In reviewing the Jerry Bruckheimer produced blockbuster 'Con Air,' I said that he does “big dumb fun” flicks better than anyone in the business. When these entertaining gems nail the right balance of action and story, they tap into the little boy buried deep in our brains -- the kid that always laughs at explosions and cheers the demise of the bad guys. Of all the mid-90s "big dumb fun" flicks, 'The Rock' has always been my favorite. So what makes it so special? Does it still hold up more than a decade after its release? Read on...
FBI biochemist Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage) is not having a good day. A group of renegade Special Forces soldiers led by Brigadier General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris) have swiped a shipment of chemical warheads, taken hostages on Alcatraz Island, and aimed their missiles at the heart of San Francisco. With the help of the only man to ever successfully escape Alcatraz, aging convict and former British spy John Mason (Sean Connery), Goodspeed must accompany a team of Navy SEALS as they infiltrate Alcatraz prison and attempt to neutralize the missiles.
'The Rock' was the sophomore effort of director Michael Bay (‘Pearl Harbor,,’ ‘Transformers’), and the flashy filmmaker had yet to toss character and story aside as he would in later films. If anything, the flick has Bruckheimer’s experienced fingerprints all over it -- fire fights and chase scenes may be a bit over the top, but there's a genuine heart and soul pulsing beneath the action. Goodspeed, Mason, and Hummel, don't feel like characters, they register as real people, each with their own occasionally surprising intentions, and the three lead actors deliver performances that only further elevate the film. Whereas 'Con Air' relished in comicbook characterizations, 'The Rock' handles it’s characters, even its central villain, with respect and skill. It’s the moments of surprisingly effective pathos and drama, spread between some truly thrilling gun battles, that give this film a special place in the genre.
Praise aside, my favorite bits in 'The Rock' are the nods to other films. There are several suggestions that Connery's character is a rendition of James Bond. Numerous lines are lifted directly from other films ('Diamonds Are Forever' and 'Escape From Alcatraz' among them). And a number of scenes seem mapped after classic actioners. If you keep your eyes open, you can play a film reference scavenger hunt as you watch for the myriad of hints and jokes spread throughout the film.
More than a decade has passed since its original release, but 'The Rock' is still a compelling film that prioritizes character and story over action. Yes, it occasionally suffers from one-note henchman and semi-distracting subplots, but it’s one of the most endearing action films I've reviewed. If you've never seen 'The Rock,' give it a chance -- it's infectiously entertaining.
Like 'Con Air,' the Blu-ray edition of 'The Rock' blows its standard DVD counterparts out of the water. Encoded with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, the film has never looked better. Colors are rich and the skintones remain nicely saturated regardless of a scene's lighting -- even when scenes takes on a blue hue in the underground tunnels of Alcatraz, the actors never look pale or sickly. Contrast is strong and the transfer's deep black levels aren't prone to crushing or poor shadow delineation. There's a convincing level of depth present in every shot, nearly hitting the high definition "picture window" ideal. Better still, detail is impeccable, with sharp textures, crisp on-screen text, and crystal clear background elements throughout.
I also didn't catch major instances of source noise, banding, or artifacting, even when the action grew fast and intense. The only problem I had with the transfer is that it suffers some edge enhancement -- look closely at any long shot of San Francisco or Alcatraz and you'll catch tiny edge halos outlining the buildings. While the EE isn't as obvious or frequent as it is on the Blu-ray edition of 'Con Air,' it does pop up to spoil the party nonetheless. Even so, this minor blemish doesn't ruin an otherwise stellar video transfer. The picture quality will please fans of the film to no end and impress quite a few newcomers along the way.
'The Rock' features an aggressive PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/ 16-Bit/ 4.6 Mbps) that does an excellent job handling the film's dense soundscape. Take any scene, whether in downtown San Francisco or in the bowels of Alcatraz, and you'll notice a complete 360 degree soundfield that makes you lose yourself in the track. The rear surrounds are populated with ambient effects, the LFE channel lends weight and support to every sound, and dialogue is perfectly spread across the front speakers. The dynamics blew me away, and I was impressed with how cleanly sound transitioned across the soundfield. Hop to any scene where a rocket is fired -- the soundscape comes alive, creating a real sense of movement and space.
My only complaint its that the Hans Zimmer score is neatly compartmentalized in the left and right speakers. The music seemed slightly flat compared to the rest of the soundfield and it wasn't nearly as involving. Since the orchestration is synthesized, the score sounds even more artificial than it normally would. Still, this is a small issue that will probably go unnoticed by most listeners. 'The Rock' sounds great and I'm sure fans will sing its praises.
I'm pleased to report that the majority of features from the 2-disc Criterion edition DVD have been ported to this Blu-ray edition of 'The Rock' (the only features missing are a collection of stills and a few storyboards). I look forward to seeing more of Criterion's excellent efforts on future titles.
'The Rock' is an entertaining action flick that really prioritizes character and story -- a rarity in action films these days. This Blu-ray edition of the film features a remarkable video transfer, a booming PCM audio track, and a nice collection of supplements ported from the Criterion DVD. To be blunt, toss your DVD copy and pick this one up post haste.