All other summer blockbusters can whine about their “best,” this one…
It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
The summer blockbuster may have been born with the release of Jaws, but it peaked 22 years later with The Rock. That’s not to say it’s a better movie overall, but as a summer blockbuster it checks so many more boxes and does so perfectly. As evidence, I present the necessary components of a great summer blockbuster and how The Rock (which itself is now 22 years old) fits them all.
Blockbusters need stars, even though the draw to these movies is just as much if not more so the spectacle. They have to have an appealing cast to give them more personality. Award-winning stars are even better, so their performances aren’t just wooden vehicles for dialogue when their stunt doubles aren’t on screen. Sean Connery is one of the original action movie stars, having popularized the role of James Bond on the big screen. He also had the honor of having won an Oscar just eight years earlier. At the time of making The Rock, Nicolas Cage was not yet known for the action genre, but he was gaining popularity as both a dramatic and comedic actor. He also had prestige status at the time of the film’s release, winning the Best Actor Academy Award just a few months before. Ed Harris, who plays the villain in the movie, was also a newly minted prestige player with his first Oscar nomination that same year.
The pioneers of the summer blockbuster were still part of the ‘70s auteur wave, but producers are the real marquee talents of these movies. Look at the poster for The Rock and you’ll see that it’s not a Michael Bay film so much as it’s “A Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer Production.” Of course, The Rock is also very distinctly the work of Bay as a director and a hodgepodge of many writers, plus there were other producers of influence, including Connery. But it’s still unmistakably a Simpson/Bruckheimer movie with all the conventions they helped make the standard for such tentpole action spectacles. The fact that it was Simpson’s last feature before his death and that it was the duo’s biggest as well as one of their smartest and least skeezy efforts makes it their pinnacle collaboration and therefore the height of the summer blockbuster, period.
Explosions are often negatively associated with blockbusters, despite how even some of the most esteemed classic films blow up vehicles, bridges, sharks, and more. But Bay is especially known for his explosive action. The Rock was early enough in his career that his reputation wasn’t so bad, and neither was his “Bayhem.” Sure, launching a fiery cable car into the air is excessive, but it’s also a hilarious San Francisco treat. And there’s surprisingly little blown up after that until a chunk of Alcatraz Island is obliterated as we get a nice bird’s eye view.
Even more common in blockbusters than explosions, according to a 2014 FiveThirtyEight study, are chase sequences. That includes foot chases, but vehicular pursuits are more thrilling. A lot of people knock the sequence in which Cage in a Ferrari chases down Connery in a Humvee for being unnecessary. The story is no further advanced at its end than it was at its beginning. But it’s so entertaining, so who cares? Why would you not want more action in a movie that’s just about delivering action anyway? Besides, you can’t have an action movie set in San Francisco without showing cars speeding through exaggerated shots of its hilly streets.
Another type of action more common than explosions, apparently, involves characters falling from heights. Presumably, that includes someone hanging off a building, which is indeed a little overdone with a dangling hero in the Die Hard manner but is a hoot when it’s an unlikable “good guy” a la The Rock’s FBI Director Womack (John Spencer) suspended via hotel shower clothesline. People falling may also refer to people falling to their deaths, and The Rock has some of that, as well (see the “Rocket Man” bit).
Gunfights and Fist Fights
Showdowns and shootouts and of course fisticuffs are very important in summer blockbusters. The action-genre variety anyway, and really that’s the best kind. The Rock has it all, and not only is the variety awesome but the execution of each style of standoff and combat is executed wonderfully. If you ask my Navy SEAL father-in-law, he’ll tell you a real SEAL team would never operate the way this movie’s does in the shower room scene. But otherwise, it’s a thrilling scene. So is the Mexican standoff between the bad guys, which allows for a quick but dramatic elimination of a number of the villain group while giving Hummel a necessary but emotional death. There’s a lot more gun action than hand-to-hand, though any blockbuster worth its weight has to leave some room for the latter, and Cage vs. Gregory Sporleder satisfies enough to get us to the gas ball in mouth kill that could only be done at the end of a brawl.
Odd Couple Heroes
Whether it’s a buddy cop movie or a buddy superspy and chemical super-freak movie, no good summer blockbuster is without a great team-up of mismatched individuals. The Rock has your typical less-experienced hero who is out of his element paired with, well, Old James Bond. Of course, Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed is ridiculously upright and square, to the point that he doesn’t curse, and of course, Connery’s Mason is a cranky bastard who doesn’t trust anyone. Neither is really good for the mission, except as thrown together and eventually forced to bond. The beautiful thing is that while there is a kinship that grows between the two heroes, they’re hardly best friends at the end. They’re not even physically united.
Not all summer blockbusters need a sympathetic villain. This has one, to a degree, and it’s interesting the way the movie has a lead bad guy with some morality to him and then a “good guy” in charge on the other side (Womack) with none whatsoever. Some of the characters aren’t so compelling. The Rock has a total boy scout for the main protagonist and a one-note baddie who would take pleasure in guttin’ him. Still, the mix of the simple heroes and villains and the complex heroes and villains plus a real antihero in the middle in Connery, it’s altogether a rich package of characters for a movie that 10 years earlier or later would have been made with the blandest of ensembles.
Action movies, particularly via action heroes, are well-known for their quips. James Bond, John McClane, and Arnold Schwarzenegger are especially noted for their comments just before and just after killing bad guys. The Rock gives Cage plenty of excellent one-liners, too, some of them humorously over-explained or heavily set up (again, see the “Rocket Man” bit). Then there’s all the bickering between Cage and Connery’s characters. The losers/winners line from Connery, for instance. He has a lot of funny sound bites for being the straight man of the duo. Part of why the dialogue is so good is the plethora of extra writers involved, including Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Jonathan Hensleigh, and the Connery-chosen pair of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Sometimes—or at least the one time here—tons of screenwriters make for tons of fun, in the form of memorable quotes.
Especially now that so many summer blockbusters are of the superhero variety, too many overdo the stakes. The world or galaxy or universe is about to be destroyed. Whole cities are destroyed. It’s all so unrealistic. Not that a team of American vets turned mercenaries stealing VX gas and pointing it toward San Francisco is all that plausible either, but in The Rock, it feels more grounded than most action movie scenarios. And Bay used to be so skilled at delivering a lot of tension. Here we’ve got the greater high stakes of the threat to the Bay Area and lives of millions, but then each character, good and bad, has his own stakes that are pretty high on a personal level. There are multiple times when the micro and the macro level stakes are built upon each other with intercut sequences that have the audience concerned for specific characters and large populations alike–with us even getting an audience surrogate on screen with the FBI bunch at the end (every reaction shot of William Forsythe or Vanessa Marcil is a mirror). The old Michael Bay montage of second-unit shots of extras just doing regular folk things right before a missile or something might possibly come their way also works sensationally.
Connection to the Classics
Nothing is totally original anymore, and even 22 years ago the non-sourced summer blockbusters owed a lot to what came before. However, throwbacks and homages were still relatively free of nostalgia. Doing a twist on the prison break movie offers a familiar idea that’s just inverted. And hinting that Connery’s character is basically what became of his James Bond is just cheeky fun (for something similar, see Gene Hackman in the Bruckheimer-produced Enemy of the State). It’s not exactly fan service or an Easter egg and doesn’t play as yearning for the early days of 007. It’s an obvious sort of self-awareness that still works subtly.
The Bonus Scene
Nowadays, the scene where Goodspeed and his new bride travel to the church might have been an end-credits or mid-credits stinger. It’s not totally essential to the finale of The Rock. It’s not setting up a sequel, either. It’s just a neat little addendum to the whole background backstory of what Mason was locked up for. And it’s a totally ‘90s bit for dealing with the truth about the JFK assassination and other conspiracy theories. We could imagine the follow-up movie where Cage does his National Treasure thing but more with government secrets and cover-ups mysteries of the unknown and aliens in Roswell and all that good stuff screenwriters were obsessed with in the last decade of the 20th century.
Hans Zimmer’s score for The Rock is the mullet of movie music, and I mean that as a good thing. It’s got the classical orchestral stuff, from the melancholy strings and French horns to the marching drums to the sweeping theme, all for the business. Then there’s the party in the back with the infusion of electric guitar during some of the action beats. It’s probably not the first time Zimmer did it, but it all fits the dynamics of the characters on screen so well, especially that of the cool nerd Goodspeed. He and this score both probably wear suits to go skydiving.
The Rock is not one of the most highly acclaimed summer blockbusters of all time, and that’s fine because it’s still just barely got a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s the sweet spot for a proper movie of this ilk. They shouldn’t be unanimously appreciated by critics. They should have a lot of cheesy and implausible elements that turn off a lot of people while delighting those of us who appreciate full-on blasts of entertainment. There’s no substance to The Rock, despite its complex and compelling themes and characters, but it’s also not just an expensive B movie like a lot of this sort of thing is today. Anyway, Roger Ebert loved it, and regardless of any supposed dubious reasons, Criterion did deservedly feature the movie in their collection for a limited time (and yes, it’s part of my own very tiny home video library).
Box Office Success
Disney had reasonable hopes for The Rock, yet the movie wasn’t one of the most-anticipated of summer 1996. I think there may have even been an expectation for greater success with the other Connery movie out just a week earlier, Dragonheart (featuring the actor’s voice only). And a new Schwarzenegger vehicle was coming out just two weeks later. The Rock was predictably number one at the box office its opening weekend but then fell off, yet it held high more steadily than was foreseen. Surely nobody in Hollywood thought it would be one of the top-five highest-grossing movies of the year worldwide, way above Eraser and the failed Escape from L.A. The best blockbusters are the ones you don’t see coming, at least not at the magnitude they hit. The Rock was and still is a remarkable gem.