The Rock Review
The Rock may be the closest Michael Bay has come to making a genuinely decent film. Certainly, it bears all his usual hallmarks, from the gung-ho, macho "men and guns" posturing to the hyperkinetic, at times incomprehensible editing, and it's difficult to shake off the impression that the script (the work of more than half a dozen writers) was pieced together with sticky-tape, but in spite of its flaws what shines through is a silly but thoroughly enjoyable summer blockbuster, augmented by impressive performances by Sean Connery and Ed Harris, the latter's character being given surprising depth for an action movie villain.
The plot centres around the takeover of the island of Alcatraz, a.k.a. the Rock, by a group of disgruntled marines, led by General Francis X. Hummel (Harris), who feels betrayed by a government that refuses to give the soldiers who died under his command the respect he believes they deserve. Having taken 81 tourists hostage on the island, Hummel demands that the government pay him and the families of the dead marines a significant sum in reparations within the next 24 hours, otherwise he will unleash a strain of poison gas on the nearby city of San Francisco. Backed into a corner, the government turn to John Mason (Connery), an elderly former British agent and the only man to have ever escaped from the Rock, to guide a covert group of Navy SEALS on to the island in order to rescue the hostages before the deadline. Unfortunately, the cantankerous and cynical Mason finds himself teamed up with a bumbling FBI chemical weapons expert, Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), who proves to be considerably more of a hindrance than a help in the operation.
None of this, excuse the pun, is rocket science, but it's put together in such a way as to get as much enjoyment as possible out of every situation in which the unlikely duo of Mason and Goodspeed find themselves, pitting them against increasingly ludicrous obstacles and exploiting the opportunities for black humour (when Goodspeed asks Mason to do something about a dead enemy whose foot is still twitching, Mason blithely responds "Like what? Kill him again?"). The movie barrels from one outrageous action spectacle to another, and, while the plot really serves no purpose other than to justify the next explosion, enough work has gone into it to ensure that the key personalities are all suitably interesting. As a sort of geriatric James Bond, Connery gets all the best moments, delivering some deliciously barbed one-liners (many of which were reportedly rewritten at his behest by the duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais when he refused to utter the original dialogue) and proving that, even in old age, he still has what it takes to be an action hero, while Cage's dopey hang-dog expression is perfectly suited to the clumsy "lab rat" Goodspeed, who spends much of the film's duration staring wide-eyed at the carnage unfolding around him, before transforming into something of an unlikely hero for the climax. The pair share some excellent scenes together, with Connery's increasing exasperation at Cage's incompetence providing some of the best laughs. The supporting cast, meanwhile, including Michael Biehn, Claire Forlani and the late John Spencer (best known for his role in The West Wing) do a decent job with the material they're given.
The Rock may be no masterpiece, but it is a well-made and enjoyably outrageous action romp, with nary a dull moment in is two hours-plus running time. It's not necessarily the most popular sentiment to express, but, for all his faults as a filmmaker (and they are many), Michael Bay knows how to stage an exciting action scene, and this film provides him ample opportunity to showcase his abilities.
Note: the version under review here is the French release, which is encoded for all regions (A, B and C) and appears to be the same disc that was also released in the UK. A US version was due to be released in June this year, but appears now to have been held back till January 2008.
The Rock was initially released on DVD in North America in 1997 as a bare-bones, non-anamorphic affair (European viewers got an anamorphic presentation, albeit on a double-sided "flipper" disc), superseded in 2001 when Criterion opted (rather bafflingly, it must be said) to add it to their prestigious line-up. Their 2-disc release has a special place in my collection for featuring one of the best standard definition transfers ever created. In spite of a small amount of edge enhancement, it is a disc that I continue to bring out to test hardware and software, or to remind myself of just what the DVD format was capable of in the hands of skilled technicians. One scene in particular, the frenetic car chase through San Francisco (chapter 11), is a jaw-dropping achievement in terms of encoding, while the level of detail present in many shots is frequently astonishing. Naturally, therefore, the film's high definition debut has some massive shoes to fill, and I'm happy to report that Disney has delivered a very pleasing transfer.
The technical specs are as you'd expect: a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer presented on a BD-50. The source master appears to be the same one from which the European 2-disc special edition (containing the extras from the Criterion release) was minted, which is similar to the version used by Criterion but with some light filtering and automated spot removal applied (the Criterion version features a higher than average level of visible print damage, although never to a distracting degree). It's a very good master, and one which stacks up favourably against many more recent HD masters, although it does exhibit a couple of major flaws.
First and foremost, detail levels are exemplary almost across the board. Shots which merely looked excellent on Criterion's DVD look stunning on Blu-ray, and, thanks to the increased lines of resolution, the moments in which the film truly shines are no longer restricted to close-ups. Wider shots now look brilliantly detailed as well, and I'm happy to report that the compression is handled skilfully, not least in the car chase sequence, which looks set to become as much of a demonstration of what HD is capable of as its predecessor was for standard definition. There are more "wow" moments on this disc than in all three films of The Matrix Trilogy combined, which, given that Disney have merely hauled a decade-old master out of the vault and slapped it on a disc, is extremely impressive.
Unfortunately, it's not all plain sailing. Any time on-screen text is displayed (basically, the opening and closely credits and instances of "location type"), the image quality is drastically reduced, taking on a decidedly filtered appearance with some noticeable ringing. Evidently, these shots were taken from a different generation print to the non-affected material (a necessity in the pre-digital intermediate era), so some reduction in quality was to be expected, but not to the extent shown here. This problem also affected the standard definition releases, although, given the lower resolution of DVD, it was less apparent. In addition, as with the previous releases by Criterion and Disney, edge enhancement is noticeable on occasions. It's fairly high frequency, so it tends only to affect very highly contrasted edges, and even then results in the very thinnest of halos, but it's there nonetheless and, in a handful of instances, is quite noticeable (the shot towards the end of the film in which Goodspeed is silhouetted against the setting sun is a particularly egregious example, as it was on the DVDs).
Ultimately, while this master resulted in one of the best DVD transfers ever released, what looked superb by DVD standards doesn't quite cut the mustard in the HD realm. This is still an excellent-looking disc, and many more recent titles that are likely to have been subjected to considerably more "fine-tuning" at the mastering stage fare a lot worse, but unfortunately it doesn't make it into the upper echelons of HD fare.
English audio is offered in PCM and Dolby Digital variants, both 5.1. Unfortunately, given that I currently only have a Playstation 3 for my Blu-ray playback and lack an HDMI-compliant receiver, I could only listen to the plain old Dolby Digital track, which is encoded at 640 Kbps. It's a decent enough track, sounding comparable to the audio offered on the standard definition Criterion release, but it doesn't compare to many more recent movie mixes. The surrounds are used quite effectively in the more action-oriented sequences (of which there are a lot) and from time to time to produce some decent ambient effects (check out the dripping water in the tunnels beneath Alcatraz), but, when you stack it up against the likes of Casino Royale or Children of Men, it seems a little underwhelming.
Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks are also provided of the French and Spanish dubs, in addition to English, French, Spanish and Dutch subtitles.
For this Blu-ray release, Disney have replicated all of the bonus content from the Criterion DVD, with the exception of the audio commentary, which unfortunately was arguably its best feature. This track is listed on the packaging for the UK release, but is in fact nowhere to be found on the disc, so at least the French release can't be accused of false advertising. It's anyone's guess whether this track will eventually materialise on the US version when it is released next year, but given the situation that exists with the Pirates of the Caribbean films on Blu-ray, where the US releases include the commentaries but the European versions don't, I'd hazard a guess that it will be included. Whether or not the commentary justifies waiting an extra six months, of course, is a matter of personal preference.
For a package put together by Criterion, the extras are, for the most part, fairly insubstantial, the bulk of them EPK pieces made for television (and, in terms of quality, the presentation leaves something to be desired, with many of them video-sourced). The most revealing is arguably a 16-minute interview with Jerry Bruckheimer, where he dryly recounts his rise to fame in the movie business, offering some rather candid opinions about his philosophy on the industry and the nature of the job. The 15-minute excerpt from the Secrets of Alcatraz documentary, meanwhile, is reasonably interesting, but its rather bland presentation reveals its origins as a Discovery Channel-type piece.
A solid catalogue release from Disney, The Rock holds up well in high definition, and indeed compares favourably to many HD releases of more recent films. While the missing audio commentary is a shame, at the end of the day the impressive (albeit not flawless) audio-visual presentation means that those who already own the film on DVD are highly advised to pick up a copy of the Blu-ray release.
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