PerfAction is a new series designed solely to gush unashamedly about, you guessed it, perfect goddamn action films.
First up, a flick that should have been the start of something great for Michael Bay, but ended up the tallest peak in a rapidly depressed (but wealthy) career…
Dir: Michael Bay
Original Release Date: 7 June 1996
Action. Movies. Two things seemingly integral to modern civilised human existence. Individually, we crave them. Combined, they are a force to be reckoned with, generating billions of dollars – in many cases regardless of quality. The action genre has certainly once again been on the rise since the turn of the decade, scaling familiar heights – albeit via new routes – toward a glorious return to (say it cautiously) the occasional peak of outright perfection (see Mad Max: Fury Road). However, like the bitter non-youth I am, the days of yore will always be the true golden era. Discovering action during the mid to late-1990s, the tail end of a middle-finger generation of the genre that had been ongoing since the mid-80s, opened up a back catalogue with a littering of perfection unmatched by any other cinematic category. Sure, the vast majority of the time action and storylines are not exactly all that complex. However, it would be naïve to subsequently dismiss all action as dumb, or worse, easy to make. Everything has to come together, to be just right. And for that, numerous factors are required.
Case in point, the first of ILT’s new PerfAction series, Michael Bay’s (that’s right) 1996 summer blockbuster, The Rock, starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, and Ed Harris…
Let’s break it (from the top) down:
General (Harris) spends his career fighting in illegal wars for the United States, during which many of his soldiers are killed without acknowledgement by their government. He’s rightly a tad bitter. Decides best way to extract compensation for his victims families is to hold San Francisco to ransom from Alcatraz island, using green ball filled rockets containing a rather nasty poisonous gas. Government be like, no mate, send in a classic bickering chalk-n’-cheese duo consisting of a chemical lab geek (Cage) and a disgruntled ex-British SAS solider/Alcatraz prisoner (Connery) to save the day…
The Producers & Writers
Remember when Jerry Bruckheimer produced good films? Aye, it’s been a while. Alongside his long term partner, the late Don Simpson, the duo’s partnership was a money-making powerhouse during its 1980s heyday, but with actual quality to back it up. The Rock, Simpson’s final film before his death, pre-empted a decline on that particular front (although the $ kept rolling in), which by the turn of the millennium had become a rapid downward spiral. However, in 1996, everything was still golden. Bruckheimer and Simpson, having provided Michael Bay his debut with 95’s Bad Boys, kept faith with their latest global blockbusting machine by unleashing the director upon a $75m budget (more than three times that of Bad Boys), resulting in a significant box office hit to the tune of $335m worldwide.
The major success of the combined behind-the-scenes production team was the writing. Despite going through several major overhauls, the screenplay ended up not only surviving, but thriving in the final cut, thanks in part to the uncredited influence of Jonathan Hensleigh (who’s non-credit Bay described as a “travesty”) and top screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. Even Quentin Tarantino was allegedly involved at one stage. The process was aided further by British duo Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement’s inclusion, at Connery’s behest, as dialogue rewriters, leading to numerous contributions throughout the script. And so came to pass one of those rare perfect outcomes of script changes during a major production; with ideas bouncing back and forth between the producers, writers, director and actors eventually resulting in unique, but never overbearing character development (Ed Harris and Nicholas Cage also contributed considerably to their roles off camera), and a subsequent easy depth neatly tied in throughout the picture.
Remember when Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay both produced good films? Well, in the latter’s case, The Rock was essentially it, barring of course a few other fond memories tinted heavily by youth (Armageddon, yo). Whilst it’s easy (and essentially correct) to dismiss the Michael Bay that will go down in cinematic history as a bloated CGI special effects conveyor belt, I personally have a great deal of time for the fact that the mid-late 90s version exists as evidence of the kind of solid action director he could have been had his career began five to ten years earlier. Maybe. I mean, someone has to give the chap a tiny bit of credit somewhere.
Indeed, even though the team around him during The Rock was strong in pretty much every department, hence this article, Bay played a major role in brining it altogether onscreen, delivering and executing action ideas and scenes that remain iconic today. What’s done consistently well throughout, regardless of how big or small any particular action scene may be, is the manner in which Bay and cinematographer John Schwartzman utilise scope and scale to effectively maintain a satisfactory tone, despite their being enough individual action sequences and wide ranging set pieces to a shake a dangling FBI Director at. The editing (aided all the more by a co-written Hans Zimmer score) too plays its part in transforming all of this into a perfectly paced action flick that, upon HD viewing, holds up better than any of his films since (it really doesn’t feel almost twenty years old), but overall its Bay who has to be commended. He evidently worked closely with the actors and his team as a whole to an extent unmatched in terms of future results, demonstrated attributes of a true raw action director with a fresh mastery of genuine effects, and, at the same time, just generally not giving a fuck when it came to making the film how he wanted. It’s just a phenomenally depressing shame that the former two points have, for the most part, been made redundant, while the latter proved to be little more than a creative vacuum once Bay was given all but outright creative control later in his career.
Having watched the film back recently, the entire cast is nothing short of outrageous and easily one of the finest put together during the 90s action boom, incorporating legends and known stalwarts of the genre alike. The leads, as well as all working closely with the production in forming their characters, could barely have worked out better; Cage was fresh off an Academy Award and riding the crest of the Hollywood wave, Connery threw himself full pelt into one last hurrah, remaining true to form by refusing to be anything but ridiculously Scottish (“Place of birth, Glasgow!?”), while Ed Harris was, as always, the quintessential Ed Harris.
What helps kick the film up a fair bit in the fanboy action charts however, is the sprawling, majestic supporting cast. The Pentagon meeting room scenes are a who’s who of classic, crusty movie military/cop-type old timers, with sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn thrown in for good measure alongsidea welcome appearance from Philip Baker Hall; while Hummel’s men on Alcatraz, led by a recent True Detective pop-up, David Morse, contain another healthy dose of 90s nostalgia. It’s not a coincidence that such an epic bunch resulted in a well-oiled, thoroughly likeable/reprehensible (delete as appropriate) and altogether memorable set of characters, even those only involved but for a brief line or two.
The Rock doesn’t simply do its best; rather it tears through San Francisco in a haze of high, hectic intensity; showering gunfights, car chases and gravity gambling stunts down on its audience, all while managing to maintain a sense of not only welcome wit in its one liners, but also surprisingly well executed emotionally tinged themes of honour, injustice and sacrifice, that in turn make sure the increasingly grim (but inventive) manners of death aren’t the singular underlying appeal. Without question, The Rock makes it home in good time to fuck the Prom Queen.