You know Michael Bay. Or more accurately, you know what he does. He makes loud, whirling, smashing cinema candy. His brand of movie mayhem is so instantly recognizable we call it “Bayhem.” He’s one of contemporary cinema’s most critically derided and oft-imitated action stylists. In a Michael Bay movie, every day is the Fourth of July. American flags swoop in like flocks of starlings. Every minor collision produces an explosion replete with sparks and a rocket’s red glare. 20 years ago, Bay gave us The Rock. People don’t talk about it much anymore, but in retrospect, it’s probably Bay’s best film of the ’90s. And he owes that to the cast.
While Disney marketed The Rock as a back-in-the-saddle flick for Sean Connery, it’s really more of an ensemble movie. Ed Harris plays Frank Hummel, a self-professed “true patriot” whose career in Force Recon has shown him the not-so-savory side of the American government. He’s seen his men die on illegal and clandestine missions, only to find out that their families were never suitably compensated. Hummel and his men steal a cache of rockets full of deadly nerve gas, set up shop in Alcatraz (the titular ‘Rock’) and aim the rockets at San Francisco. Hummel calls the Pentagon and lays out his plan: unless the families of his dead soldiers receive compensation, he’ll lay waste to the city.
One of the only men who can thwart Hummel’s plan is Nicolas Cage, playing against type. Not his own type — Cage rarely plays anyone but himself. No, he’s playing against Michael Bay‘s type. Bay’s stereotypical hero is a blue collar, salt-of-the-earth hunky dude. The kind of guy who tinkers in a garage and rubs motor oil in his beard because he likes the smell.
But Cage’s character, Stanley Goodspeed, is more like a hero from a Roland Emmerich movie. He’s a goofy white collar chemical weapons expert for the FBI. He drives a beige Volvo. On paper, he’s not an eccentric, but Cage can’t help but play him like one. That’s why Cage is shouting lines like “How in the name of Zeus‘s BUTTHOLE did you get out of your cell?!” at Sean Connery. I don’t know why Bay and Cage never worked together again after The Rock, but I do know that they were made for one another.
Speaking of Sean Connery, he plays the ultimate grizzled badass, John Mason. Mason is an ex-SAS escape artist and wizard of violence. Hence, the feds locked him up in the deepest, darkest hole in America. He’s spent his time in super-duper-max prison reading books like The Art of War, How to Kick Three Asses at Once, and other such books by Sun Tzu. But because Mason is the only known living man who broke out of Alcatraz, the feds offer him a deal. If he can help Goodspeed break into the Rock, they’ll pardon whatever acts of extreme badassery put him in prison. Mason is an action cheese archetype, but the character pokes some fun at Connery’s 007 years.
These three characters are the core. They make the movie work. And that’s kind of miraculous when you consider that each one feels pulled from a different film. What’s even more surprising, is that none of these guys really fall into Bay’s usual wheelhouse. Hummel is a complicated villain, a military man with a noble motivation but a busted moral compass. Goodspeed is a Roland Emmerich character, the unlikely hero scientist. Mason is an aging Scottish superperson. I never thought I’d see a Michael Bay movie where the villains are U.S. Marines, and both science and Scotland prevail. It doesn’t sound like stereotypical Michael Bay, but that’s part of The Rock‘s strength.
The Rock isn’t strong in all aspects, though. There’s a gay hairdresser joke that feels warped in from another dimension. It’s a movie where a good 40% of the dialogue is men yelling. A movie that seems like it’s playing on fast forward, despite being 136 minutes long. A movie where Alcatraz is built on a labyrinth of discarded sets from Alien 3 and Temple of Doom. There’s even a friggin’ mine cart chase in this flick! It’s lunacy!
But to help balance that out, the supporting cast bursts with great talent. Michael Biehn, Tony Todd, William Forsythe, John C. McGinley, David Morse, Todd Louiso, Xander Berkeley, Bokeem Woodbine, Raymond Cruz, Philip Baker Hall, and even more recognizable faces lend some much-needed gravitas to a movie that teeters on the edge of parody. Add in the central trio, and you’ve got one the best casts of any action film in the ’90s. That’s why, 20 years later, The Rock remains one of Michael Bay’s most watchable movies.