OCTOBER 18, 2008
Summer 1996 was a pretty good one for action fans. You had Eraser, which is the last “80s style” Arnold movie; Fled, which offered the sort of low-key, simple (but plentiful) action that I enjoy (and introduced me to Will Patton, one of my favorite character actors), and seeing ID4 on its namesake holiday remains one of my all time favorite movie-going experiences; standing up and high fiving strangers at the end of Pullman’s speech and what not. But rising above them all was Michael Bay’s The Rock, a film that even his biggest detractors often begrudgingly admit is “pretty good” (hey, I’ll accept that).
The Die Hard formula has been used several times over the past 20 years, but I can’t think of one that ups the ante as well as The Rock did in terms of action, but also kept the the things that made Die Hard work as well as it did – an unlikely, everyman hero; an interesting villain (with a bonus good cause to boot!), a genuine motive for the heroes to succeed, etc. Take a film like Passenger 57 – Snipes is introduced as a badass, the girl is someone he just met, the villain is just some generic euro-trash guy, and if Snipes fails then... a plane crashes? So the fuck what? But both Cage and Connery have real people to protect and for us to care about (Cage’s fiancé, and Connery’s daughter), giving their mission a sense of personal drama that some of the others miss entirely.
And since this is a Michael Bay film, you know the action will be awesome, as per his demands. The car chase early on has almost nothing to do with the film, but how fucking great is it? His Bad Boys II chase may have been legendary in its destruction (and amazing use of CGI – Bay being the only director who consistently uses CG correctly), but it lacked the thrill of the one here, which I occasionally watch on its own just to marvel at the way it is put together (not to mention exercise my surround sound). But later sequences are great too, such as the laundry chute chase/shootout that ends the action star career of John C McGinley. One thing about Bay that I admire compared to other modern action directors is that he actually shows bullets fucking hitting things besides people. Take the Precinct 13 remake, for example. There’s a bit late in the film (right before they go into the Detroit forest) in which we see Larry/Ethan shooting at the bad guys, and the bad guys shooting back. Director Jean-François Richet cuts back and forth, and no one is being hit, nor do we see what the bullets ARE hitting instead. What the fuck? Are they shooting blanks? But here and throughout the film, sparks, dust, debris, papers, anything that’s around will get shot up and scattered around the shot, totally selling the sequence.
Also, this was Cage’s first big action movie, so while nowadays it’s a bit of a bore even when he’s being quirky, it was pretty hilarious and unique to have this big action movie where the hero is so completely inept, and, a likely invention of Cage himself, trying so hard to sound like a badass. You get the idea his character SAW Passenger 57 on TV, and, now that he’s in a similar situation, is trying to do what Snipes would do. It’s a very underrated, hilarious performance. And Connery may not be doing anything new, but it’s one of his last great roles, and when he’s having fun, it certainly shows. The expression on his face when Cage tells him that “Carla WAS the prom queen!” is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.
Plus, you get Ed Harris as the bad guy. Whenever I see an actor being miscast in a movie, I always say that they should have cast Ed Harris instead. Because he can do no wrong, far as I’m concerned, and is one of very few actors who can legitimize even the otherwise lamest excuse for a movie. “Stepmom? Are you fucking kid- oh, Ed Harris is in it? OK, it should be fine then.” He’s a rare villain here, though of course his character is actually pretty noble and won’t harm any innocent people. Still, that’s what makes his character interesting, and without that plot point, an actor of his caliber probably wouldn’t have taken on the role (indeed, Harris initially passed until rewrites came in). Also, without Harris, the outtake reel wouldn’t have been as terrifying.
Yeah, apparently, he’s a great actor and also a complete psycho. He laughs at his blown lines on occasion, but otherwise, the outtakes show him slamming things around, screaming FUCK! at the top of his lungs, and scaring the shit out of his co-stars (David Morse visibly flinches on one occasion). And this is for what, let’s be honest, is sort of slum work for him. I can’t imagine how he is when he’s doing a pet project or directing. It may be where Bay got the idea to be such a tyrant though; he’s pretty easy going and calm throughout the extras, which is a total 180 from the behavior he displays on the Pearl Harbor DVD.
Sadly the outtakes are one of the few extras of note on the disc. Granted, it’s before the days of special editions (it was originally all on a laserdisc that probably cost 100 bucks), but the stuff here is still pretty slim. A lot of it doesn’t even really concern the movie, such as a pair of features about gun training (featuring “action star Marshall Teague”) and real Navy SEALS (in which I learned that part of their training is a week in which they only are allowed 4 total hours of sleep – a hilarious movie can be made about a narcoleptic navy SEAL trainee!) and a “too short to be useful” piece about Alcatraz. There’s a brief look at the CGI and a promo piece about the premiere, and then an interview with the Bruck in which he says the same things he always says on these things. There is also a commentary, but I didn’t have time to listen (and even if I did I probably wouldn’t bother, as Criterion insists on recording their commentary participants separately and editing the “best” parts into one track, so they’re usually pretty lame).
The trailer, however, is worth pointing out for a couple things. One, it’s really fucking long. Three minutes? That’s like, 1/40th of the movie! Two, trailer VO king Don LaFontaine actually points out an interesting aspect of the plot that the movie never really explores; that the government needs their enemy (Connery) to help them take down the guy sworn to protect them (Harris). And three – it goes out of its way to make the film look like a serious thriller, instead of a fun and hilarious action movie. None of the good lines are in it (even the “prom queen” one is cut down to just Connery telling Cage that losers always whine – which isn’t even funny, and the edit just makes Cage look like a tool), and all of the action shots are confined to the final 20 seconds; the previous 100 are just guys in rooms talking, shots of Marines in formation, etc. I guess since the more serious minded and low on action Crimson Tide was a bigger hit than Bad Boys in the previous year, the marketing guys thought they would appeal to Tide fans instead? I dunno. All I know is, the shot of Cage diving after that green ball is in every single trailer/spot ever for the film, and rightfully so.
All of the extras from the Criterion release were ported over to the Blu-ray (which is rare, since it’s not Criterion’s release), which is all the more surprising when you consider how good the movie (which is fairly long) looks. The details on Connery’s face/beard are extraordinary, as is the color on certain scenes (like the green balls of VX gas). Bay only has two colors in his world: orange and blue, so in the rare moments with lots of other colors (the car chase), the details and color really pop. The Rock was the first movie I ever saw on DVD, and I recall thinking how amazing THAT looked, so this is a real eye opener.
I also want to share an anecdote. After seeing the DVD at a friend’s house, I begged my mom to buy me a player, trying to use my lowly VHS copy as an example of how crappy it looked. “No, because then something better will come along!” she said. “How can it possibly look better than this!” I replied, and now, 11 years later, I watch the now 3rd copy of the film I have bought. I hope this review is still online when something that looks better than Blu-Ray comes along and I further line the pockets of Bay.
When people bitch about Criterion releasing this (and Armageddon), I just want to smack them. Not because they are obviously anti-Bay and thus anti-American, but because they obviously don’t get it. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Criterion does not release “the best movies ever made”. They release movies that represent different styles/approaches to filmmaking from around the world. If you have lived in a bubble your whole life, and then you come out and want to understand what an American popcorn action movie is, can you really name a better example than either of these films? And if so, can you shut the fuck up? Cuz no one asked you.
What say you?