In this series, I analyze a film and the filmmaker behind it, from how the film is reflection of their style, to how it relates to the rest of their filmography, and finally just talking about why the film is awesome.
Michael Bay – The Rock (1996)
I know what you’re thinking; Michael Bay?! Seriously? Before you click onto that food blog, though, please hear me out, because I’m actually making a serious point here. For every person who says Michael Bay is a rubbish filmmaker, and starts singing the “Pearl Harbor sucks” song from Team America: World Police, there are at least five people who pay to see his films. For all the criticism, you do need to respect Michael Bay, if only for his box office numbers; I’m not alone in this assessment either, and if you click the link above it’ll direct you to a video which reveals how far the respect for him goes.
Arguably is his greatest trait is his indifference to his critics; something he earned whilst making The Rock, though, was an ability to be indifferent to the studio as well. That’s not why I picked it, I picked it because it is a great moment in his career, symbolic of everything he does right, and it was a turning point when he went from being a fringe guy who did commercials and some films, to a filmmaker; and like Ridley Scott and Blade Runner, it was Bay’s second film.
So, Bay launched his filmmaking career with Bad Boys, which had script problems; Bay’s response was he let Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and the rest of the cast just go; they improvised so much of the dialogue that when they did the sequel Bay insisted they improvise some scenes to catch some of the old magic again, and some of the best moments from Bad Boys II were ad-libs. However, working again with Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson on The Rock, Bay was not taking chances, with no less than six writers working on the script to hammer it all down; as a matter of fact, The Rock exposed some issues with the WGA’s crediting system, with Michael Bay openly denouncing it since the Jonathan Hensleigh, the writer he said he worked closest with, not getting credit. Sean Connery also asked that a team of British writers make a pass to improve his dialogue, and as they did a lot during the 90’s, Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin did passes to sharpen up dialogue and add pop culture references. As a result, you have multiple writers and perspectives, which coupled with Bay’s vision, works brilliantly.
Michael Bay is known for quotable dialogue, campy yet touching moments, and awesome action sequences; post-2002, there is also a boatload of CGI. He is fond of showing American flags, and pulling on your heartstrings. He had a period when he actually succeeded on all fronts, whilst making genuinely moving films that had amazing spectacle at the same time. The Rock is about Stanley Goodsby (Nicolas Cage, in a slightly toned down performance), an FBI chemical weapons expert, who works with Hollis Mason (Sean Connery), to infiltrate Alcatraz with a special forces team and stop a rogue general (Ed Harris), who has taken over the island and is holding San Francisco hostage because the government is not taking care of its soldiers from black ops missions, many of which he oversaw.
Something that amazes me is how well Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery work together; Connery’s deadpan delivery of every line, be it a joke, one-liner, or a serious conversation, contrasting with Cage’s “what the hell have I gotten myself into” ranting in the second act holds the film together, when in the hands of a lesser director it could have ridden off the rails. That chemistry, as Mason teaches Goodsby to be more of a man, and they work together to fight the bad guys, although let’s face it you do feel some sympathy for Ed Harris’s character, is one reason this is Michael Bay’s best effort, or definitely top three. Bay lets us into the characters, we get to know them, and realize that Mason is actually a really good guy, who just doesn’t trust the American government, instead of the bad guy he himself is reported to be at the beginning of the film.
When I started looking at Bay’s body of work, I realized that his problem, especially in films like Pearl Harbor, or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, is that he tends to let himself go too far. Pearl Harbor pulls way too hard on your heartstrings, and Transformers II goes over the top with the twin robots, and the emotional arcs of most of the characters. By contrast, Bad Boys II is an amazing use of buddy comedy, but unlike the first one, where it’s the two guys against the world, this time around, the buddies are all the cops, but Bay reminds us that, yeah, Smith and Lawrence are still the stars. Films like The Rock, Bad Boys II, and Armageddon all hold back just enough for us to take it seriously, and when he does that, Bay’s style of filmmaking, and his blend of explosions, laughs, and heart actually works.
The Rock remains his greatest triumph, though, largely because he had to make it work without over the top on effects. It is actually more human than the war-torn world of Pearl Harbor, and I love how quotable the film remains even today, eighteen years later. Of course, Bay also gives the audience a perfect cherry on top with the ending, one of the best ending moments in lines in the past twenty years.