Wednesday, August 3, 2011
A Room With No Exit
To be perfectly honest, as time has gone on I’ve become less interested in writing about films that I don’t like or sometimes even hate. Frankly, it can be kind of soul-sucking and it’s not how I want to spend my time. Which, of course, brings me to the films of Michael Bay. By this point I suspect that people have just thrown up their hands when it comes to him. Many reviews of his latest, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, couldn’t be classified as good but I also got the impression that the people writing them just didn’t see the point in getting upset about all this nonsense anymore or at least not the way they got upset the last time. Or other times in the past. Thinking about him in the context of the third TRANSFORMERS movie and what he seems to have become in relation to film at this point in time I found myself interested in seeing THE ROCK again. Because I kind of hate THE ROCK and I have ever since seeing it on opening night in June 1996, just as I’ve come to hate each of his films. Frankly, I can’t think of a single foot of film he’s ever shot that I’ve actually liked and I suppose there’s something in my DNA that has always refused to find anything good in any of them, as if the very essence of how they’re crafted goes against what I want movies to be. Valid arguments can be made that he does have a distinctive style and the point isn’t without merit but we should always remember that the term ‘auteur’ has nothing to do with whether the movies that person makes are actually any good. Sure, much is made about how he went to Wesleyan and his professor Jeanine Basinger is quoted in places displaying great pride for having shepherded him but all that makes me think of is Alvy Singer pointing out, “Harvard makes mistakes too, you know. Kissinger taught there.” I remember for the year before PEARL HARBOR came out and we were seeing the trailer with that bullshit dive bomb POV shot countless times I felt like I was the one voice of reasons saying how terrible it was undoubtedly going to be, then when it finally came out I felt like I was the one person not jumping up and down in anger because for me the result it was hardly a surprise. But I’ve kept on going. I guess I’m just curious by nature. I even saw THE ISLAND in the theater, at the Cinerama Dome no less—his one flop and therefore one that some people have said was his best film—trust me, it’s still not any good and that statement really doesn’t apply. By the time we got to TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN two years ago I basically said I just couldn’t do it anymore so that’s the one I haven’t seen at all except for a few minutes on cable, not really long enough to form a valid opinion. And while I did actually see DARK OF THE MOON for reasons I won’t get into I am going to refrain from comment. So I’ll stick with the past, that more innocent time before we really understood just who Michael Bay was.
I’m aware that THE ROCK does have its defenders who say…wait, does THE ROCK actually have defenders? Yeah, I guess it does. And sure, it’s big and loud, but is that really the only necessary criteria for these things? Within the basic setup is something that you’d think would appeal to me—elements of DIE HARD and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE are there, given a certain ‘men on a mission’ framework, but too much of it is written in such an obvious, ham-handed manner, framed around a directing style which never displays much interest at all in pacing or laying out how sequences are going to flow together. You can try to convince me of what’s good about it, but it won’t work. I don’t want to say that his way of doing things as a filmmaker is inherently wrong—for one thing, it would make me sound like a prick who believes everything he was told at film school is the only way to go and in some ways it should be considered a good thing for a director to go against the way it’s supposed to be. That sort of thinking is where things of value can emerge from. It also occurs to me how much the directorial style of Michael Bay which in 1996 seemed like one-half Tony Scott on crack and one half annoying frat dude screaming at me in my face to get excited, isn’t quite so incessant now. This will sound totally unbelievable but at one point I actually spotted a shot involving Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage walking and talking which I swear lasted about a full twelve seconds. No cuts at all. Amazing, right? So the film may not be as extreme as we once thought but much of what gets made now can be said to be even moreso. So has the world just caught up with Michael Bay? Was he actually the progenitor of much of what the action genre and films in general have become? Is Michael Bay really and truly the devil, the way Albert Brooks describes William Hurt in BROADCAST NEWS? I’m not sure how much I want to confront that mystery. I’m not even sure I want to write this to try to find out. You remember what I said about soul-sucking? That’s it exactly.
Brigadier General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris), fed up by what he feels is the government’s to honor the deaths of Marines killed on clandestine missions, takes a group of rogue fellow Marines, steals a stockpile of VX gas, and takes control of Alcatraz, holding 81 people hostage and threatening to unleash the gas using rockets against the city of San Francisco. Chemical weapons expert Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) is brought in to consult but when the Feds realize they need someone with actual knowledge of Alcatraz Island, they have no choice but to turn to John Mason (Sean Connery) a prisoner who has been secretly detained for decades for reasons no one seems willing to discuss. After an escape attempt that leaves much of San Francisco in its wake, he is soon in custody again and when Mason is informed of what is going on it soon becomes clear that he, as well as Goodspeed who is an agent with little field experience, must infiltrate the island along with the SEALs and they may in fact be the only hope for retrieving the gas pellets so they can prevent the rockets from being launched.
Considering it has a running time of 136 minutes I’m a little surprised that summary didn’t need to be longer but of course THE ROCK really doesn’t have much of a story to overly complicate things anyway. The way the plot beats are laid out feel so lopsided and heavy that by the time they actually get to the island I’m already exhausted and wish the whole thing could be wrapped up quickly. Of course, that would imply that the film was being created by people looking for a way to tell their story in the most efficient way possible which is in no way the goal here. For a movie dealing with such a tight deadline it freely spends about a half-hour not worrying about it at all but, really, THE ROCK is never meant to be an actual narrative as much as it is an ‘experience’ which we’re meant to be aurally surrounded by with all that THX sound reverberating into our bones. As long as everything that’s happening is totally AWESOME that’s really all that matters. And you know what? I like things that are awesome. Action and hot girls often are. But can’t there be some coherence to any of it? Can’t there be a little more of something underneath the surface beyond what’s aimed at twelve year-olds? Bay, still fresh out from commercials at this point (BAD BOYS, released the previous year, was his debut feature) always seems to have a goal of framing things as tight as possible with our heroes always placed in the shot to be gazed at as, well, heroes and much of the time those close-ups are all that matter to him. I never feel like he’s interested in the spatial relationship between people whether it’s where they are in relation to each other on Alcatraz or just one room away in a hotel suite. And his trumpeted car chase which I’m guessing destroys about ten percent of San Francisco and which has no bearing on anything that happens in the narrative feels laid out in such an endless procession of tight shots that you wonder why they troubled the city by actually shooting it there—to Michael Bay a cable car (it’s an obvious fake) and a VW Beetle with a peace insignia on the side that gets crushed by the Hummer stolen by Connery are all that’s needed to indicate that city anyway. If there could be ten or twelve shots to sum up Bay’s cinematic outlook on life the one with the Beetle would have to be one of them, which has to say something.
It might be a justifiable criticism to say that as director Bay fails on both having the car chase actually matter as well as shooting it in a way to feel like there’s some actual jeopardy beyond the close-ups and loud noises but it’s also just as clear that he’s simply not interested in these points any more than he ever would be in having a character, good or bad, pause for a moment to react to something in a believable way. All that really matters is that the film is barreling forward to the next explosion or gunshot with his patented super-fast cutting to provide the illusion of excitement as opposed to doing anything which would allow it to happen organically. And I totally believe that’s what he wants. With his endless fetishizing of all that military hardware, he’s not interested in continuous action. He’s not interested in the process of behavior of how things get done. He’s certainly not interested in specifics if elements get in his way, like the L.A. skyline can be seen out of a window that’s supposed to be in Washington D.C. And term papers could be written about how bad he is at comedy, with foreigners and gays never too far away as easy targets for jokes.
But to make it clear that I’m not trying to be totally dismissive of everything in THE ROCK, here’s an excerpt from the biography “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess” by Charles Fleming, a biography of the now-legendary producer (with Jerry Bruckheimer) who died of a drug overdose several months before this film’s release, just as he and partner Jerry Bruckheimer were in the midst of a comeback that began with the previous years’ BAD BOYS and CRIMSON TIDE: screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh who had been hired to rewrite the script of THE ROCK argued extensively with Simpson over various elements and in that early version the character played by Connery was simply an ex-con who had escaped from Alcatraz. “”I talked to Don extemsively,” Hensleigh said. “I asked him, ‘How can a guy escape from Alcatraz (in the movie) when everyone knows that no one ever escaped from Alcatraz? And if he escaped from Alcatraz, how come no one knows about it? Don had the answer: No one knew he was there in the first place. He was a secret prisoner.” Which of course led to them developing what the character played by Sean Connery ultimately became.
I love that story. In some ways that basic idea is what really started the movie down the path of being something other than expected and there are times when that sort of out-of-the-box thinking when developing a script is where greatness can come from. It makes me wish that the things that came out of that basic idea were anywhere near as intriguing and that the pieces would come together in a more satisfying way beyond the dialogue that feels written all in capital letters (For the record, the screen credits read Story by David Weisberg & Douglas Cook, Screenplay by Weisberg & Cook and Mark Rosner—Jonathan Hensleigh lost out in arbitration. Aaron Sorkin also worked on it and some of his dialogue certainly stands out now). Actually, one of the things about THE ROCK that strikes me now as most interesting in this regard, and that the wasted presence of Michael Biehn as the SEAL commander makes clear, is how the overall structure very much contains a certain resemblance to ALIENS which I can’t imagine is a coincidence—a lead character returning to a place from long ago, video cameras following along with the team being sent in and soldiers who are wiped out partway through leaving a smaller number to deal with the threat alone definitely rang a bell with me this time out. Look, I may hate this movie but I’m not totally clueless as to why it was such a big hit and the anecdote involving Don Simpson, even if it is kind of an exaggeration of whatever really occurred displays a kind of clever showmanship that not only do I not think Bay is capable of, there’s not enough of that in scripts today in general either. Of course, to point out how that sort of ingenuity is absent from the TRANSFORMERS films is probably missing the point since no one is seeing those movies for any reason other than to watch giant robots fighting.
Coming up with how the character of John Mason figures into this scenario is an intriguing concept that also plays on our own awareness of the iconic star playing him (jailed for the first time in ’62, the year DR. NO premiered, ha ha) although I get the feeling that Connery himself had some say in not making it too much like a Bond in-joke (very little in the way of one-liners—when he shouts “I hope you’re insured!” at someone who’s just crashed during the big chase the moment couldn’t be more lame). Maybe partly because of this the character on his own never comes off as compelling as maybe he should be beyond what we’re told about him in dialogue, although the moment when he says “I should have been a poet or a farmer” late in the film sounds like it could be one of the more personal lines of dialogue from Connery’s entire career. It’s not that I ever really mind watching Connery and Cage play off of each other but by a certain point it feels like these potentially intriguing characters are stranded in a middle section with them wandering around the dank bowels of Alcatraz trying to avoid the Marines to the point that it almost puts me to sleep. For an hour it’s like the world’s most annoying frat dude screaming in my face about how exciting the game we’re watching is when it hasn’t even started yet and once it does he just keeps it up at the exact same pace, even during the time-outs, until he abruptly stops without even saying why. Every moment, action-packed or not, feels oppressive as it pounds me down into a stupor, not fun in the least and it isn’t exciting, suspenseful or engaging at all.
The character of General Hummel, which “High Concept” also credits Simpson with being largely responsible for figuring out his motivation, is at least an attempt to do something with a villain other than just another ripoff of Alan Rickman in DIE HARD (his minions, however, are all uninteresting meatheads. Between this and the SEALs that get taken out in a few minutes do actual members of the Navy and Marine Corp take offense at this sort of thing?) but his character ultimately makes little sense and if he can be talked down by Connery’s Mason in just a few lines of dialogue--the movie is actually ambiguous on this point, but it seems a plausible argument for what’s happened--one wonders how committed he ever really was to putting together his plan which just diminishes his entire character. You’d think a buddy could have said the same things Mason does over some beers and all this could have been avoided. And since the motivation isn’t airtight then none of it holds and ultimately all the ponderous slow-mo shots we see during the opening credits meant to represent Hummel’s mindset are just a lot of smoke and mirrors, tricks to make us think the movie is actually going to be ‘about’ something. The movie seems to think that having well-paid actors stand around looking serious and spouting dialogue makes it seem adult but it’s all dumbed down to an eighth-grade level with Bay’s perfect compositions and portentous slo-mo crap becoming more and more redundant until none of them matter, none of them possessing much of a vibrancy beyond the sterility that Bay is infusing them with. The movie also decides to get around the problem many films with such a ticking clock have had, one which means that if a certain bomb is prevented from going off then that can be kind of a comedown. THE ROCK just says screw it and sets off the massive explosion anyway, only to somehow have it not affect anyone. The people onscreen don’t matter—certainly the hostages who have been held by Hummer on Alcatraz the entire time don’t matter since the last time we see them the movie still has about forty-five minutes left to go. The abruptness of various beats holds all the way to the end which doesn’t seem to want anyone to even catch their breath before that dedication card to Don Simpson is rushed on screen and that incessant Nick Glennie-Smith/Hans Zimmer score keeps blaring (please god make it stop) as if it wants everyone to high-five each other all the way to the parking lot. You know those people who get up and leave a movie before the credits begin when it seems like everything has been wrapped up? I suspect Michael Bay is one of those people. Or at least that’s who he makes movies for. People who don’t really want to pay attention or care about anything that’s happening onscreen. Fuck logic. Cue the explosions. Welcome to The Rock.
So this isn’t about the actors and for that matter much of the casting displays a refreshing change from the standard way to go with these things even the way some of them are directed displays some of Bays own considerable limitations with them. Maybe only the seriousness of Ed Harris doesn’t go against the grain of what’s expected and the actor maintains a great amount of seriousness as he clearly tries to somehow get this to work. Playing more of a loose cannon, Connery gives off all the confidence of a star who knows that sometimes all he needs to do is give one of his co-stars a certain look and even if some of the set-up is completely ridiculous he somehow finds a human connection in Mason’s desire to find his daughter. The material is sometimes lousy, but he’s always compelling. Nicolas Cage isn’t quite the bonkers-persona-in-an-action-setting revelation he may have been at the time, fresh off his Oscar for LEAVING LAS VEGAS, but now it does provide an undeniable look at how the action genre has changed since then. After all, is it possible that the use of Nicolas Cage here and in other films during this period is more responsible for changing the tide of what an action movie lead can be than any other star out there? Some of his moments where he does his Nick Cage thing are better than others and there are also hints of what else could have been done with certain touches—his early declaration of being a Beatlemaniac makes me wish that would have been followed through on in a later scene with Connery. It could even have been a nice connection to Connery as James Bond disparaging the group in GOLDFINGER. Much of the rest of the cast is filled by extremely capable actors (several familiar faces, including Xander Berkeley and Philip Baker Hall are uncredited in the end crawl) looking very serious and, I imagine, being extremely well-paid as well. I always like William Forsythe and it’s nice to see him given a solid role but it also unfortunately contains some of the dumbest dialogue imaginable. The much-missed John Spencer seems miscast as FBI director Womack—maybe he just carries too much dignity with him for somebody I’m supposed to hate although I’ll admit that could be the ghost of Leo McGarry appearing before me. Other good actors like Michael Biehn, David Morse, John C. McGinley and Tony Todd are left stranded by their thinly written parts, Vanessa Marcil as Goodspeed’s pregnant wife is basically Simpson-Bruckheimer eye candy while Claire Forlani as Mason’s daughter is at least able to bring a sliver of actual emotion matching Connery during her few minutes of screen time.
I know, I should really learn how to be a guy about all this, take what the movie is, what the filmmaking style of Michael Bay is and just go with it. I’ve long since accepted that THE ROCK, like Bay’s ARMAGGEDON, is on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection ($7.99 for a used copy at Amoeba—the sacrifices I make. As of right now I haven’t bothered with the audio commentary) but I like to think that any profits helped pay for some of the company’s releases I’d be more interested in. I suppose I could point out that I don’t know anyone who actually likes his films but trying to say that reminds me of Pauline Kael’s famous (some sources say incorrect) quote saying that she couldn’t understand how Nixon won since she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. Obviously there are people out there who like Bay’s films. Maybe even closer to me than I realize. Even now I still don’t know if there’s any point in my writing this. The best case scenario would have been that I found myself suddenly developing a new appreciation for what the film accomplishes and how it somehow changed the action genre. Didn’t happen. I still can’t think of anything at all that I like about THE ROCK and I suppose it’s just in my wiring that I simply don’t respond to the aesthetic on a very basic level. But maybe I needed to see it again to somehow try to understand a little better why it is the way it is and the direction films seem to be going in, to see if I can somehow reconcile what they are in my own head with what the world at large seems to want them to be. And maybe I can do this without losing track of what my own opinions are in the process. Because I’m trying. I really am.