How Does This Hold Up? is a series where Alex and a guest check out a movie they haven’t seen in ages or that they’ve always been meaning to watch. They’ll compare the experience of watching these movies now to when they first saw or heard of them and explore the differences there-in.
Welcome back! I’m going to be joined in this installment and the next by The Recorder‘s “Cage Match” duo of Chris Walsh and Jason Fabeck as we look back at a ridiculous 90’s action movie: The Rock. It’s a movie I’ve seen an upsetting number of times. I didn’t see the movie when it came out, since I was all of nine years old in 1996. But I saw it on TV sometime in middle school and convinced my parents to buy me a VHS copy shortly thereafter. This was a big deal since The Rock was rated R. Seeing an R-rated film when I was 13 or so was a big enough deal, but getting a copy of my own was nuts. I promptly made an ass of myself bragging about having an R-rated VHS while my friends were…I dunno, doing something way more transgressive. In any case, I watched the shit out of it and even showed it to my grandparents because I thought they’d be impressed by my maturity. Which…Jesus. That’s enough from me. When did you guys first watch The Rock?
So, I don’t exactly remember the first time I actually saw it but it must have been around 1998 or so. I was 15 and my parents finally gave the video store approval that allowed me to rent R-rated flicks on my own since it became a pain in the ass for them to have to come along every time their movie-crazy son wanted to rent something. I must have watched it with friends some crazy Saturday night (probably drinking Jolt cola so we could stay up super late because we were awesome) and I’m sure I promptly thought it was amazing. Not in the sense of thinking it was high art but it definitely played to my hormonal 15 year-old body. What with the explosions and intrigue and grownup language and all. It was the heyday of the veritable Bruckheimer/Simpson team that ruled Hollywood action at the time. Looking further into this film gets insanely interesting when it comes to the writing team and actors who happen to show up. Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino did uncredited work punching up the script and the spec script was co-written by two guys who also co-write Double Jeopardy starring Ashley Judd and haven’t done anything else since.
I saw this when I was 15 years old, and it was basically life-changing. My family had Starz and HBO at the time, and I was obsessed with taping all my favorite movies before my parents’ dropped the premium channels, back before TiVo and DVRs and other acronyms that make us soft. I had a VCR, the TV Guide channel, and the will to stay up till 1 am on a school night, sneaking downstairs to the family room one painstaking stair at a time because of course the stairs are right freakin’ in front of my parents’ room and I couldn’t start taping during one of the earlier showings because: 1) that would have meant commandeering the main TV in the house for 2) an R-rated movie. But Nicolas Cage had me at hello. So I waited something, like, a week or two for the movie to get played during the sweet-spot of Chris-Walsh-covert-movie-taping: between 11:30 and 2 a.m., after my parents went to bed but before the cutoff when I had to just stay up all night because if I went to bed I wouldn’t be able to get up on time, alarm clocks be damned. What I’m saying is I love this goddamned movie.
It must mean something that all of us had such similar backstories for this movie, despite each of us being a few years apart from the others. (I think…Jason might be ageless). Michael Bay speaks to the American adolescent male in a powerful way, apparently. We all loved this movie back in the day, but I’m curious if we loved it all for the same reason. Both when I was 14 and now, the main appeal of The Rock seems to be the cock-sure swagger that seeps from every one of this idiot movie’s pores. It’s gotten very old in the nearly two decades since this was released, but there’s still some amount of thrill to be squeezed from early Bay’s operatic sense of melodrama and hilariously over-the-top camera movements. The stars all seem to be riding that same vibe. Connery exhumes and bandies about his old unflappable Bond persona. Cage does his lunatic thing. Ed Harris looks stern and barks at various people. All of them dance right on the line of being parodies of themselves, but pull off the trick of making that a hell of a lot of fun. Is that what you guys dug about The Rock as well?
From the acting standpoint, it starred the obvious super-human team of Nic Cage and Sean Connery but upon revisiting the film, I was more interested in all the random co-stars and what I know those actors from now. Some of my favorites were John Spencer (R.I.P. Leo McGarry!), Raymond Cruz (Tuco from Breaking Bad, uncredited), and Philip Baker Hall (also, inexplicably uncredited). The character names are all amazing. Nic Cage is Stanley Goodspeed and Ed Harris is General Francis X. Hummel. It’s a regular mad libs of random nouns and bullshit. Plus all the soldiers have names that recall a toilet full of onomatopoeia burritos: Frye, Darrow, Crisp, Scarpetti, Gamble, Cox. I do agree with them almost dancing across the line into parody and I loved it. It’s stupid but so are a lot of things I love. If this had a different cast and a Russian director it might have won the Palme d’Or that year instead of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. So, my main takeaway and enjoyment was really all the semi-famous people that kept popping up in ridiculous roles. Was that in line with your favorite parts, Chris? Or did you have a wonderful third take on this giant of cinema?
Um, this movie is fucking perfect. I think that the operating direction from Mr. Bay was, “Make this more awesome,” and they did, but they did it without smirking. Like, while Joss Whedon can’t take a shit without drawing attention to it, Michael Bay is incapable of irony. He is only able to do things more. “That was good; let’s do it again but more.” Nic Cage is Stanley Goodspeed because that name is awesome. Ed Harris is named Hummel because hummers are awesome and Rommel was a magnificent bastard. All these characters work because they are just going balls-out, and there are a lot of bit characters that are on long enough to be awesome but not long enough to get tired. This was only Bay’s second movie, so he didn’t have the clout to spooge his unfiltered id at us as he would later. I think that’s what keeps the film (if I can use the word) tempered. Plus it’s just so goddamned fun. I legit love Nic Cage’s character–an arrogant nerd who loves science, gets nervous and frustrated when shit goes bad, flails around because he’s under an insane amount of stress, and remains removed from the constant battles of one-upmanship every other character seems devoted to. He hit teenaged me like a bolt of lightning to the brain. BOLT TO MY BRAIN. The movie devotes a lot of time to the terrorists, which I thought was crazy insightful–nevermind the incessant patriotism that has become straight-up jingoism in latter-day Bay. It just works. And never lets up. Average shot is 2.6 seconds, ha ha ha ha ha.
Alex: I think it was Roger Ebert who pointed to Armageddon, Bay’s follow-up to this, as evidence for the way movies have been sped up to near incoherence by shorter and shorter shot lengths. It’s not as bad here, but Bay’s later movies, especially those godawful Transformers movies, almost feel like the cinematic equivalent of 10-year-old hyperventilating. It’s not quite problematic in The Rock, but there are definitely times where the insane bullshit of it all doesn’t quite work. One such scene happens when the President (who has been absent from this whole farce somehow) appears and delivers a monologue about hard choice to a curtain in the White House. I can’t decide if the weirdest part there is him picking up a phone and just saying “Air strike approved” as if the fighter pilots are on the other end or if it’s that insert of Cage’s fiance (was she the only woman with lines in this movie?) reacting like POTUS said that right to her face. Maybe the reason Bay moves so fast is because his material is so thin that it falls apart at the slightest slackening of the pace?
I’d also like to call out the already horribly outdated and offensive treatment of the requisite gay San Francisco hairdresser. He’s only around for 5ish minutes, but both the movie makes up for it by making him into the worst sort of mincing stereotype. Way to engage in easy and noxious homophobia, Michael Bay.
As for what I thought didn’t work in this movie, I don’t have much except from the obvious goofy action-ness of it. Although I did some digging and realized that the whole fire tunnel thing completely doesn’t make any sense. Connery remembers the pattern and is able to get back inside from the outer area and open a door for Nic Cage. So why didn’t he just use that door to escape from the inside the first time he escaped? It boggles my mind that I never caught that. Also, Schwarzenegger turned down the role that Cage eventually took and I can’t decide if that would have worked better or not. I’m going to go with no as Cage is a Cage is a Cage. I’d like to say that The Rock holds up somewhat well but I feel like that’s only when comparing it to the terrible things Bay and Bruckheimer spit out now. I’d say, without alcohol, this movie isn’t that entertaining. I’m nostalgic for it but I’d rather watch Con Air or Face Off, if I’m being honest. Not the worst Cage or Bay/Bruckheimer production but certainly not the best.
I. Love. This. Film.
Verdict: It Holds Up In All Its Stupid Awesome Glory