An Ode to 'The Rock,' Michael Bay's Gloriously Implausible Masterpiece

nic cage in The Rock
The Rock | Hollywood Pictures
The Rock | Hollywood Pictures

Unlike most Michael Bay movies, which tend to attract cruise ship-sized factions of detractors, The Rock, which came out 20 years ago today, almost universally gets a pass. I’ve yet to find anyone who truly hates The Rock

The director’s style is well known: cut quickly between scenes in which your protagonists have blown a bunch of shit up while walking away in slow motion, and ones in which they are making mirthful quips; sprinkle in some patriotism and a chance that everyone will die; and cap it off with some heroic tongue-kissing.

At the time of The Rock's release, Bay was just a second-time director, trying to follow up Bad Boys, his commercially successful yet critically mixed paean to handsome narcotics cops. The Rock is by far his highest-rated film. Even Janet Maslin, reviewing The Rock for the New York Times, couldn’t help but pay it a compliment of sorts: “However much it hastens the demise of reason in worldwide movie audiences, this slam-bang energy is not easily achieved... Slickness this single-minded requires total concentration, along with glossy perfectionism and an unwavering faith in the superiority of appearance over sense.” 

And as much as people mock Bay's dialogue as unnecessary filler between explosions, The Rock boasted (uncredited) screenwriting assistance from Jonathan Hensleigh, Aaron Sorkin, and Quentin Tarantino, plus a pair of Brits whom Sean Connery brought in to rewrite his lines. 

Bay has long said he makes films for teenage boys, and it just so happened that, when The Rock came out in 1996, I was one. So, in 2016, I rewatched The Rock to determine: is it actually one of the great action films of the '90s, or have I been viewing it through the awkward-colored lenses of teenagedom? 

(Quick cut to me staring directly into your computer, having just flicked a cigar into a oil drum filled with TNT and snap bangs. Camera slowly pans up from my rock-solid chin to reveal ice-cold baby-blue eyes. I smirk.) 

Let’s fucking find out!

the rock opening scene
Hollywood Pictures

"First of all, it's because I'm a Beatles maniac"

The movie opens with a Marine funeral and the voice of Ed Harris, aka General Frank Hummel, talking to his men dying behind enemy lines. General Frank goes to the funeral, which takes place during a monsoon inside a steam room, then walks over to his wife’s grave and apologizes for what he’s about to do. You can see that he’s a good man because he’s apologizing to his wife, but General Frank has been backed into a corner by the powers that be, and you don’t do that to General Frank. 

No more than 10 seconds later, he and a group of rogue Marines break into a Naval weapons depot (using darts to neutralize the guards, because General Frank is not a monster, OK?) and get a bunch of missiles. One warhead drops, and a guy gets horrible acne and then melts. 

Quick cut to Nic Cage, aka Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, shooting darts in his office to set off one of those Rube Goldberg devices that lights a person on fire. He gets a package, which is a Beatles record, and -- when one of the guys from High Fidelity questions his $600 purchase --  Cage points out that he is, in fact, a Beatles maniac. 

Then he’s forced to dismantle a bomb in the form of a baby doll sent by some Serbians to a Bosnian refugee camp, which shows you just how little was going on in the world in the mid-'90s; and because that was mildly stressful, he goes home and plays the guitar shirtless; and then Gina from Beverly Hills, 90210 shows up and tells him she’s pregnant and proposes to him. 

Cage responds with, "Whoa, marriage police, pull over," which is a strange thing to say, especially because you don’t usually pull over the police, though I’m fuzzy on whether that changes when they’re on the marriage beat.

click to play video
Hollywood Pictures/YouTube

The Speech

Meanwhile, those Marines with the missiles all take a tour of Alcatraz with Ranger Bob, and when Ranger Bob invites everyone to go in the jail cells, General Frank tells him the tour's over and politely explains the predicament to his 81 hostages in the cells. 

Then it's time for The Speech, a Michael Bay film specialty in which a protagonist gives a stirring talk about what they have to accomplish for the movie’s narrative to advance. General Frank starts by pointing out that they’ll be called traitors. But that's just to set up this line: "A couple hundred years ago, a few guys named Washington, Jefferson, and Adams were branded traitors by the British -- and now they’re called patriots. In time, so shall we."

Now, the fact that our Founding Fathers were fighting for independence from an unfair monarchy, not holding American citizens hostage and threatening to shoot poisonous missiles into SF in order to get some fallen soldiers compensation (oh, and also to collect a fee of $1 million for services rendered and a trip to a non-extradition treaty country), might have put a damper on things for me.

But the soldiers are fired up. General Frank then calls The West Wing’s Leo Garrity, who has somehow made the jump from White House Chief of Staff to FBI Director and is calling himself James Womack. After General Frank sets the scene for his demands, Leo’s secretary, who somehow isn’t Margaret, helpfully says, "I’ll cancel your reservations," because despite the fact that the country is facing a deadly terrorist attack, no-showing at Johnny’s Half Shell is actually a worse outcome for someone in DC. And then Leo drops one of those signature end-of-scene lines that are required in any Bay movie: “And call the SF office. It seems Alcatraz has just reopened.”

the rock - alcatraz prison
Hollywood Pictures

"Hummel from Alcatraz, out."

One of the things that separates The Rock from more basic Bay fare is the mashing of action styles. There is the buddy-action-comedy element with Cage and Connery, but it’s also a hostage movie, pitting General Frank against the White House -- and for that, a Situation Room-esque location is introduced.

The original point of this entire scene is to establish three things: 

1. General Frank’s very impressive bio, which includes three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, several Yellow Moons, Green Clovers, and Red Balloons, plus a Congressional Medal of Honor. 

2. Reconfirming that Hummel is not a villain. The movie strives to let you know that this man is not what he seems. When the White House Chief of Staff calls him a hero, he’s corrected. Hummel is A LEGEND. Even when he’s demanding $100 million ($83 million of which is going to families of dead soldiers!), he doesn’t want to take taxpayer money for it. Instead, he asks that it come from the Grand Cayman Red Sea Trading Company, which is a slush fund where the “Pentagon keeps proceeds from illegal arms deals.” Hummel is basically running for office while he’s holding hostages. 

3. Belittling the current White House Chief of Staff, Hayden Sinclair. The internet speculates that Sorkin’s major contributions to The Rock were these Situation Room scenes, which makes sense, despite the fact that no one walks quickly down halls. But one of the most compelling reasons comes in the form of Sinclair, who represents cocky young people everywhere and is quickly taken to task by Hummel: 

Chief of Staff Hayden Sinclair: Southern China? We've never even admitted we sent troops into China.
General Hummel: Who is this? Identify yourself!
HS: White House Chief of Staff Hayden Sinclair, General.
GH: How OLD are you, Mr. Sinclair?
HS: I'm 33.
GS: Well, Mr. Sinclair, you've probably got no FUCKING idea what I'm talking about! By your ninth birthday I was running Black Ops into China, and my men were responsible for over 200 enemy kills. Now, someone put some rigging tape over Mr. Sinclair's mouth, he's wasting my time!

This entire part is basically the "Shut the fuck up, Donny"Lebowski scene, with Sinclair as Donny. 

Anyway, they conclude that Hummel is so brilliant and honorable and such a hero that he knows all the counter measures, and he knows they don’t have planes armed with thermite plasma yet, which is what they need to counter the VX gas. What they really need is a guy who knows how to break into Alcatraz and show around the guy from National Treasure, but no guy exists. 

Wait, says Leo Garrity. One does. He was a highly trained SAS operative and a professional escape artist. His name is Sam Seaborn.  


Sean Connery in The Rock
Hollywood Pictures

"You're in between The Rock and a hard case"

Finally. It’s nearly an hour into the film before we get to see old James Bond, whom they take from a cell where he’s been reading Shakespeare and The Art of War. They want to interrogate him so he’ll give up how he escaped Alcatraz, so first they bring in a gruff guy with a mustache who calls him "Pops," gets nowhere, and slides him a quarter to make a point. But you can’t give Sean Connery a quarter!

All of a sudden, in a very contrived scene, they ask Cage, who is there because he’s really good at defusing bombs (oh, and who had an extremely PG-13 sex scene with Gina earlier, but we’re going to skip through some parts, or this thing will be longer than the screenplay), to negotiate with Connery. He does a poor job of it, but he does manage to showcase that he is smart before removing Connery's handcuffs and asking the guard to get coffee. 

Connery demands a suite at the Fairmont Hotel, plus a suit and a haircut, which leads us to a '90s joke! 

Connery: Am I out of style? 
Cage: Unless you’re a 20-year-old guitarist from Seattle. [Pause.] It’s a grunge thing.  

Anyway, in exchange for this information, they promise to release Connery. But then he uses the quarter to break the one-way glass, just to see Leo Garrity and get angry. 

Next thing you know, Connery's showering in the Fairmont suite and ordering up all the food from room service. While he gets his hair cut outside, he negotiates with Womack, asks him to shake on it, loops some rope on his hand, and throws him over the edge.

Meanwhile, all of the guards are too busy eating scallops for the first time to do their jobs. Connery uses Leo hanging by a rope as a diversion to escape, and Cage pursues him. They knock over a hilarious amount of stuff in the hotel kitchen and on escalators before they both get into ridiculous cars for a chase scene. 

Connery uses his Humvee like a battering ram, and runs over a VW Bug with a peace sign drawn on it because the producers would like you to know we’re in San Francisco, then crushes a water truck and yells, "I hope you’re insured," because, above everything else, this movie is actually a commentary on the scourge that is unlicensed driving. 

Other things happen -- a cable car blows up, Cage has to shoot his Lamborghini airbag and push a guy off a motorcycle -- but then we get to Connery meeting up with his daughter. Cage hangs out nearby and overhears how Connery's daughter’s mother met him at a Led Zeppelin concert and then they did sex and had her before six marshals brought him back to prison. He asks that his daughter believe he’s not an evil man, but she’s suspicious because he named her Jade, and also a bunch of cop cars surround them. Cage makes sure he isn’t embarrassed, and Connery likes that. 

You know who doesn’t like that? Leo Garrity, who somehow isn’t dead despite being hung by his arm off a hotel, but Connery tells him he’s in between a rock and a hard case, and I contemplate burning my iPad in a dialogue garbage fire. 

Cage and Connery in The Rock
Hollywood Pictures

"Winners go home and fuck the prom queen"

Let’s cycle through some things quickly here. Connery and Cage are forced to go with a Navy SEAL team inside Alcatraz. General Frank says, "Be prepared to reap the whirlwind, gentlemen!" which makes no sense but sounds cool. The SEALs take mini subs and come in through the cistern room, which is locked. Connery tells them he’s going through the video game-style obstacle course fire to go unlock the door, opens the door and says "Welcome to The Rock" so they can use that scene in promos, and they enter the tunnel system and agree to come up through the washrooms while guitar music plays, signifying hope. 

Hope is lost, though, when they enter the shower room and the Marines have them surrounded. There's talk between the SEAL team leader and General Frank in which the phrase "We’ve spilled the same blood in the same mud" is used. General Frank is a Good Guy, so he doesn’t want anything to happen, but then a rock (!!) drops and the Marines murder all the SEALs, each in a gloriously honorable slo-mo shot. General Frank blames the government, and then the Marines realize two people are still alive. 

Now the movie shifts again as Cage and Connery team up, and Cage is forced to go through the action-movie version of when the ugly girl in the teen rom-com movie takes off her glasses and overalls and becomes popular. 

They make their way into the morgue to look for the rockets. As they get set to go up the stairs, Connery asks Cage if he’s ready for this. Cage tells him he’ll do his best. Connery isn’t into that. 

"Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen."
Cage: "Carla was the prom queen."

And then Cage cocks his pistol, which could also symbolize his penis, I guess.

green balls in the rock
Hollywood Pictures

"I'd take pleasure in guttin' you… boy"

The Marines keep attacking in a series of events that seem to take place on abandoned Disney World rides, but Connery dispatches them more brutally than I remembered, like throwing a knife through a guy’s throat while calmly telling Cage never to hesitate, then shooting an air conditioner so it falls on top of another guy. Finally, Connery gets bored killing people and decides to go talk to General Frank, walking past the hostages in their cells, who look like starved lepers all of a sudden, even though they’ve been there for less than a day.

Cage is trying to get more of the chips out of the missiles, but two guys Spider-Man down and beat him up and throw him in a cell. Meanwhile, General Frank and Connery have a debate about what is happening, during which Connery makes the very logical point, "I don’t quite see how to cherish the memory of the dead by killing another million. And this is not combat, it’s an act of lunacy, General, sir. Personally, I think you’re a fucking idiot."

General Frank drops a Jefferson quote about the tree of liberty and blood, but Mason has already won the day, and so they put him in a jail cell and don’t guard him. Cage then goes on my favorite rant of the movie, one of those only-by-Cage diatribes in which he sort of meta-calls out the stupid, over-the-top testosterone of the film: 

"'I'd take pleasure in guttin' you, boy. I'd take pleasure in guttin' you... boy.' What is wrong with these people, huh? Mason? Don't you think there's a lot of, uh, anger flowing around this island? Kind of a pubescent volatility? Don't you think? A lotta angst, a lotta 'I'm 16, I'm angry at my father' syndrome? Grow up! We're stuck on an island with a bunch of violence-for-pleasure-seeking, psychopathic Marines, SHAME ON THEM!"

Then Connery escapes from his cell and gets Cage out because they know this is right about the time General Frank is going to realize that he’s fucking General Frank Hummel, and that his wife would be pretty pissed if he killed a million people with a missile to make a point about soldier compensation rather than just taking it to the Times or something, and so he launches a missile but changes its trajectory at the last second, and it blows up harmlessly in the ocean. He then calls the mission over. 

This angers the mercenary crew he’s with, who were pretty sure they were going to get a million dollars to go live in Venezuela, and they all have one of those classic face-offs where everyone is pointing guns at everyone else. It turns into a shoot-out, and Connery and Cage opt to participate on General Frank’s side, pulling him out as he signals his sorrow for potentially getting into a tiff with his wife in the afterlife, and then he dies a semi-honorable man, or something.

the rock final shot
Hollywood Pictures


The final part of the film is essentially Connery and Cage figuring out creative ways to kill Marines, including throwing them off buildings, shoving the VX gas canisters in their mouths, and LAUNCHING A FUCKING MISSILE INTO ONE AFTER ASKING IF HE LIKED "ROCKET MAN."

Oh, also, the President has approved an air strike with that stuff that kills VX gas, so planes are coming to carpet-bomb Alcatraz, but Cage, who had to stab himself in the heart with drugs to not die from VX, somehow still has the physical and mental capacity to go outside and light green flares. They tell the pilots to abort, but one pilot's like, "Oops! Promise you won’t get mad at me, but I already dropped a bomb." Luckily, that fucking bomb was lame, and it only hit the back of the island and blew Cage into the water. Connery gets him, and they’re about to kiss, but Leo Garrity has Margaret call him on the radio and ask about President Bartlett’s economic plan, and also whether Connery is alive.  

Cage looks at Connery in a tender way and tells him he’s dead and was blown out to sea and vaporized. Then he tells Connery to escape using one of those cool scuba subs the SEALs had, and go back to the hotel to get Cage’s clothes and some money he inexplicably left in a Bible. Connery then tells him to go to a church in Kansas and get all of the country’s secrets. 

Cut to Cage and 90210 Gina in a "Just Married" car in Kansas, running out of an old church as the priest chases them. And then Cage asks Gina if she wants to know who killed JFK. And then this movie, which, despite its Family Circus-esque nuance and insistence on ending every scene with a hyper-masculine quotation and/or an implausibly gruesome murder, still holds up as somewhere between good and glorious, ends. 

Oh, and Sam Seaborn killed JFK. Pretty sure you find out in the Director’s Cut.

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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's National Writer-at-Large and not a Beatles maniac. Don't bother following him @KAlexander03, it's not really worth it.