Tuesday, May 11, 2010

#108: The Rock

(Michael Bay, 1996)

The Rock is everything you want it to be and nothing more than you would expect. It's an action movie made in the heart of the 90s, and it typifies the decade's updated tropes for America's broadest genre: unlike similar non-stop testosterone-pumped popcorn garbage (I mean that as a compliment) from the 80s, The Rock is unexpectedly complex. So the villains are more nuanced, the direction flashier but more sophisticated (with the obvious exception of Verhoeven), and the main characters are played by genuinely great actors like Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and Nic Cage (yeah, I said it), fresh off his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, a slightly different film.

But then again, the movie treads over all of the usual ground that has made the genre so often maligned. Here is terrible (great) dialog like "losers are always whining about giving it their best shot. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen." There are ridiculous character traits that are passed off as character development, like Cage receiving a Beatles LP at his office because his girlfriend would be mad he spent so much money on one record. And, of course, everywhere are the ridiculous, never-ending action sequences which pop up in the most inexplicable places in the most absurdly super-sized ways. How great is it that not only was there a hummer for Connery to jump into, but Cage got to find a lamborghini rolling down the street?

Still, there's a reason why people love to complain that Armageddon is part of the Criterion Collection, while few people ever say peep about its older brother The Rock sitting right next to it. The movie succeeds at its end goal better than maybe any other mainstream action film in the decade (only another Cage film, Face/Off, comes to mind as competition), mostly because it plays everything so straight-faced and uses the action sequences in such giddy, inoffensive ways that you can't help but be caught up in it.

Perhaps the only flaw in the film is that, in trying to make Harris a more complex character, the filmmakers made him a much less compelling villain because, well, he's kind of right. How wrong would it be for America to use its illegal funds to pay settlements to families of soldiers who lost their lives in secret missions? So maybe complexity in action films isn't just usually not necessary, but actually detrimental to the enjoyment of the movie. Or maybe the admirable attempt here was just too half-hearted. Either way, when a cable car slides down the streets of San Francisco and bursts into flames as it explodes, who really cares whether we see shades of gray in the baddies?

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