Alright boys and girls, it's story time! Today we're going to talk about one of the most polarizing directors working in Hollywood today: Michael Bay. Outside of Roman Polanski and maybe Joel Schumacher, I can't think of anyone that can spark an argument between film nerds faster than ol" Fabio Hair himself. Usually the argument you'll hear is something like this: one side will claim you should "Shut your brain off and enjoy the 'splosions." while the other side argues that these movies are just too fucking stupid to allow that. Personally, I would agree with the latter. Stupid entertainment is fine (look at the entire Schwarzenegger filmography), but even still, you need at least three things for it to work on any level: One, basic level of competence with the camera. Shakey-cam can fuck off and die in a ditch somewhere, it's not too much to ask for me to see what the hell is blowing up. Bay fails this. Two, you need to be able to not insult or offend the audience. Bay fails this too. He seems to find overblown racial stereotypes HILARIOUS, because he crams them into as many frames of his movie as possible. Maybe to you, Mike, but to the rest of us with triple-digit IQ's, it's just irritating. Three, you need to have a focused narrative. I know this may sound odd, but even for dumb action movies, you need to keep your stories focused on a single string: Kill the terrorists, save your daughter, what have you. He's failed these three rules in every movie he's made up to and including: Armageddon. (with its HILARIOUS Russian sidekick), Bad Boys 2 (which somehow turned Martin Lawrence getting shot into a sodomy joke), Pearl Harbor (nothing like disgustingly bad historical inaccuracy!) and the Transformers movies which, for my money, were the single worst blockbusters of the decade.
Now, those of you still reading after that rather angry first-year-of-film-school rant may wonder "why goodness gracious! (I assume everyone talks like this on the Internet) What did that rather long and boring diatribe have to do with this movie?" Well, kind soul, let us use the Internet Wayback Machine to warp to 1996, when a young Michael Bay was on top of the world. He had just finished an extremely prolific music video career (where all great film auteurs come from), and had managed to direct a movie starring an at-that-time major action star Will Smith and popular comedian Martin Lawerence known as Bad Boys. It was a major blockbuster, due to the fact that it was actually a pretty decent buddy-cop flick starring one of the biggest stars of the 90's. With a victory like that under his belt, Bay was given carte blanche to make whatever the hell he wanted to. He could have filmed a gritty reboot of the Care Bears starring Steven Seagal, and the production company would have fucking THROWN the money at him. Instead he took a bit more of a chance, and decided to direct our case today, the Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage starring action movie The Rock.
When former Vietnam veteran Francis H. Hummel (Ed Harris, who somehow turns a guy named Francis into a scary motherfucker) loses his wife, this is the last straw for him. He feels that the U.S Government has maligned and ignored his fellow war veterans, and he's going to get reparations. However, unlike those pussies who write letters and picket outside the White House, he's going to do it the manly way: Getting a platoon of fellow Marines and taking Alcatraz Island hostage, along with a shipment of missiles containing VX gas, which seems to be worse then Sarin, Anthrax, and a Billy Ray Cyrus CD combined. Enter Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage), a "chemical super-freak" who works for the U.S Government. We know he's a bad-ass because in his first scene he disarms a toy baby with an Anthrax bomb inside it (?), and in pretty much the next scene we get to see him nailing his girlfriend who's dressed up like a schoolgirl (??!). But making fuck will have to wait! Soon after called into the Pentagon (which apparently is staffed by every 90's character actor they could find) to help deal with the chemical missile situation. They also have another problem: They have no real way to storm the island, as Alckatraz was built to be an impenetrable fortress, so the Government calls on the only person they have: John Mason (Sean Connery) a former British spy who was the only man to ever break out of The Rock and still be alive. We know he's a badass in his first scene because he's played by Sean Connery. He apparently stole some rather.....sensitive documents from the FBI, and has been held in captivity without trial for going on 20 years. He may be angry and bitter, but damn it, he's the only hope they have! When the infiltration inevitably goes tits-up, will Cage and Connery be hilariously mismatched enough to stop the terrorists?
Now, I'm going to cut to the chase here ("Finally" you say.). The first 30 minutes or so of this movie are pretty terrible. Bay manages to cram an Offensive Black Stereotype, and Offensive Gay Stereotype, and worst of all, a pointless city-wide car chase with plenty of shakey-cam and random useless explosions that could have been cut out entirely with no detriment, but it goes on FOREVER AND IT DOESN't END AND GOD DAMN IT WHY WONT THE PLOT COME BACK SO I CAN ESCAPE THIS SHITTY SEQUENCE. Everything you hate about Bay is here. However, once the story actually gets to, y'know, THE ROCK, the movie turns from a mediocre 90's film waste into one of the best action movies of the decade. I'm not even joking, after they get there, the bullshit gets cut out, and it turns into a taut buddy-cop-esque action flick that's well-acted, well-shot, and other things that you wouldn't expect out of Michael. Cage was mostly remembered for being H.I McDounagh, so having him as the Murtaugh to Connery's Riggs was a risky choice, but it pays off. Somehow, his odd personality and strange face manage to combine to become a character that's the right mixture of geeky and cool. Sean Connery is a no-brainer, as he pretty much plays James Bond in his golden years, but he actually puts effort into it and it becomes one of his better performances from the 90's (not that that's a high bar, but still). Everyone else is also excellent, but Ed Harris deserves special mention. His General Hummel is one of the best villain performances I've seen in a good long time. He plays Hummel like a character out of an old Greek myth, someone who wants to do right but is frustrated by his inability and his inner morals. He feels like this is the only way to get his soldiers their due, but realizes how in over his head he is, thus bringing about his own downfall. The rest of the cast is rounded out by mainstays such as Michael Biehn, David Morse, John C. McGinley (as a bad guy!), Tony Todd, and others. Looking this over, there's not a single bad performance in the lot. The script is also surprisingly good, with a lion's share of memorable lines (a surprising number of which go to Cage) and decent plot twists. It's not exactly poetry, but then again, it doesn't need to be.
But who really gives a fuck about the acting? It's an ACTION movie, you say, how are the explosions? Well, let me tell you, their GLORIOUS. Every one of them is creative, bloody, and most importantly, YOU CAN SEE THEM. That's right, there's no shaking or lens flares here, just straight-up badassery, with a minimum of CGI. There's a good mixture of gunfight's , hand-to-hand combat, action movie fireballs and grenades. Special mention goes to the third act, where they throw out all subtlety and just have Cage and Connery going nuts and killing fools. Add to that the manly score by Hans Zimmer, and you've got some good old action movie fun.
Now, I'm making this sound like the 2nd coming of action cinema, and it's not. It's got plenty of plot holes (who the fuck designs a missile like that? WHO?!), hammy moments, and as much as I said that I like the action of the third act, that's when the movie's cheese factor goes to 11. There's a moment with Nicholas Cage and green flares that's going to make your eyes roll so much they might pop out of your damn skull. Still, that's what you expect in a cheesy action movie, and it doesn't disappoint. So I say grit your teeth and get through the first half hour, and you'll be in for a fun roller-coaster ride through the halycon days of a once-decent director. At the very least, you'll get to see dumb fun done RIGHT.