THE EM­PIRE MAS­TER­PIECE

THE ROCK When Bay­hem wasn’t a four-let­ter word

Empire (Australasia) - - Review - 1996 / RATED MA15+ WORDS JONATHAN PILE

IN 1995, THE name “Michael Bay” meant some­thing quite dif­fer­ent to what it means to­day. The man who now makes “movies for teenage boys” (his words) was just a glint on his cam­era lens. Then a 30-year-old di­rec­tor with mu­sic video and ad­ver­tis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, he had just one film to his name — ac­tion com­edy Bad Boys. It may have re­ceived (at best) mixed re­views, but he was an ex­cit­ing young tal­ent, with an obvious flair for vi­su­als. And it didn’t hurt that Bad Boys made over seven times its bud­get at the US box of­fice. So nat­u­rally pro­duc­ers Jerry Bruck­heimer and Don Simp­son im­me­di­ately hired him again. This time to di­rect The Rock. The Rock holds a rar­efied po­si­tion in Bay’s fil­mog­ra­phy. Of all the films he’s di­rected — 13 over more than two decades — it’s the only one cer­ti­fied “Fresh” on re­views ag­gre­ga­tor web­site Rot­ten Toma­toes. That 12 oth­ers — in­clud­ing Ar­maged­don, the other film of his to be in­cluded in the pres­ti­gious Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion — didn’t make the grade per­haps sug­gests it was by happy ac­ci­dent rather than de­sign, but every­thing on The Rock worked. It’s not just Bay’s eye for an ac­tion se­quence — it’s Bay’s eye for an ac­tion se­quence mar­ried with a raft of pitch-per­fect per­for­mances. It’s not just a raft of pitch-per­fect per­for­mances — it’s a raft of pitch-per­fect per­for­mances mar­ried with a witty, quotable script. It’s not just a witty, quotable script… Well, you get the idea.

Not that the witty, quotable script came eas­ily. In 1994, writ­ing part­ners David Weis­berg and Dou­glas Cook wrote a high-con­cept spec script which posited the idea, what if you had to break

into the world’s most no­to­ri­ous prison, Al­ca­traz? That was then rewrit­ten by an­other writer, Mark Ros­ner. And these are the names you can see on the cred­its. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“They can­not come out of the the­atre and look their friends in the eye and say, ‘I wrote The Rock,’” said Bay at the time. “Weis­berg and Cook had a cool idea, but if you took ei­ther [of their drafts], it would have been a bad movie.”

The Saturday be­fore film­ing be­gan, in fact, Simp­son stormed up to Bay with 40 pages of notes on Ros­ner’s final script and said, “We’re tak­ing our names off this project.” Bruck­heimer was more san­guine: “We’ll fix it,” he said.

And they did, bring­ing in Die Hard With

A Vengeance writer Jonathan Hensleigh. And Aaron Sorkin. And Quentin Tarantino. And even Por­ridge duo Dick Cle­ment and Ian La Fre­nais, brought in at Sean Con­nery’s re­quest be­fore he’d agree to sign on. Ul­ti­mately, the Writ­ers Guild Of Amer­ica ruled at ar­bi­tra­tion that credit should go to Ros­ney, Weis­berg and Cook. Much to Bay’s well-pub­li­cised dis­dain.

How­ever, it was one of those rare in­stances where the “too many cooks” cliché doesn’t ring true. Even star Ni­co­las Cage got in on the act, in­sist­ing on strip­ping all the swear­ing from his di­a­logue and cre­at­ing quotable pearls in its place. So in­stead of the stan­dard bar­rage of bad lan­guage, we’re given, “gosh”, “gee whizz”, and, “How in the name of Zeus’ BUTTHOLE did you get out of your cell?” His Bea­tles-lov­ing, vinyl junkie, “chem­i­cal su­per­f­reak” Stan­ley Good­speed is a char­ac­ter apart from the conventions of cinema’s other FBI agents. Con­versely, it’s the fa­mil­iar­ity of Con­nery’s

John Ma­son that makes him so com­pelling. An in­car­cer­ated MI6 spy ac­cused of steal­ing J. Edgar Hoover’s se­cret mi­cro­film files, and held with­out proof or trial for 30 years,

Con­nery played him as though he was an aged, al­ter­na­tive ver­sion of James Bond.

The Rock’s char­ac­ter work is strong across the board — the mem­o­rable cast all given their own agen­das. Ma­son wants free­dom and to meet his grown-up daugh­ter for the first time. FBI Di­rec­tor Wo­mack (John Spencer) is evan­gel­i­cal in his zeal for keep­ing him cap­tive. Paul the bar­ber (An­thony Clark) just wants to know if Ma­son’s happy with his hair­cut.

And then there’s Ed Har­ris as Bri­gadier

Gen­eral Hum­mel. A nu­anced, con­flicted and sym­pa­thetic vil­lain, he’s mo­ti­vated by the US govern­ment’s treat­ment of its de­ceased black ops war heroes. When he says, “No ben­e­fits were paid to their fam­i­lies. No medals con­ferred. This sit­u­a­tion is un­ac­cept­able,” it’s tough to dis­agree with him. It’s as close as Bay gets to Ken Loach. And then, when he re­alises the govern­ment isn’t go­ing to blink, that the $100 mil­lion he de­manded isn’t go­ing to be paid, he’s un­will­ing to carry out the threat­ened nerve gas strike on San Fran­cisco. De­feated, he does the right thing and steps down. Told from an­other per­spec­tive, he could be the hero of this story. Sim­ply put, it’s not the ex­plo­sions but what hap­pens be­tween them that makes The Rock rock. It seems to be some­thing Michael Bay has for­got­ten.

He could do with a re­minder. THE ROCK IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWN­LOAD

Rock stars Sean Con­nery and Ni­co­las Cage.

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