Monday, 28 July 2014

The Rock

Easily Michael Bay's best film, The Rock strikes a balance between the director's inherent vulgarity and some genuinely compelling character work. As was the norm with the Bruckheimer / Simpson machine, The Rock's script passed through many hands before arriving on-screen. Known contributors include Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. Since Sean Connery's onboard, John Milius might've had a pass too. On the Criterion commentary track Nic Cage and Ed Harris both state that their readings informed revision, Cage even stating outright that he reworked pages. So while the dramatic shape of The Rock is malformed and ludicrous, the characters sing.

The three leads, Dr Goodspeed, Captain Mason and General Hummel, have been worked and reworked to the point where they're multi-dimensional personalities rather than just rote archetypes. There's no doubling, characters don't share histories or hang-ups. Instead they're three different kinds of professionals dealing with an extraordinary situation. Stanley Goodspeed could be just a neurotic sidekick prone to outbursts. While that's still there, it's tempered with an underlying sense of duty. Goodspeed is ill-equipped to deal with the violence inherent to this situation, but he shoulders it because lives are at stake.

Goodpseed finds his centre in the ability to dismantle the VX poison rockets. A skill no-one else possesses. A character that could have been ghettoed in comic relief is then elevated to reluctant hero. The audience can invest in his failings and delight in his triumphs. There's an emotional consistency to Goodspeed too. He isn't mutated by the experience. Crucially, killing never becomes comfortable for him. It's always his last recourse in a desperate situation. These writing decisions keep Goodspeed human, informing the relationships he develops, most crucially with Mason.

The Rock also functions as a far better send-off for Sean Connery's OO7 persona than his last stab at the role, Never Say Never Again. That film only lightly touched on the idea of a defunct, decrepit Bond. The Rock revels in it. It proposes a Bond that has found himself abandoned by his Universal Trading superiors. John Mason has had decades to ponder the fallacies of nationality and patriotism. The archetypal company man was discarded, despite his talents. There's an element of Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun at play. A slower, meaner spy, past his prime and searching for a good death.

Mason has had time to consider and re-evaluate his place in the world. An element of sentimentality has crept into his thinking. He wants to engage with his estranged daughter - the result of a one night stand during his last escape. After breaking a few arms, Mason manages to give his FBI handlers the slip. He uses the opportunity to reconnect with his offspring. When Goodspeed and a legion of San Francisco's finest crash the meeting, Mason is thankful for Goodspeed's discretion. These are new emotions for a Bond character - vulnerability, the desire to make connections, gratitude even.

Connery's Bond, especially under Terence Young's direction, was a bastard without peer. He roughed up allies and manhandled women into the path of bullets. He was a user. A man programmed to think and act like a shark. Now his back pains him after a fire fight. James Bond has never really been given a last case. He's never died or been confronted with finality. The character's forever locked into his late thirties, voraciously consuming. The advancing age of his actors barely figures into the portrayal beyond the odd joke. Mason is Bond confronted with age as reality. His body doesn't work the same way anymore and he's ostensibly alone.

While he has a daughter somewhere, at best she's tentative. The route he took to meet her did reveal somebody he can unburden himself on - Goodspeed. Stanley's underlying decency is at odds with superiors who routinely tear up pardons. Mason takes note, making him for a man he can trust. This is one of The Rock's strongest points. It has Heroic Bloodshed ideas in its head. The twin protagonists aren't competing, they're complimenting each other. It's a male relationship film that takes a cultural icon from the 1960s and transforms him into a patient father figure, guiding the nervous young buck.

A lot of the reasons Mason has for staying are contrived - he's decided he's too old to swim the San Francisco Bay - but they play into Mason's emerging vulnerability. He's found a friend in Goodspeed and doesn't want to leave him to his death. There's a hint of shame too. Goodspeed doesn't stand a chance but he's still game. How can a former super-spy excuse doing less?

Which brings us to Ed Harris' General Hummel, a character so well defined and played he unbalances the entire third act. Just so you know he isn't fucking around, Hummel is spoken about in absurd terms. Crisis meetings at the Pentagon are full of hype men talking him up like he's Golgo 13. Hummel appears to have been a sticking point in The Rock's writing. At some point everybody got into a pissing contest trying to explain the psychology and motivations of a man that would do something ridiculous like set up chemical weapon rocket pods on Alcatraz.

Hummel isn't just clarified, he's made sympathetic. His cause is just. He's simply seeking reparations for dead soldiers from an uncaring government. Like Goodspeed, Hummel is made exceptional by his altruistic desires. He's also contrasted with the unit that works around him. Goodspeed's superiors want to melt the island, regardless of the hostages. Hummel's crew want to get paid. They couldn't care less about the General's high ideals, they've sniffed out a windfall.

This is where everything starts to fall apart for Hummel. Rather than have Goodspeed and Mason come in and bust heads, Hummel's group unravels from within after he pilots a rocket away from an American football game and into the drink. Despite his posturing he had no intention of killing innocents. He was bluffing. The Rock lasers in on this moment, hurtling away from the idea of Hummel as a megalomaniac, making the two heroes obsolete in the process.

As well sketched as Goodspeed and Mason are, they are just old ideas with a new coat of paint. Hummel's problems are unique and exciting. Henchmen shouldn't mutiny, they're unthinking limbs. When subordinates start unpacking pistols and pointing them at SPECTRE Number 1's head, we're in uncharted territory. This is The Rock's best moment. A Reservoir Dogs idea given centre stage in a $75 million blockbuster. On release it probably seemed glib, Tarantino regurgitating his John Woo steals for the blockbuster crowd. It works though. We've spent time with these men. We understand the falling out. We noted the tensions. Every scene with the Marines has built towards this.

When Goodspeed and Mason sneak in you're almost disappointed. You don't want them to resolve the situation. They can observe if they want, but you'd rather they just disappeared altogether. Ed Harris has stolen the film. He looks like he's been carved from wood. You can tell he can kill at whim. The frailties that have made Goodspeed and Mason human now read like weakness when regarding this Terminator.

Hummel has won. He has been so magnetic, so unwavering in the face of danger, your allegiance has instantly switched to him. His prowling, arrogant determination is reminiscent of Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare. Now two Nazis have turned up to stick their fucking noses in. The Rock's myriad writers put their characters first and ended up making something bizarre, a Summer blockbuster in which you root for the bad guy. Rather than resolve with a big win for the home team, events taper off into utter chaos driven, primarily, by spite and greed.

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