Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Rock: 2-Disc Criterion (1996)
Studio Line: Criterion/Buena Vista - Alcatraz. Only one man has ever broken out. Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

A highly decorated, retired U.S. Marine general (Ed Harris) seizes a stockpile of chemical weapons and takes over Alcatraz, with 81 tourists as hostages on the San Francisco Bay isle. His demand: Restitution to families of soldiers who died in covert operations. The response: An elite Navy SEAL team, with support from an FBI chemical warfare expert (Nicolas Cage) and a former Alcatraz escapee (Sean Connery), is assembled to penetrate the terrorists' defenses on the island and neutralize the threat before time runs out. The result: A fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller with a first-rate cast, directed by Michael Bay and produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, Michael Biehn, William Forsythe, David Morse, John Spencer, John C. McGinley, Bokeem Woodbine, Vanessa Marcil
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Sound. 1997.
Box Office: Budget: $75 million. Opening Weekend: $25.069 million. Gross: $134.006 million.
DVD: 2-Disc set; widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD & DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 32 chapters; rated R; 136 min.; $39.98; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Disc One: Audio Commentary by Michael Bay, Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Actors Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, and Technical Advisor Harry Humphries.
Disc Two: Video interview with Jerry Bruckheimer; Analysis of the Dive Sequence by Hoyt Yeatman of Dream Quest Images; Movie Magic Episode on the Film's Special Effects; Dos and Don'ts of Hollywood Gunplay, with Harry Humphries and Marshall Teague; Excerpts from Secrets of Alcatraz, a Documentary by A la Carte Communications; Storyboards, Production Design Drawings and Production Stills; Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots; Outtakes Selected by Michael Bay; The Rock World Premiere on Alcatraz.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Hans Zimmer

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A-/B+

Once again I take keyboard in hand to defend the works of Jerry Bruckheimer. That producer has made his name as an alleged purveyor of mindless, lowest-common-denominator junk; from Con Air to Gone In Sixty Seconds to Coyote Ugly, not a single Bruckheimer film has escaped the wrath of a slew of movie fans.

However, I think these caustic critics miss the point. Bruckheimer never claimed to make classic films that would elevate the form to artistic levels. Instead, he produces traditional popcorn flicks, movies that are flashy and fun and that give you a nice adrenaline high. Do they offer anything more than that? No, but although some action films are able to provide greater depth, this isn’t a requirement of the genre. Frankly, it’s enough that the piece be consistently exciting and compelling; anything else is gravy.

So condemn Bruckheimer all you want - I still enjoy his movies, and 1996’s The Rock is one of the better films produced under his authorization. That flick solidified the success of another popular whipping boy, director Michael Bay. He’d hit modest gold with Bad Boys, another Bruckheimer vehicle from the prior year, and The Rock made him a big name in Hollywood, powerful enough to be granted the reigns of mega-expensive Armageddon for 1998.

Without question, Bay’s films are victories of style over substance, but that’s not always a bad thing, especially when the style is as slick and excitingly-executed as during The Rock. Actually, The Rock is one of the more complex and layered flicks from the Bruckheimer factory. In it, a pack of renegade Marines headed by much-decorated General Hummel (Ed Harris) takes 81 captives hostage during a tour of the former prison complex at Alcatraz. Hummel wants for the US government to pay reparations for covert servicemen whose families have been left high and dry over the years.

However, the hostages aren’t there to entice the bigwigs to pony up the dough. No, they’re taken only to ensure the military doesn’t simply bomb the renegades out of existence. The real threat offered by the Hummel corps comes from four rockets laden with poison gas. If they don’t get their money, these will be launched, and they’ll cause thousands of deaths in and around San Francisco.

In an attempt to rescue the hostages and negate the rockets, Navy SEALS are sent to take care of the situation. Their numbers are padded by two extra helpers as well. We get FBI chemical “superfreak” Stan Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), an expert in gas warfare but a desk jockey unaccustomed to field work, plus creaky old spy John Mason (Sean Connery). The latter is literally the man who knows too much, and the powers that be have kept him unfairly imprisoned for the last few decades.

Mason is also the only person to ever successfully escape Alcatraz, and since no one else available has much knowledge of the physical plant, he comes along to assure the secure entry of our SEALS. Inevitably, Goodspeed and Mason have to take on much more of the burden than anticipated as they search “the Rock” for the missiles and attempt to stop them.

As with virtually every Bruckheimer production, The Rock benefits from an excellent cast. Actually, this is one of the best Bruckheimer ever amassed, though the use of Cage seemed somewhat controversial at the time. He was known as a quirky actor and had just come off of his Oscar-winning appearance in Leaving Las Vegas. Cage seemed too odd to be an action hero, but he proved quite winning in The Rock. It was nice to see someone a little different for once; he wasn’t the omnipotent killing machine we usually find in such roles, and although Cage has come under lots of criticism in recent years for his move toward this kind of film, I think he remains an intriguing and fun actor.

He also aptly pulls off my favorite bit from the movie. Early on, Goodspeed has a brush with death due to a poisoned package. Understandably stressed, he relates his harrowing day to his girlfriend Carla (sexy Vanessa Marcil) and relates that he thinks it’s a terrible idea to bring children into such a messed-up world. As soon as he finishes, Carla reveals that she’s pregnant and then asks if he meant what he said about having kids. Stan seems vaguely perplexed and states he meant it at the time. Carla reminds him that it’s been only a few seconds since he made these statements, and he replies that a lot’s changed since then.

Okay, that scene doesn’t sound like much, but in the possession of Cage, it works wonderfully. Few actors could pull off the mix of confusion, surprise, and earnest back-tracking he demonstrates. I’ve tried to use the line in arguments with girlfriends - unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well for me.

The always-magisterial presence of Connery adds a lot to The Rock as well. Even if Connery couldn’t act, he’s such a solid force that he helps make movies more fun, and since he essentially gets to play an older, creakier version of James Bond in The Rock, his performance becomes even more enjoyable. Connery may have been in his mid-sixties when he made the film, but he still supplied an supremely-believable action hero. The movie doesn’t force him into any kind of unrealistic physical situations, so he’s allowed to present a dynamic persona without absurd activities along the way. Connery grounds the flick and allows Cage’s character to grow and mature in an natural manner.

As the final member of our starring trio, Harris gets the least screen time, but he’s excellent as usual. Few actors can play stern military intensity like Harris, and you always believe that the character is as experienced and tough as we’re told. One unusual aspect of Hummel is that he’s as reluctant a villain as you’ll find. Frankly, I’m reluctant to call him a “bad guy”, for he’s not. Hummel is the impetus for the threatening events that take place, but he’s never shown as an evil or malicious person. If anything, we can easily empathize with his side; had the story been told from a different perspective, Hummel readily could have functioned as the hero. Harris brings out the various qualities in the character and makes him much more three-dimensional than 99 percent of all action film antagonists.

As for Bay’s style, I can understand the criticisms that have been leveled on him. He really loves those quick edits, doesn’t he? Bay also adores excessive sentimentality and he can really lay it on thick at time. Granted, The Rock doesn’t indulge in emotionality to the degree of Armageddon, but I can’t deny that Bay is one of the more manipulative filmmakers on the scene today.

Nonetheless, he’s a darned fine action director, and he makes modest material become much more stimulating and exciting than it should. Many people seem to think that any chimp could direct a “brainless” action film, but I strongly disagree. Actually, that form of movie needs a competent leader more than most other genres because of the variety of elements the director must corral. This is an over-simplification of duties, but as I see it, character dramas and mysteries rely most strong writing, while comedies require the most talented performers.

Action movies of all sorts, however, need powerful directors because they’re such huge undertakings. Without someone in charge who knows what he wants, these flicks become messy and unfocussed. Visual style also is a much more important component than with most genres, so while some may slam Bay for his slick images, I think they serve the material well. No matter how good the script and the actors may be, an action film won’t work unless the director ultimately ties it all together and lets it fly. Bay does so, and he does so with flair and panache.

Without question, The Rock has its problems. Pacing seems very awkward at times, especially when all the Alcatraz material is ignored for quite some time so we can watch a fairly gratuitous car chase. Most personal relationships - especially those between Stan and Carla, and between Mason and his daughter - are played for nothing more than cheap emotion; they exist for no reason other than that. The dialogue is often awkward and silly, and a number of elements simply don’t coalesce as well as we’d like.

Nonetheless, I thought The Rock was a successful film. It entertained and thrilled me for much of its 136 minutes, and I enjoyed the ride for the most part. It doesn’t stand alongside the greatest action flicks such as Die Hard or Face/Off, but it certainly is among the better recent efforts. For all of the criticisms leveled upon Bay and Bruckheimer, the fact remains that they create consistently fun and exciting movies. I’ve seen enough dull and stupid action flicks to know that theirs are better than most, and The Rock stands as a good example of their talents.

The DVD:

The Rock appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it presents more concerns than I anticipated, as a whole I found the picture of The Rock to be satisfying.

Sharpness seemed virtually immaculate. If the image suffered from any soft or hazy areas, I couldn’t see them, as I found the movie to consistently look crisp and detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no problems, but I witnessed a surprisingly high number of print flaws. Throughout much of the film, I noticed small specks and grit. These never appeared terribly intense, and the image lacked grain (other than in a few seconds of stock footage) or more significant defects like scratches, tears, blotches, hairs, or streaks, but the amount of small flecks seemed excessive for such a recent movie.

Colors appeared wonderfully accurate and vibrant. Throughout the film, the hues were vivid and well-rendered, and I saw no signs of bleeding, noise, or other concerns. Golden tones looked best, as some stylized sunset scenes seemed absolutely gorgeous; they were the visual highlights of the movie. Black levels were rich and deep, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never excessively thick. Honestly, if The Rock lost all of those annoying specks, it would have been a reference quality transfer. As it stands, however, the movie will have to live with a still-strong “B+”.

Even better were the soundtracks of The Rock. We find both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes on this DVD, and the two possessed more similarities than differences. However, if I had to choose one that I preferred, it would be the Dolby track. Bass response seemed somewhat deeper and tighter, and I felt the overall level of clarity was greater on the DD mix. Everything simply appeared a little more distinct and clean on the Dolby track.

Nonetheless, the DTS mix worked well also, and I didn’t feel the quality differences were significant enough to warrant separate audio grades. In both cases, The Rock offered an active and involving soundfield. All five channels get a terrific workout throughout the film, with little time off for a rest in between the movie’s many action scenes. Music spread cleanly and distinctly across the front speakers and also received some reinforcement from the surrounds. However, effects were the stars of the show, and they blasted from all directions during much of the flick. Audio seemed well-localized and accurately-placed, and the sounds also blended together smoothly to create a neatly-integrated environment. As far as highlights go, no particular scenes stood out in my mind, but the second half of the film functions almost as one continuous demo reel.

Audio quality also seemed very good. Dialogue appeared a bit artificial at times - obviously much of The Rock needed to be looped - but the lines were consistently intelligible and distinct, and no edginess appeared with the speech. Music could have been slightly more bright, but the score largely sounded clear and dynamic, with good bass response.

As was the case with the soundfield, the effects were the strongest aspect of the mix in regard to quality. The wide variety of sounds - from explosions to gunfire to jets to a myriad of ambient noises - were accurately reproduced without any signs of distortion. When appropriate, bass response seemed tight and deep, and the louder scenes offered a real impact. I found it surprising that the Dolby mix seemed to produce clearer bass since DTS usually excels at low end, but nonetheless, both tracks provided a taut and engaging auditory experience.

The Criterion DVD of The Rock ports over a bunch of extras originally found on their 1997 laserdisc edition, starting with an audio commentary on the first disc. This piece includes actors Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and technical advisor Harry Humphries. As is typical of Criterion commentaries, all of the participants were recorded separately and the results were edited together.

This creates a very lively and engrossing discussion of the film and many other subjects. We learn a tremendous amount of information about the production such as the approaches taken by Cage and Harris to their characters, Bruckheimer contributes some of his ideas on filmmaking, Humphries discusses the real-life aspects of the situation, and Bay chimes in with a variety of issues and anecdotes.

Although all five men provide interesting comments, Bay and Cage are really the stars of the show. Cage still appeared defensive about his move to action films, and he spends much of his time telling us of his inspirations and they ways he tried to make the character unique. As is always the case with him, Bay is an engaging and energetic presence who seems honest and blunt with his opinions, and he offers lots of solid information about the creation of the film. Criterion audio commentaries are almost always very good, but this one stands among their best; I’ve listened to it four times since I got the LD in 1998 and I still find it entertaining and compelling.

The remainder of the supplements appear on DVD two, and these include almost everything from the old LD. In the Production Secrets section, we find “On the Range With the Navy SEALS”, a five-minute and 45-second piece that follows one of Harry Humphries’ classes on gun handling. We learn some nice tidbits about weapons training plus we also hear about requirements needed to get into the SEALS and the kind of rigors through which they must go.

Next up is "Dos and Don’ts of Hollywood Gunplay," a program that features Humphries along with actor Marshall Teague. In this eight minute and 15 second piece, they demonstrate the many mistakes found in movies that use guns and tell us how the weapons would work if used in the ways we see depicted. It’s a witty and informative piece that shows how unrealistically most flicks depict gunfire. Just don’t show John Woo - he may try to kill himself.

An episode of "Movie Magic" dedicated to The Rock provides seven minutes and 50 seconds of material about the special effects used in the film. Of primary focus are the cable car explosion and the computer generated jets at the end of the movie. It’s a superficial but generally interesting look at this component of the process.

The final segment of “Production Secrets” is called “Special Effects: The Dive Sequence”. This seven minute and 45 second program takes a moderately detailed look at the creation of that portion of the movie. Visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman provides commentary as we watch images of the different effects elements. Again, it’s not a terribly in-depth piece, but it seemed useful and entertaining.

Next we move to Publicity and Promotion, which begins with the movie’s theatrical trailer. In addition, we find five TV spots and footage of the film’s world premiere, which took place on Alcatraz. That piece lasts for one minute and 50 seconds and is mildly interesting but doesn’t offer much.

In the Stills Archive there are storyboards available for two different scenes. “Alcatraz Incursion” offers 42 boards, while “Morgue Sequence” offers 38 images. Both are presented strictly as still frames; there’s no split-screen storyboard to film comparison available. The “Stills Archive” also includes a set of 28 “Production Design Drawings” and 120 “Production Stills”. These are decent but nothing special.

Quite stimulating, on the other hand, are the eight minutes and 50 seconds of Outtakes we find. Don’t look for the usual “actor flubs a line and laughs” junk here - these are absolutely terrific looks behind the scenes of the production. Easily the best part of the set are the shots of Ed Harris’ multiple meltdowns. You know, I don’t think the intensity he displays as a performer is just an act! Anyway, after the commentary, the “Outtakes” are the best part of the supplements.

Secrets of Alcatraz provides 14 minutes and 35 seconds of background information about the island. The details are presented in a fairly dry, PBS-documentary style, but we do learn a lot of good information about “the rock”. It’s not required viewing to enjoy the movie - and it actually contradicts some “facts” presented in the film - but it’s a nice piece of history.

In addition to a fine essay from Roger Ebert found in the package’s booklet, we get the sole extra that’s new to the DVD: a video interview with Jerry Bruckheimer. During this 16 minute piece, Bruckheimer covers his early interests in film and discusses how he became involved in the business. He also talks about specific aspects of the production of some of his movies, with a logical emphasis on The Rock.

I’ve heard a few different interviews with Bruckheimer, and this one seems typical. As a speaker, he’s the opposite of Bay. While the latter is energetic and open, Bruckheimer feels like a politician. He’s always circumspect and although he offers some interesting details, his manner seems flat and not very engaging. While there’s enough good information to make this program worth a look, it’s not terribly fascinating.

This DVD lacks exactly one extra found on the Criterion LD: the famous “Got Milk?” commercial directed by Bay. Apparently the ad didn’t make the transition due to rights questions. Too bad - it’s a fun clip that would have been a nice addition.

Even without that snippet, the new Criterion DVD release of The Rock is a fine package. The film itself remains one of the better offerings from the Bruckheimer factory, as it combines a typically fine cast with a more serious-than-usual subject and provides an exciting experience. The DVD features very good picture plus strong sound and a nice complement of extras. With an MSRP of $39.99, The Rock is a bit pricey, but for fans of the film, it’s worth the cost.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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