RECAP: The Rock

The Rock (1996): Michael Bay

The first of a trio of Nicolas Cage action films, The Rock fell second in a string of four movies that represent the apex of Cage’s career.

Following his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage starred in The Rock, Con Air, and Face Off. That, folks, is called a winning streak.

Sean Connery, long-haired and cagey, appeared in his final great movie. That was 20 years ago, Sean. We need you back!

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A green G-Man and a gray Brit fight through Alcatraz to stop a Silver Starred general from killing San Franciscans with chemical weapons. 

Hero (7/10)

Fresh off his Oscar win, Nicolas Cage gets back to basics–playing a guy overwhelmed and slightly unhinged by events.

Cage has made a career and countless memes acting like a guy the tiniest bit in over his head. Sure, not all of his roles blend with that style.

FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed does. We first meet him, a guy who got his first chemistry set at age seven, in his Washington DC office, where he’s received a $600 Beatles record just before an alarm announces the arrival of a package sent to Bosnian refugees.

Goodspeed and his trainee suit up and enter an airtight chamber where the chemical weapons spooks deactivate the most dangerous weapons this side of nuclear.

Could be poison gas inside that crate. Turns out there is. The trainee activates the gas when he waves the hand of a baby doll. The gas fills the airtight room and corrodes their protective suits. Very bad news.

Goodspeed works quickly and coolly to stem the flow of the gas. Did I mention the bomb? Yeah, the doll is also a bomb that, should it explode, will kill everyone in the building.

While the rest of the highly trained FBI agents worry and yell, Goodspeed fiddles with the bomb’s wires. He refuses the four-inch-long needle for injecting into his heart.

Goodspeed’s useless trainee spends the time complaining about his suit corroding and generally distracting the people trying to save his life. Meanwhile, Goodspeed diffuses the bomb.

As the FBI’s best chemical weapons guy, Goodspeed is the perfect agent for stopping Hummel. Except…he only has three weeks weapons training and hasn’t fired a gun since his academy days.

So maybe he’s not perfect. Later, when the entire SEAL team dies inside Alcatraz’s shower room, Goodspeed becomes the top-ranking American on the mission.

Goodspeed remembers his training, challenging Marines lightyears beyond his martial skills. Toward the end, Goodspeed is chased by a flat-faced Marine eager to murder all San Franciscans.

The Marine tracks Goodspeed into a corner, so Stanley must fight. From his hiding spot, he tosses out one of the missile guidance chips to distract the Marine. Goodspeed, screaming like a banshee, runs at him and knees him in the face.

Cage’s yelling convinces us that he’s put all his strength and power into one move. The Marine is hurt, but only a little. Goodspeed fights on, outmatched, but not outwitted.

After the slaughter of a dozen Navy SEALs, Cage spends much of his screen time annoyed. Annoyed at his partner, annoyed at the mission, annoyed at the level of danger posed by the VX gas. I’d say he was annoyed with the movie, but I think that’s just Cage’s way. And we love him for it.

Villain (8/10)

Ed Harris was in the midst of his own hot streak in theaters. In a four-year stretch he earned two Oscar nominations and appeared in Nixon. Harris’s turn as General Frank Hummel was his highest profile role in that time.

General Francis Hummel is a man of honor. Everyone says so, even the Chief of Staff charged with stopping Hummel.

The Rock establishes Hummel’s character well. He appears first at a cemetery laying flowers at his wife’s grave. Eighty-eight soldiers, Hummel says to his wife’s grave, have died under his command, and the government never compensated their families. Hummel will make the government listen, but, he says, he could never have done it were his wife still alive.

Cut to a Naval weapons depot. Hummel and his team ruthlessly and effectively infiltrate a guarded facility storing VX gas, “one of those things we wish we could disinvent.”

Only one person dies during the robbery–one of Hummel’s men. A bulb of ominous green gas bursts inside a containment room. All but one of the Marines evacuates, and we are forced to watch, as Hummel does, the man die in gut wrenching agony.

We see then that Hummel is a man of integrity. And his actions in taking The Rock show that. Before taking 81 hostages, he asks two little girls taking an Alcatraz tour to find their teacher and leave the island. Isn’t that sweet?

Hummel knows how to get jobs done. Doing the job is another matter. When the SEALs infiltrate the shower room, Hummel doesn’t want to kill them. The SEALs shoot first, and as the Marines return fire, killing every SEAL, Hummel takes cover and orders a cease fire. His Marines don’t listen, but probably because they can’t hear him.

Hummel’s real test comes when his arbitrary 48-hour deadline comes and goes without $100 million dollars flooding his specified account. The general’s more insubordinate elements want him to launch a rocket at Candlestick Park.

The general waffles for a bit, always keeping his eyes focused on the mercenaries in his outfit. He orders the strike.

A rocket fires and streaks toward ‘Frisco. The FBI freaks out. Everyone watches–the rocket is now the island’s, and nation’s, chief drama.

Hummel dials up a joystick and flicks it. The rocket radically changes direction above tens of thousands of ’49ers fans and drops into sea, detonating harmlessly (for humans).

Hummel couldn’t do it. Deep down, he was driven by a need to provide for his men, even after their deaths. But his need to protect American lives superseded that. I guess he kept his honor?

Action/Effects (8/10)

Some action scenes make easy work for sound designers. All they have to do is find that effect labelled “gunfire” and hold down the button.

The shower room infiltration is one such scene. The SEAL team, after long infiltration, finds a grate leading to the showers. Carefully they use fiber optics to spy the scene inside the rusty shower room.

We remember from before that a Marine placed a tiny glass ball with motion sensors above that grate. “Custom made,” he said.  The SEALs trip it, because the tech is unknown to them.

Hummel and his Marines sprint to the grimy showers. The SEALs bolt up the ladder into the room. Only Mason, Goodspeed, and the guy ordered to watch Mason all the time remain in the tunnel.

Hummel reveals himself and his men. They have the SEALs surrounded and the elevated position. What follows is a lot of yelling and grunting.

I can’t recall a more testosterone-fueled scene in film history: elite military men, pointing automatic rifles, yelling at each other about duty for one’s country, inside a dirty shower room, inside the world’s most famous prison.

You can guess how the scene ends. Hummel orders Anderson (Michael Biehn), SEAL team leader, to order his men to draw down their guns. “I can’t give that order,” Anderson shouts. They exchange a sequence of “You stand down! No, you stand down!” shouting that goes nowhere.

One of Hummel’s men nudges free old bricks that crash on the floor. That triggers a SEAL to shoot, and suddenly everyone is shooting.

Hummel ducks and orders a cease fire, but no one can here them. Now comes that press-gunfire-sound-button moment I mentioned earlier.

Bay throws in some slow motion of blood-splattered SEALs. Zimmer’s mournful horns bellow. Bullets zing everywhere.

Mason’s chaperone is eager to join the fight. Goodspeed begs him not to. Duty calls, and the SEAL rises up the ladder. He takes in the carnage. All of his teammates are dead. He shoots back, but lasts not long before tumbling down into the tunnel, to Goodspeed’s horror.

The shower scene was less action and more bloodbath. The SEALs never stood a chance, and that was the point: they tried to impregnate the impregnable. They were the best option for saving the hostages and San Francisco but failed, and failed without injuring a single Marine.

Michael Bay sports many hallmarks in his films. Gratuitous slow motion during action scenes is one of them. This tactic toes a silly line, but, at least in The Rock, doesn’t cross it.

Sidekicks (8/8)

Screen legend Sean Connery again plays a member of the British secret services, the first time in more than a decade, and the first time it’s not James Bond.

Frank Mason has a secret. Hundreds of secrets. He’s the guy the British sent to steal a microfilm from J. Edgar Hoover, which held some of the greatest secrets of governments worldwide. Mason stole the film and made it to the Canada border before the FBI apprehended him and threw him prison for 30 years without trial.

If that wasn’t interesting enough of a character backstory, he’s the only person to successfully escape from Alcatraz, perhaps the most secure prison in the history of the world.

We know he’s dangerous (we learn about his role in stealing secrets later) before he’s appeared on screen. We also know he’s an educated man. Shakespeare and Sun Tzu are among the authors present in his cell.

Mason is a man of exceptional resourcefulness. He uses a mashed quarter to cut a hole in glass inside a holding cell. A clothes drying rope becomes an instrument of torture, for the director of the FBI. This guy’s fearless.

He knows his limits, too. He offers to escort the SEAL team into Alcatraz because he can’t remember the way in/out unless he sees it. I’m the same way, so I get it. After the SEAL team dies, Mason decides to leave. He knows he can’t beat the Marines on his own.

Godspeed goes alone, but not for long, because Mason returns to break a guy’s neck. He didn’t want Goodspeed’s daughter to grow up without a father, because his daughter did, and he knows the feeling.

Mason’s martial skills have lost nothing in the slammer for 30 years. He kills an in-his-prime Marine using a chain and guile. He knocks a huge sniper to his impalement.

The fights seem to take no toll on Mason. He barely bleeds and a smirk is never far from his face. Perhaps he’s enjoying his freedom too much care if a dozen of the world’s best trained killers want him dead.

Mason’s best skill is teleportation. After the events of The Rock have been resolved with no loss of hostage life, Mason asks Goodspeed about his honeymoon plans: Maui. “Forget Maui,” Mason says.

Mason hands Goodspeed a slip of paper that the latter reads aloud. In the time required to read the dozen words written, Mason has walked to a concrete ruin fifty yards away. And disappeared. Vaporized.

Henchmen (3/8)

Hummel is backed up by a ruthless band of Marines eager to give their lives for the memories of their black ops brethren. They also want dat cash.

David Morse plays Hummel’s best friend, Major Tom Baxter. Baxter does little more than back up whatever Hummel says. “You’re talking to a general,” he menaces to a snooty underling. Whatever Baxter might feel beneath his steely exterior is barely known.

Captains Frye and Darrow (Gregory Sporleder, Tony Todd) are the guys a little too juiced for the fight, too eager to take hostages and hold the city for ransom.

In the shower, Frye itches to kill the SEALs. Darrow is the first to finally break ranks with Hummel, relieving the general of command.

It’s fitting that these two outlived the other Marines; they were the most villainous and least likely to be swayed to the right side. Hummel, mastermind of the plan, in the end, gave up the position of the last rocket.

Look out for John C. McGinley as an eager Marine designing his own motion sensing devices.

These Marines were as hulking and bloodthirsty as mercenary Marines would be. They frightened in their eagerness and devotion to cause and commander.

Stunts (3/6)

Bruckheimer movies are not going to leave stunt actors in the trailer or at the craft services table. The Rock is not an exception.

I particularly enjoyed the scene in the rock quarry area beneath the prison, an aspect of the film that I am absolutely certain does not exist on the real Alcatraz. I don’t need to look it up; it can’t be real.

After Goodspeed and Mason steal a dozen guidance chips and are shot at, they slide through a chute and onto a railroad track. Actually, they fall onto a car that speeds them down said track.

They are saved from the runaway speed when the track ends and the car falls off. Whew. Goodspeed leaps into a hanging ore-bearing cart and Mason has his ankle caught in a rope, dangling upside down.

Immediately the Marines find the pair and start shooting. One guy moves close to Goodspeed’s cart. He doesn’t account for Mason, who is spraying his feet with the kerosene allowed him on the chopper ride in. Mason flicks to light a match and pretty soon the Marine is on fire.

A second Marine tosses a grenade into Goodspeed’s cart. Goodspeed tosses it back. Crisis averted. He gets the cart moving. The Marine has several clips for his machine gun. Stanley has a pistol.

Goodspeed speeds along. We know he’s green, but his shooting style cannot be orthodox FBI. Most folks would hold the gun steady and squeeze the trigger. Goodspeed pumps his arm back and forth, as if the added force will help propel the bullets. Chalk it up to top-notch Cage acting.

Despite two teams of elite armed servicemen, an FBI agent, and a former British SAS member, The Rock is surprisingly bereft of hand-to-hand combat. Guys get thrown from rooftops or shot by rockets instead of throwing numerous punches.

Bay manages to squeeze a car chase into The Rock. It comes when Mason breaks out of the Fairmont Hotel after his stylish haircut.

Mason shoves aside a valet and hops into a Humvee as dozens of agents chase after him. He speeds through San Fran’s hills at six miles per gallon.

Goodspeed has the sense to borrow another car, a yellow Ferrari also being valet parked. These cars provide good contrast of power and speed. I’d say they are metaphors for the characters driving them, but Connery is all power and all speed–he’s the perfect vehicle.

Mason drives through everything he can: flower carts, light poles, water trucks, even a cable car. He’s making tons of debris to slow the cops. Or, maybe, he hasn’t driven an inch in 30 years and forgot how.

Goodspeed pursues in unorthodox ways. He plows through the plate glass window of a body shop, but the car proves too fast and he crashes it. The crash comes just as the cable car Mason nudged slides toward Goodspeed. Our hero, after shooting the airbag, escapes in time.

This chase scene was unnecessary and silly. The Humvee’s owner calls Mason mid-drive to berate him. The camera is very shaky and often zooms onto the faces of the drivers.

The cable car hit a car that exploded violently enough to lift the iconic San Francisco mode of transport 15 feet in the air. I find this implausible at best. So yeah, the chase is silly, but so’s the whole flick. No biggie.

Climax (4/6)

Once Hummel diverts the rocket zooming over San Francisco, he seals his fate. He doesn’t know it for a little bit, though.

Mason and Goodspeed spy on a meeting among top brass. Hummel and Baxter listen as Frye and Darrow berate them about getting paid and not killing thousands of Americans.

The good guys observe Darrow relieving Hummel of his command. What follows is a scene of one-upsmanship. Hummel draws his gun and points it at the one guy who clearly doesn’t want to be there. “You mean this side arm?” he asks sarcastically.

Then Frye and Darrow draw their guns. Frye tells Baxter, “You’re either with us or against us.” Baxter says it was an honor to serve the general and he draws his gun.

I believe this moment is called a Mexican standoff. Baxter points his gun at the general. Hummel’s out gunned and outmanned.

But wait, Baxter shoots Darrow! The poor sap who was done with the mission as soon as they landed on the island gets shot in the throat. Hummel is shot. Mason and Goodspeed burst in and shoot at everyone except the general, who they escort to safety.

“What have I done?” Hummel asks rhetorically. “Where’s the last rocket?” Goodspeed demands. “Lower lighthouse,” Hummel tells him.

To the lower lighthouse the heroes bound. Frye, much too excited, chases Goodspeed, who has found the rocket and removed its guidance chip. We also are treated to a VX globe falling onto Goodspeed’s shoe and rolling to the edge.

For some insane reason Goodspeed pockets the gas globe. Literally anything else would have proved a less dangerous idea. He also takes the guidance chip.

Frye follows Goodspeed and they fight. Goodspeed puts his all into the fisticuffs, knowing he must to survive. Frye enjoys the game like playing Catch with a child. His mind is only half into it.

Until Goodspeed plucks free that gas ball. He jams it into Frye’s mouth and smashes his jaw. Frye pukes some liquid forward, but his fate is sealed, and we are spared watching another guy die from the gas.

But will Goodspeed live? Here comes wave after wave of slow motion. Slow mo could be construed as Goodspeed’s mental state, the world slowing for him because he’s going to die horrifically a few moments, but slow mo is a technique used often in this and all other Bay movies. He thinks it’s cool.

Goodspeed draws the dreaded needle from a cargo pocket. In the FBI lab he refused an injection. On Alcatraz he must do it. He presses a button and out pops a metal needle four inches long. He holds it to his heart, breathes deeply, jabs, and doesn’t miss.

Goodspeed recalls the mission brief. When the island is clear, launch green flares. He pulls out two. Jets, armed with plasma and about to incinerate the island, fly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Goodspeed ignites the flares. The jets maneuver into firing range. Goodspeed, on his knees, waves the flares. The men and women at the FBI compound wait in agony. A fed spots the green smoke and calls it in.

Too late. One pilot launched the plasma missile as he pulled up. It detonates as Goodspeed screams from his knees. The blast hits the back of the island, but it’s enough to propel Goodspeed into the San Francisco Bay.

The pilot radios in: he hit the back of the island. Everyone should be safe. Everyone but Goodspeed, who floats in the sea. Mason, always aware, rescues again the FBI father-to-be. Mason tells Goodspeed where to find the Hoover microfilm before he “vaporizes.”

Jokes (1/4)

When Goodspeed finds himself on his knees with a gun to his head, he flips out. One of the Marines has caught him and Goodspeed can’t deal. “Glass or plastic,” he shouts. The other guy is confused. “GLASS OR PLASTIC,” Goodspeed shouts again.

Goodspeed is making jokes in his head. He has to explain that if the winds change after detonating the gas on the city, the wind direction will affect whether or not they collect his body parts in a glass jar or a plastic bag. I mean, I got it, but only after a longwinded explanation.

Later we get, “You’re him, you’re the Rocket Man.” That was pretty bad from Goodspeed, but he learned from the earlier confusion when his “glass or plastic” joke fell flat. He set up the Rocket Man joke and explained it in full to Darrow before blasting him onto Alcatraz ruins.

It’s easy to write off Cage as a joke; easy, so I won’t do it. He was good. Connery was the shining star. Likely he chose the role because his character was the only one having fun. That and getting to say, “Welcome to the Rock.”

Setting (4/4)

San Francisco makes a beautiful setting. I don’t know why more directors don’t choose to shoot there. Hitchcock loved the town, and he’s on the Mt. Rushmore of directors. Your choice is better than his?

Michael Bay chose to shoot in San Francisco. He could have picked any city in the world to set The Rock in. Oh, right, Alcatraz.

San Francisco Bay is home to America’s, and perhaps Earth’s, most famous prison. Some of the scenes are actually filmed in the real Alcatraz. The hostages are imprisoned in the real cells.

But many sets are fake. The space beneath the island’s surface is larger than the spaces above ground. Still, I liked them.

The SEAL team first reaches a large boiler room, where Mason finally escaped the island. His method into the boiler room was more complex–he rolled through timed fire blasts. Once Mason makes it through he opens the metal door and speaks the line of the film, “Welcome to the Rock.”

Why didn’t Mason just go through the door instead of the fire tunnel when he escaped? Good question, me.

The Rock sits atop tunnels of enormous size. Goodspeed and Mason survive fire blasts in a watery tunnel. They escape two Marines in a rocky tunnel that was presumably a mine. If they are below ground they are in a huge area. Carlsbad Caverns ain’t so big.

Above ground, things are more believable. Alcatraz shines in the sun, all the more intimidating for its nearness to San Francisco and its haunting beauty in the sunlight. Even interiors are bathed in light.

The rooms have a rustic beauty to them, full of dusty metals and peeling paint. In a darker setting, this Alcatraz would be a horror movie. Bay filmed a horror of a different sort, but he doesn’t want us confused about what kind of movie we’re watching.

Commentary (1/2)

The Rock‘s primary plot involves a duplicitous US government. Hummel, a bonafide war hero, turns terrorist mercenary because his bosses won’t pay up to the families left behind by men under Hummel’s command.

Most of the characters care nothing about this, indeed they don’t know about it because everything is classified.

Commander Anderson, briefed on Hummel’s stance, tells the general, staring down the barrel of a gun, that he agrees with his stance on recognition of the warriors’ sacrifices.

“But we took an oath to oppose all enemies, both foreign AND domestic,” Anderson says. Hummel is an enemy domestic. Whatever he stands for, Anderson spells out what he’s become.

Interestingly, Hummel and his men are never once called “terrorists.” Were The Rock made after 9/11, you bet they would be. But make no mistake, Hummel was a terrorist. He doesn’t think so, but does self perception change who you are?

Hummel’s actions foreshadow actual treatment of members of the armed services in the 21st century. America has mostly ignored the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their combatants. We should be ashamed.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Boys will be boys, shooting at each other until everyone’s dead or has $1,000,000. The Rock, shockingly, passes the Bechdel Test.

Mason’s estranged daughter agrees to meet him at the Palace of Fine Arts. She brings a friend, in case her dad’s a psycho. She tells her friend to wait over there. BOOM. It passed. May Bay be exalted!

Face palm.


  • SO MANY UPSHOTS. Bay’s camera seems nailed to the ground. At times the shots invite vertigo.
  • Ventura, California, played the part of Fort Walton, Kansas.
  • I loved the string-of-pearls concoction for the ominous green globes of VX gas.
  • Cage is full of great lines when Mason dangles Womack from the Fairmont balcony. “Freeze, Mister.” “Please, don’t [drop the director of the FBI]” are choice Cage-isms.
  • “You’re between the Rock, and a hard case.”

Summary (47/68): 69%

The stars aligned to create The Rock. I believe it’s Cage’s best action movie and also Bay’s, two guys with solid action track records. Connery was on fire and Harris was superb.

The enemy general’s plan was a superb one. Many movies have used hostages as a plot device, but few hostage takers were as intimidating as a team of US Marines.

Throw in the awesome and nearly impenetrable location–Alcatraz, legendary prison–and you get an iconic action movie. Great fights, high stakes, ominous green balls of gas dangling in chains held together seemingly by magic–all of it blends sublimely.