THE ROCK: Blu-Ray (Hollywood Pictures 1996) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

In the era before a 9-11 and other home-grown acts of terrorism had yet to exact their sobering pound of flesh on the American psyche, the notion that any of it could ostensibly ‘happen here’ seemed quaintly amusing at best, and excellent fodder for movie plots – better still. Apocalyptic scenarios abounded, and audiences, stirred by their ingenious ‘what if?’ scenarios, flocked to see what all the fuss was about, perhaps, as with the Hollywood ‘think tank’ to have concocted as much via reading their marketing spreadsheets, never actually conceiving any of it could come true in our lifetime. As, we are now very much on the other side of Alice’s looking glass, movies like Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996) have taken on a far more unflattering picaresque quality than originally intended. It is, in fact, impossible to watch any movie about American hostages taken prisoner at a popular cultural landmark with a doomsday device set to decimate a major metropolitan center of commerce and trade, and not immediately conjure to mind the toppling of Manhattan’s World Trade Center, the only ‘what if?’ to be replayed over and over again now, ‘what if New York had had a Stanley Goodspeed working overtime to ensure a happier outcome?’ Regardless, The Rock remains one of a handful of very fine action/adventure offerings to emerge throughout the mid-1990’s, its director something of a disciple of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – the creative zeitgeists to have altered the course of 80’s picture-making with such titanic actioners as Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Top Gun (1986), and Days of Thunder (1990).
Generally speaking, Bay’s alliance with Bruckheimer and Simpson, as well as his solo ventures – producing and directing – have not Teflon-coated his screen achievements to withstand the critics’ collective venom. Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001) as prime exemplars, while performing exceptionally at the box office, were received with abject contempt. I suppose it stands to reason, when your movies cumulatively earn upwards of $8 billion, some will judge them, not as art, rather as formulaic popcorn pleasers, made by and for morons. There is, in fact, some truth to this. Mercifully, The Rock is not among the frequently bashed. Blessed with a superb cast and articulate screenplay by David Weisberg, Douglas Cook and Mark Rosner, The Rock endures as a high-octane action-packed thrill ride with few equals. The movie’s moral underlay re-evaluates the measure and mettle 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 the military must be made to atone for a wrong perpetuated on him and these men. Problem: Hummel is an honorable man, painted into a corner to become a mercenary. His brood of avenging angels know of no such honor. They merely want revenge – and moneys owed them, as promised by Hummel, who has severely overshot his goal.
Stealing a stockpile of weaponry armed with a lethal chemical weapon (Coronavirus, anyone?) Hummel and his entourage take eighty-one tourists visiting Alcatraz Island hostage, threatening to execute one hostage 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 military or FBI, Hummel has strategically placed three missile rockets armed with the deadly VX gas, squarely aimed at San Francisco, with the promise 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, offering Mason a faux 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 their mission in crisis. Systematically, Mason begins to pick off Hummel's men, forcing Hummel 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 intended for the city into the bay, unaware its doomsday device has already been diffused by Goodspeed. This apprehension causes Hummel to lose the tenuous respect of his men whom he suddenly realizes are die hard mercenaries, intent on slaughtering millions, whether or not their demands are met. Forced into a showdown, Hummel is killed by his men who then zero their targets 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 in Goodspeed the real reason he has been in prison these many years: because he has stolen microfilm containing many of the U.S.'s closely guarded national secrets. Recognizing how he has been wronged, Goodspeed agrees 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 its antidote. The F-18's swoop in to destroy 'the rock'. Mercifully, at the last possible moment Goodspeed lights signal flairs to abort the operation. Unfortunately, one of the F-18's has already dropped its payload. 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 all of the hostages have been saved and Goodspeed - remaining true to his word - lies to Womack about Mason, claiming he 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 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 has oft been criticized for his rather devil-may-care approach to 'serious' storytelling - his positivism misconstrued as heavily-laden schmaltz. The Rock delivers its exuberant rush and, to be sure, only on occasion takes itself seriously. The picture moves like gangbusters from one harrowing action sequence to the next with just enough incidental dialogue to make us care about what happens to these cardboard cutout characters. Bay's genius, nee gift to movies, is in his ability to take what would otherwise be a rather depressingly dark and brooding story 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 palpable and engaging - immeasurably aiding the narrative by delivering a one/two knock-out punch to their stylish camaraderie. We see both men maturing in their burgeoning compassion towards each other, and, we come to respect and appreciate their unlikely bond as truthful and noteworthy. 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 rectifies their utterly lackluster 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 catalog titles on the market with little regard for maximizing the integrity of the digital medium. Many of these Touchstone/Hollywood Pictures/Caravan titles remain either short-shrifted or MIA to this day. However, in 1999, Criterion Home Video reissued The Rock as a deluxe 2-disc set with much improved image and audio quality as well as a litany of extra features. It is this transfer that appears to serve as the basis for Buena Vista's Blu-Ray reissue. 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 is not entirely as punchy or robust as one might expect. Is it satisfyingly free of the digital imperfections inherent in its standard DVD? Colors, though refined, do not seem to have that pronounced 'wow' factor. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. Virtually all of the extra features gathered by Criterion have been reinstated on Buena Vista's Blu-Ray, thus providing a rather comprehensive package. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)