The Rock

The Rock (1996)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris
Extras: Commentary Track, Jerry Bruckheimer Interview, Special Effects Featurettes, Still Gallery, Theatrical Trailer, TV Spots, Outtakes, History of Alcatraz and more

The Criterion Collection defines itself as "A series of important classic and contemporary films." Now, the question is, does "The Rock" fit that description? "The Rock" initially presents itself as just another high-tech, glossy action film, but a gripping story and some superb acting this film head-and-shoulders above the competition. Now, the second question is, as The Criterion Collection has recognized "The Rock" as a classic, will their newly released 2-disc DVD set do justice to the film?

"The Rock" stars Ed Harris as General Francis X. Hummel. This highly decorated veteran leads a group of rogue Marines to a weapons depot, where they steal 15 rockets loaded with VX gas. Following this, Hummel and his men storm Alcatraz, taking 81 tourists hostage. Hummel states that his actions are meant to bring attention to the fact that the soldiers who die in covert operations aren’t recognized as heroes and their families aren’t compensated. Hummel demands $100 million to rectify this situation, or he will launch the poisonous gas into San Francisco.

Enter FBI chemical expert Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage). Goodspeed is a cool, but mild-mannered agent, whose world is turned upside-down when he’s called in to assist with the Alcatraz situation. Next, the FBI must find a way to get onto Alcatraz island without being detected by Hummel’s men. FBI director Womack (John Spencer) decides to recruit John Mason (Sean Connery), an incarcerated British agent who once escaped from Alcatraz. Instead of supplying information as to how to infiltrate the prison, Mason demands to lead the Navy SEAL team to the island. So, Mason, Goodspeed, and a group of SEALs, set off for Alcatraz. Once they reach the island, nothing goes as planned, and suddenly it is up to a nerdy scientist and a retired secret-agent to stop Hummel and save San Francisco.

While "The Rock" takes many of its ideas from other films, it incorporates them into a fresh package. One of the main things that makes the film work are the characters. The film takes its time and lets us get to know the characters before it sends them off into combat. We learn about Goodspeed’s quirky nature; Hummel’s noble, if ill-advised plan, and Mason’s longing for freedom. These aren’t merely cardboard cutouts, these are real (although exaggerated) people. Even the second-tier characters, such as Womack and Agent Paxton (William Forsythe) are fleshed out. Despite the fact that "The Rock" has some bizarre lapses in logic (If Alcatraz is a state park, then why would all of the machinery in the bowels of the prison still be operating? What’s up with the "Indiana Jones" mine cars?), the audience is able to overlook these problems and stick with the story.

The characters help to anchor "The Rock", but it’s the action sequences that make this film a true classic of the genre. Director Michael Bay had shown promise with his debut feature "Bad Boys", but he really came into his own with "The Rock". Bay’s rapid-fire editing style (most shots only last mere seconds) and his constantly moving camera help to add to the adrenaline rush that the audience feels while watching this film. Yet, Bay is able to balance his show-stopping action scenes, of which there are many in "The Rock", with slower, more dramatic scenes, thus allowing the audience to catch their breath and the story time to unfold.

However, the story and the action scenes would be pointless if it weren’t for the fine actors in this scene. Nicolas Cage gives the performance of his career as Stanley Goodspeed. I think that he should have won an Oscar for "The Rock", instead of "Leaving Las Vegas". Goodspeed goes through every emotion in the film, and Cage handles the role with ease. He’s funny and exciting, but it’s his sincerity that keeps the audience in the film. Ed Harris was able to take the role of the villain and turn him into a sympathetic character as well. Sean Connery is perfect as Mason. He combines wit and cockiness to bring forth a character that the audience cheers for, whether he’s doing right or wrong. In addition to the three leads, and the characters mentioned above, the film is full of familiar faces, such as Michael Biehn, David Morse, Jonn C. McGinley, and Tony Todd.

A blockbuster action film like "The Rock" deserves a big, bold presentation, and The Critierion Collection delivers with their new DVD. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The film looks absolutely gorgeous. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only the most minute amount of grain. This clarity adds a great deal of depth to the picture, making the shots of Alacatraz very striking. The colors look very good as well, as we have realistic flesh-tones and nice shades of green, blue, and red. Much of the film takes place in darkness or shadow, and these scenes come across nicely, never looking too dark or too bright. The letterbox framing appears to be accurate, as there is no warping of the frame. This is one of the best, if not the best, transfer that I’ve seen from the folks at Criterion so far.

This excellent video transfer is complemented by a satisfying soundtrack. The audio is presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 or <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 and both tracks deliver. From the beginning of the film, the surround sound action is nearly constant. "The Rock" offers a nice sound field and an impressive dynamic range. There is an especially impressive use of screen-to-speaker relationship, offering some of the most realistic sound that I’ve heard on a DVD. This is most noticeable in scenes where a group of people are talking, and the volume of the person speaking changes depending on where they are located in the scene. Add to this a nice use of the subwoofer, and you’ve got a great soundtrack. The excellent audio mix also highlights the pulse-pounding score by Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer. It should be noted that the DTS track offers a slightly wider dynamic range and a more noticeable separation of the individual sounds.

To accompany this wonderful presentation of "The Rock", The Criterion Collection has assembled one of the most disappointing supplementary packages that I’ve ever seen. Disc One of the 2-disc set contains the film, and an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Michael Bay, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, stars Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris, and technical advisor (and ex-Navy SEAL) Harry Humphries. This is another one of those commentaries where each participant recorded their portion separately and these recordings have been edited together. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate these commentaries, as they lack the spontaneity and humor of a true "group" commentary. That’s not to say that this commentary is all that bad. It does contain some interesting information about the production of "The Rock" and when the comments are scene-specific, they are very informative. But, too many times, one of the speakers will begin talking about a subject that has nothing to do with the scene you are watching and a scene that you would want to know more about passes by without being mentioned.

The rest of the extras on "The Rock" can be found on Disc Two. These range from semi-interesting to simply pointless. For "Special Effects: The Dive Sequence", Visual Effects Supervisor Hoyt Yeatman narrates a featurette which explains how the underwater scene was done. This eight-minute segment is made up of mostly behind-the-scenes footage, showing how the filmmakers combined brief live-action shots with shots using models, miniatures, and photographic effects. Keeping with this theme, we have another eight-minute segment, which was taken from the Discovery Channel program "Movie Magic". In this featurette, Yeatman and Director Michael Bay explain how two scenes (the trolley explosions and the finale) were done. While the trolley scene is pretty straight-forward, the finale is interesting because it’s surprising to learn how much CGI was used in that scene.

For more behind-the-scenes information, we have a still gallery that contains over 100 images. These images are broken down into four categories: storyboards for the Alcatraz incursion scene & the morgue sequence, production design drawings, and production stills. While these stills are nice, they don’t provide any information above-and-beyond what we get from the film itself. There are nine-minutes of outtakes, most of which show Ed Harris blowing his lines. Instead of being the typically humorous bloopers that we’ve come to expect, these scenes border on the creepy, as Harris gets very frustrated and often violent following his miscues.

As is to be expected, the DVD contains the theatrical trailer for "The Rock". The trailer starts out being <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1, but then switches to 1.85:1. There are also 5 TV spots, which are all <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. We also have a brief (two minutes) segment which focuses on the world premiere of "The Rock", which was held on Alcatraz. This briefly touches on the logistical problems of holding the premiere on the island, but doesn’t offer much footage of the event itself. Rounding out these features is a sixteen-minute interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer. This shows the often "larger than life" producer in a more personable light, as he discusses his introduction to filmmaking and talks about many of his films. In addition to this, the insert booklet contains a nice essay on "The Rock" by none other than Roger Ebert.

The DVD for "The Rock" also contains some extras that have little-to-nothing to do with the actual film. "Secrets of Alcatraz" is a fifteen-minute documentary by A la Carte Communications (we learn this from the DVD packaging, as there are no credits on this segment). This basically gives us the history of Alcatraz from pre-history to the present. While I found some of this fascinating (I knew next to nothing about Alcatraz), it never ties directly into "The Rock". Finally, we have two segments featuring technical advisor Harry Humphries. The first shows Humphries training civilians the correct way to use firearms, and then giving a discourse on how to become a Navy SEAL. In the second segment, entitled "Dos and Don’ts of Hollywood Gunplay", Humphries shows us how everyone in the movies holds their guns incorrectly. (I always knew that the "gangster" style was pointless). These last two segments are both under 10-minutes and seem very out-of-place here.

As a fan of "The Rock", I can’t say enough about the beautiful transfer on this DVD set. The image is nearly pristine and the audio will blow you away. However, being a fan, I was sorely disappointed by the extra features. I’d hoped to learn more about the making of the film, but instead I learned about the history of San Francisco and how to properly hold a pistol. I have no qualms recommending the movie portion of this 2-disc set, but the lackluster extras and relatively high price make it difficult to endorse the entire package.