The fate of San Francisco is at stake. There’s a missile filled with tiny glass orbs pointed at it, and all those glass orbs are full of glowing neon-green nerve gas. Nicolas Cage, playing a twitchy and sweaty FBI chemical-weapons expert, is working frantically to disarm it. Tony Todd, the guy who played Candyman in Candyman, is an elite rogue marine, stalking him. Todd puts down his gun and pulls out a huge Rambo-esque knife; he wants to have some fun with this one. Cage, practically vomiting word-salad: “Let’s talk music. Do you like the Elton John song ‘Rocket Man’?” Todd, snarling but acting as if this is a perfectly natural thing for Cage to ask in this situation: “I don’t like soft-ass shit.” Cage, stammering slightly: “Well, I only bring it up because it’s you.” He pauses dramatically. “You’re the rocket man.” Cage presses a button and the suddenly disarmed missile blasts through a window, taking Todd with it. Todd then plummets to the ground and impales himself on a fencepost. This is The Rock. This is Michael Bay’s idea of a serious movie.
A year before 1996’s The Rock, Bay, the former commercial and music-video director, had scored an out-of-nowhere monster hit with the stylish, disorienting, thunderingly dumb buddy-cop movie Bad Boys. That movie did what it could with a paltry budget, and Bay ended up paying for one big crowd-pleasing villain-death scene out of his own pocket because the studio wouldn’t cough up any more money. But when Bad Boys earned itself a pile of money, Bay was made, and studios weren’t so quick to second-guess him. The Rock was the early test case for Bay’s whole overblown-blockbuster style—a grand and operatic story told with dizzy and incoherent flair. It remains, quite easily, the best movie Michael Bay has ever made. But it’s still very much a Michael Bay movie.
In many ways, The Rock was a world-historical studio clusterfuck, and it’s a minor miracle that it’s worth a shit at all. This was one of those movies where the various screenwriters immediately went into arbitration against one another to decide who would get credit for what. A small army of script doctors (including, incredibly, Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, both uncredited) worked on the movie while it was in production. Co-producer Don Simpson, coming to the end of a legendary party-life run, dropped dead of a cocaine-and-prescription drug overdose five months before the movie opened. And at the center of all of it was Bay, a man who still hasn’t told a cohesive story in his decades-long career. Somehow, The Rock was the closest he’s ever come.
In a lot of ways, The Rock was Bay’s version of the ’90s-style studio action movie, the type that starred actual acclaimed actors rather than European musclemen, the type that attempted to lend a patina of respectability to what were otherwise standard-issue two-fisted tales. Bay had Sean Connery, the universally beloved former Bond who’d won an Oscar for The Untouchables a little under a decade earlier. He had Cage, a deeply idiosyncratic method-actor type who’d only just won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and who’d never been in an action movie before. (Cage had taken action-adjacent roles in movies like Wild At Heart and Red Rock West, but never anything like this.) He had Ed Harris, a truly great career supporting player who did some of the best work of his career in this movie. And he’d surrounded those three with an impressive array of character actors: Michael Biehn, John Spencer, David Morse, Philip Baker Hall, John C. McGinley, great ’90s-movie heavy William Forsythe (playing against type as a hardass-but-good FBI agent), and future-Tuco Raymond Cruz (wearing a samurai topknot even though he’s supposed to be a marine and I’m pretty sure none of them have that haircut).
The movie works almost entirely because of Harris, playing one of the greatest and most original villains of ’90s action cinema. In Bad Boys, Bay spent no real effort on his bad guy, bringing in La Femme Nikita alum Tchéky Karyo to play a thoroughly anonymous French crime lord. Harris, by contrast, got to open the movie looking like a hero. He was a hero, a career soldier who’d been through the worst shit imaginable and who the movie’s situation-room suits considered a “legend.” Harris probably didn’t think his plan through too well; he was, after all, killing other soldiers and aiming nerve-gas missiles at a major American city. But he had a noble cause. He wanted money for the families of his men, the ones who’d died on clandestine missions and who’d been disavowed by their government. He wanted justice.
Harris brought crisp authority and wounded pride to the role, investing it with real stakes and gravity. He took the movie’s dumb situation as seriously as any actor ever could. And he was layered enough to show doubt and remorse—to finally realize, too late, that he was doing the wrong thing and that he was powerless to stop it. Alone in the Bay filmography, that Harris character had a serious and moving arc. Imagine if Megatron had been written with that much care.
Perhaps in an effort to keep up with Harris, the movie’s other actors did what they could to take it seriously. Connery—playing a former British SAS agent kept in cells for decades because he knew too much, finally let out because he was the only person who’d ever escaped from Alcatraz—got an absolutely badass entrance and was given chances to outsmart his captors and to dispense Bond-level quips whenever possible. Cage might’ve been the nerdy comic relief, but he got his own badass intro, defusing a bomb within a few seconds of his first appearance on screen, and he got a few chances to shoehorn in his own strange and bugged-out intensity. (Consider Cage’s reading of the line “How in the name of Zeus’s butthole did you get out of your cell?” in which he yells the word “butthole” as loud as humanly possible.) The other actors hover around screens and intone gravely. All the people involved seem to think they’re making a real movie.
But a Michael Bay movie can only be a real movie for so long. He’s not happy, for instance, unless he’s piling in as many brain-destroying stereotypes as possible, for the worst imaginable version of comic relief. So: As Connery escapes the hotel where the FBI holds him, a flamboyantly gay hairdresser cowers in the elevator corner. An enraged Japanese chef shouts foreign words at Connery as he scampers through the kitchen. Later, after Connery somehow causes a streetcar to explode and fly 40 feet into the air, that streetcar’s driver, an amiable black man, hollers frustrated cuss words and hops around in a circle. It’s not a Michael Bay movie if people of color are not yelling hysterically.
And that hotel-room escape also throws some of Bay’s other worst excesses into stark relief. It could’ve been a cool, tense, ultimately emotional scene. Connery just wants to see the daughter he’s never gotten to meet, so he gives his captors the slip long enough to introduce himself to her and to promise to make things right. That does happen, but not before Connery dangles the director of the FBI from a hotel balcony. He steals a Hummer from an uptight rich guy and uses it to plow through other cars and ultimately send that streetcar flying. Cage, in pursuit, steals a sports car and vrooms down the sidewalk, parking meters bouncing off of his hood.
Because of Bay’s overwhelming, hyperactive editing style, you’re never sure where these different cars are in relation to one another. And then there’s the matter of all the cars that Connery sends pinwheeling and disintegrating into fireballs. How many people does he kill on this kamikaze mission to see his daughter? We never hear about any victims, but it’s tough to imagine anyone walking away from those crashes unscathed. It’s a quintessential Bay scene: giddy and fun and satisfying in some lizard-brain way, but unable to withstand even the slightest smidge of skepticism.
In his best moment—and The Rock is very much his best moment—Michael Bay has what we could charitably call storytelling issues. Nearly nothing about the movie makes sense. Why, for instance, are there mine carts under Alcatraz? But he does have a way with images. Nearly every Michael Bay movie has a moment or two that will sear itself onto your brain. And The Rock has those in droves. It has Cage, needle sticking out of his chest and two smoking flares clutched in his fists, falling to his knees as fighter jets peal toward him. It has Harris and Michael Biehn, veins pulsing out of their foreheads, screaming at each other to stand down before they start shooting each other to pieces. It has Connery using a flattened quarter to cut through interrogation-room glass so that he can smash his head through the window and call John Spencer a dickhead. It’s worth getting through a lot of stupidity to enjoy moments like that.
And The Rock did its job. It raked in more than $300 million worldwide. It helped turn Bay into one of the world’s biggest filmmakers; a couple of years later, he made Armageddon. It utterly transformed Cage from an award-bait leading man into a straight-up action star; the very next year, he made both Con Air and Face/Off. And it helped nudge action cinema along in its evolution, turning it into something bigger and slicker and dumber. Because of movies like The Rock, it was pretty much impossible to think of action movies as B-movies by the mid-’90s. They were becoming something else. They were becoming blockbusters.
Other notable 1996 action movies: Nicolas Cage wasn’t the only actor who became an action star in 1996. Tom Cruise hung from an elaborately burglar-proofed Langley ceiling in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, 1996’s big runner-up. With that, Cruise forever changed his own career arc and, in the process, launched one of our greatest running action franchises. While that first movie has plenty of De Palma’s Hitchcock-worshipping fingerprints on it, it also has some of its era’s most memorable set pieces. And it has Cruise fully willing to do some incredible stunts—stunts that would only become more absurd with every next Mission: Impossible movie. By now, it’s gotten to the point where I fully expect him to go into space for real in the next movie.
Those slick and expensive action movies were all over the place in 1996. Executive Decision remains our all-time greatest Die Hard-on-a-plane movie, sending a team of commandos and a tuxedoed Kurt Russell scampering around a hijacked airliner, outsmarting the stock Islamic terrorists bent on exploding a load of nerve gas over the East Coast. (Nerve gas was big in ’90s action movies.) Executive Decision also dispensed with emphatically non-prestige action star Steven Seagal in hilariously quick and brutal fashion, almost signaling that it was over for the Seagals of the world. (That same summer, Russell also returned to the role of Snake Plissken, his all-time greatest character, in the just-okay Escape From L.A., which was basically an Escape From New York remake with surfing and plastic surgery jokes.)
John Woo, meanwhile, made his own American hijacking movie with Broken Arrow, pitting a hammily overacting John Travolta against an overwhelmed Christian Slater. It’s fun enough, but deeply shitty CGI makes it borderline-unwatchable today, a problem that affected a ton of the movies from this era. (Woo would find better uses for Travolta’s theatrics soon enough.) And The Long Kiss Goodnight, a sort of proto-Bourne that cast Geena Davis as an amnesiac CIA assassin, turned out to be a notorious flop despite a truly great Shane Black script and a whole lot of big and fun shootouts from big-budget B-movie king Renny Harlin. The stars of the ’80s continued to struggle, as Arnold Schwarzenegger made his last real stand as a larger-than-life star with Eraser, a fun piece of bullshit involving goofy cookie-cutter mobsters, escaped alligators, and experimental rail guns. Even then, Schwarzenegger had to surround himself with respected actors like Jameses Caan, Coburn, and Cromwell.
But fun things were happening on the studio-movie margins. French madman Luc Besson made his Hollywood debut with the deranged, Tarantino-damaged hit-man movie Léon: The Professional, introducing a baby Natalie Portman to the world and allowing Gary Oldman to absolutely inhale scenery as an absurd crime-boss villain. Tom Berenger made a very different sort of Criminal Minds with The Substitute, bringing order to a crime-ridden Miami school by force and taking on baby gang boss Marc Anthony. And Barb Wire was, I swear to god, a catchphrase-heavy dystopian Casablanca remake with Pamela Anderson in the Humphrey Bogart role.
The Crow sequel City Of Angels used some other guy to fill in for the late Brandon Lee but made up for it, somewhat, by casting Iggy Pop as a villainous henchman. With Last Man Standing, the great Walter Hill did his best to remake Yojimbo as a Prohibition-era gangster movie, with Bruce Willis in the Toshiro Mifune role. Brian Bosworth got his second shot at action stardom with the excellently titled One Tough Bastard, sadly proving that the amazing Stone Cold was a fluke. And Jean-Claude Van Damme made a pair of delightfully insane films. After introducing American audiences to Hong Kong master John Woo with Hard Target, he imported Woo’s contemporary Ringo Lam to helm the Russian-gangster revenge story Maximum Risk. And then Van Damme also directed himself in the Tibet-set Enter The Dragon rip-off The Quest.
In Hong Kong, Jet Li, who would make his own way to America soon enough, took on the role of an incognito urban superhero in the stupid but fun Black Mask. Li’s contemporaries were in sequel mode, with Donnie Yen taking on weapons smugglers in Iron Monkey 2 and Jackie Chan going to Australia to fight Russian spies and a shark in Police Story 4: First Strike.
Next time: With Face/Off, John Woo gets a chance to go full John Woo in Hollywood, fusing his melodramatic gun-fu mayhem with a bafflingly insane plot and a pair of all-the-way over-the-top Nicolas Cage and John Travolta performances.