The Rock is a relentless action movie courtesy of Michael Bay, a director who needs relentless pacing to hide the flaws in his films. It works to his advantage here, as barely a moment goes by without something used to get our heart going. We open with action, we close with action, and there’s a lot of it in the middle, too. If what you want is a pure action movie, you can’t really do a whole lot better than The Rock.
We begin by learning about our sympathetic villain, General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris). He steals a bunch of chemical-filled rockets from his own military, then takes over Alcatraz, complete with 81 hostages. All he wants is $100 million, the majority of which he plans to give to the families of men who died in the military — people who have families to whom the government refused to pay compensation. He says that after 48 hours, he’ll launch the rockets, which contain enough of the deadly poison to kill every single person in San Francisco, not to mention the environmental impact. He knows the ins and outs, and knows that he’s more or less unstoppable atop the fortress from which nobody has ever escaped.
At least, that’s what he thinks. It turns out, one man did escape from the prison. His name is John Mason (Sean Connery), a former M16 Agent who has been detained, illegally, for thirty years, despite the government having nothing on him. Is he innocent? Is he guilty? What does it matter? He’s the only person who can lead a group of SEAL members into the prison without getting lost, caught, or detected. Now all we need is someone to defuse the rockets.
This introduces us to our lead character, a chemical weapon specialist named Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage). He initially thinks that he’s flying to San Francisco just as part of a training exercise, so he invites his girlfriend — whom he recently learned is pregnant — along for the ride. Then he thinks that he’s just going to be a consultant, before learning the truth: He’s going in with the team, and if he fails, his girlfriend will be killed along with the rest of the city.
You can see how the stakes are high. They get even higher when (1) the entire team except for Mason and Goodspeed are killed, and (2) we find out that Mason has a daughter who is also in the area. Oh, and since Mason has been imprisoned for the last three decades, he’s not exactly in a cheerful and helpful mood. And if he and Goodspeed aren’t successful, the entire island is going to be blown up before the rockets can be allowed to launch.
This leads to a number of very interesting and exciting action sequences, which span pretty much the last hour and a half of the film. Along the way, we get some fun chemistry building between Mason and Goodspeed, a bunch of witty retorts from both of them, and relentless and nonstop thrills. It all comes down to the wire, as films involving a timer and a terrorist always do, and your heartbeat will quicken as it plays. While the ending plays out quite generically, it still works and ends a very enjoyable film on a strong note.
There are some points in The Rock that come across as really fresh and aren’t seen very often in action movies. The stunts feel real, the gunfights as if there is actually something on the line, and the villain as complex. The last one is something that the film does really well: It crafts a deep and interesting villain with many motivating factors, played by an actor who can turn in both a sympathetic and intense performance. Ed Harris is kind of the one that keeps us grounded in reality, and in humanity. He doesn’t want to kill; he just wants others to get proper compensation after their family member was killed in battle.
Logic doesn’t exist in this movie, but it doesn’t matter. How we go from one action scene to another is inconsequential because there isn’t enough time to think about it. Does it all make sense? No, but why should it? You’re here to be entertained, and you will be. There’s the obligatory car chase, multiple gunfights, and a film full of tension that will keep you on the edge of your seat. What more do you want?
Much of the reason that The Rock works is because of Connery’s wit and charm. While the action scenes alone are often inventive and fun to watch, if they aren’t happening to people we either like or can at least identify with, they ultimately become a bore. Watching Connery’s character — the maybe wrongfully accused and definitely wrongly incarcerated man — go through it all, along with a Cage’s not-a-real-soldier scientist is thrilling. They shouldn’t be able to pull it off, and the odds of the world are against them — and yet, they still have time to bond and make jokes, which is endearing.
The Rock is a very, very fun action movie. It’s relentlessly paced, filled with action scenes from start to finish, and while it doesn’t always link them with logic, the aforementioned pacing doesn’t allow you time to think about them. It has two lead actors who we care about, and a villain possibly more sympathetic than any other character, played with intensity. It’s absolutely worth watching, and a shining example of what Michael Bay is capable of.