Blessed with a superb cast and articulate screenplay by David Weisberg, Douglas Cook and Mark Rosner, director Michael Bay's The Rock (1996) is a high octane action-packed thrill ride with few equals. The film's moral underlay re-evaluates the measure and metal of true patriotism, pitting three of Hollywood's most gifted actors in a race to save humanity from a band of rogue military terrorists.
This handpicked motley crew, consisting of Maj. Tom Baxter (David Morse), Capt. Darrow (Tony Todd), Sergeant Crisp (Bokeem Woodbine), Private McCoy (Steve Harris) and others, is fronted by Brigadier Gen. Francis Hummel (Ed Harris); a decorated war veteran who believes that the military has wronged him and destroyed his life.
Stealing a stockpile of weaponry armed with a lethal chemical, Hummel and his entourage take eighty-one tourists visiting Alcatraz Island hostage; threatening to execute one per hour unless reparations are paid to the families who lost loved ones while on secret illegal missions for the U.S. military. To counterbalance any offensive response by the FBI, Hummel has strategically placed three missile rockets armed with the deadly VX gas squarely aimed at San Francisco, with the promise that he will kill millions if his demands are not met.
Wily FBI Director James Womack (John Spencer) sets into play a NAVY Seals ambush, aided by chemical weapons expert Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage). However, Goodspeed's 'what me worry' nonchalance towards his line of work is put to the test when Womack also convinces bitter, imprisoned British exile, John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) to partake in the undercover infiltration by offering him a pardon and his freedom as remuneration...should he survive the mission. Actually, Womack has no intension of following through on this promise. Nevertheless, Mason seizes on the opportunity to plan his next escape and is momentarily reunited with his estranged daughter, Jade Angelou (Claire Forlani).
As the countdown begins, Mason, Goodspeed and their team of operatives led by Commander Anderson (Michael Biehn) infiltrate Alcatraz Island. However, they underestimate Hummel's expertise and preparation. In the ensuing hailstorm of gunfire, all but Mason and Goodspeed are brutally slaughtered by Hummel's men, leaving the mission in jeopardy.
Systematically, Mason begins to pick off Hummel's men, forcing him to retaliate by firing one of his rockets at San Francisco. However, at the last possible moment, Hummel bails on his threat, sinking the missile into the bay. This apprehension causes Hummel to lose the respect of his men whom he suddenly realizes are die hard mercenaries intent on slaughtering thousands whether or not their demands are met. Forced into a showdown, Hummel is killed by his men who next zero their target interests on eliminating Goodspeed and Mason.
Backed by Womack, the military readies its Plan 'B'; to take out Alcatraz with an F-18 bomber air strike that will neutralize the threat of poisonous gas but also kill everyone on the island. As the battle for control over the remaining missiles enters its eleventh hour, Mason confides to Goodspeed that the real reason he has been in prison all these years is because he has stolen microfilm containing many of the U.S.'s closely guarded national secrets. Recognizing how he has been wronged, Goodspeed agrees that if they make it out of Alcatraz alive, he will look the other way - allowing Mason to finally escape and start his life anew.
The last of Hummel's soldiers attacks Goodspeed, forcing him to use one of the poisonous gas crystals to kill his attacker before jabbing himself in the heart with the antidote. The F-18's swoop in to destroy 'the rock', but at the last moment Goodspeed lights his signal flairs to abort the operation. Unfortunately, one of the F-18's has already dropped its load and a portion of the island is levelled.
The explosion propels an unconscious Goodspeed into the bay, but Mason dives in and rescues Goodspeed from certain death before disappearing. Womack and the army arrive and learn that all the hostages have been saved and Goodspeed - remaining true to his word - lies to Womack that Mason did not survive the bombing raid.
In the final moments, Goodspeed and his girlfriend, Carla Pestalozzi (Vanessa Marcil) are seen raiding a church in Fort Walton, Kansas on the advice of a note from Mason. They discover the hidden microfilm containing all the U.S.'s national security secrets including who really shot J.F.K. Thus ends, The Rock on an almost tongue-in-cheek note of playfulness that is in keeping with most of director Michael Bay's upbeat thrillers from this vintage.
Bay is often criticized for his rather devil-may-care approach to 'serious' storytelling - his positivism often miscued and misinterpreted by the critics as heavy laden schmaltz. The Rock delivers its exuberant rush and, to be sure, only on occasion takes itself seriously. However, the film moves like gangbusters from one harrowing action sequence to the next. Bay's genuine gift is in his ability to often take what would otherwise be a rather depressingly dark and brooding narrative and make it pivot, careen and plunge like one hell of a good roller coaster ride.
The buddy/buddy chemistry between Connery and Cage is palpably engaging - immeasurably aiding the narrative by delivering a one/two punch of stylish camaraderie. We see both men mature in their understanding and compassion towards each other and come to respect and appreciate the unlikely bond almost as much as these characters do. In the final analysis, The Rock is engrossing good fun; a real winner from start to finish with action sequences that continue to withstand the test of time.
Buena Vista's Blu-Ray offering at long last rectifies their utterly lacklustre and non-anamorphic standard DVD transfer from 1997. In the early days of DVD, Buena Vista's parent company - Disney - unceremoniously dumped a goodly sum of their catalogue titles on the market with little regard for maximizing the integrity of the digital medium. Many of these titles remain in such a state.
However, in 1999, Criterion Home Video reissued The Rock as a deluxe 2 disc offering with much improved image and audio quality as well as a litany of extra features. It is that transfer that latter transfer that serves as the basis for Buena Vista's Blu-Ray. And although color fidelity, as well as fine details are marginally improved with Blu-Ray's capacity for a higher bit rate, The Rock's visual presentation isn't quite as punchy or robust as one might expect.
Is it satisfying and free of the digital imperfections inherent in standard DVD? Yes. Is this the best that The Rock might have looked on Blu-Ray? Perhaps...perhaps not. Occasionally, the image seems slightly softer than expected. Colors, though refined, don't seem to have that pronounced 'wow' factor we've grown accustomed to seeing on Blu-Ray. As for the audio, it is the identical 5.1 Dolby Digital mix previously featured on Criterion's 2 disc offering, minus a 7.1 lossless audio upgrade.
Virtually all of the extra features gathered by Criterion have been reinstated on Buena Vista's Blu-Ray, thus providing a rather comprehensive package for this title without Criterion's inflated price tag. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)