’t matter: It’s perfect. Part of what makes the absurd denouement (where Cage, his wife and a bulldog we’ve never seen before steal a hollow chair leg—containing microfilm documenting everything from Area 51 to the JFK assassination—from a church) work so well is that its lightly bonkers tang functions as a cinematic digestif warding off the food coma induced by the rest of the film. It ends up feeling more like Raising Arizona than one of Bay’s latter-day militarized monstrosities.
Bay continues to direct, even if his Transformers and post-Transformers career has only been disappointing, and his style still resonates throughout the industry. Even one of worst (formerly) working directors, Uwe Boll, despite once calling Bay a “fucking r*****,” openly aped Bay’s style in most of his tragic filmography. It’s this aesthetic that will live on as Bay’s legacy, but The Rock is the film that best understands how to put it to work—how dumb and big to get, and what it takes to keep it under control. Bay’s fully unleashed aesthetic, balanced with a bevy of writers and the best cast he’s ever had, created a Bay film that is both peak Bayhem and the least Bay-esque film he’s ever made. Sadly, now that we’ve seen what kind of movies he’s making after leaving the Hasbro machine, it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever put himself in the kind of creative position—where he compromises any of his vision to others—to ever make a movie like The Rock again.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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