THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE THE ROCK
When Bayhem wasn’t a four-letter word
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 Beatlesloving, 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.