As I write this review, we're in the wake of Warner Brothers' announcement that they will be releasing Blu-ray discs exclusively later this year, and rumors abound that Paramount's HD-DVD exclusivity will be changing in the not too distant future. Paramount was behind the Michael Bay directed Transformers, and when it appeared on HD-DVD he was not that happy a camper at the time. So in between the Warner news and the fact that The Rock is now out on Blu-ray, one would hope he would celebrate, right?
While Bay had previously experienced popular success with Bad Boys, The Rock seems to be considered as the breakout film for the director, and for what it's worth, at the time was one that made me scratch my large skull, if for nothing else because of the people attached to it. Brigadier General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris, Pollock) has stolen a large amount of chemical gas and parked it at Alcatraz prison, where he's held the current tour group hostage in return for monies owed to soldiers who have died under his command or he will deploy the chemicals over the San Francisco coast. Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) plays Stanley Goodspeed, an FBI agent keenly aware of the properties of the gas that Hummel has stolen, but he and the government are stymied as to how to break into Alcatraz without detection. Enter John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery, The Untouchables), a former British officer who has been a prisoner of the government since his successful escape from "The Rock" back in the sixties, and remains the only known surviving escapee from the prison. Mason helps Goodspeed and a Navy SEAL team break into the facility with the goal of disarming Hummel and freeing the hostages.
Now one thing's for sure; what separates The Rock from action films then and a good portion of action films now is the fact that with all of the pyrotechnics and sequences used here, and the fact that this film ran into the dreaded two-plus hour category, the thing that people seem to remember about The Rock is the way the story seemed to unfold. The characters were ones that, regardless of whether they were "good" or "bad," had some qualities that could be identified by the viewer. In Goodspeed, you've got the guy with a family on the way and you hope he gets back safely to his wife and kid. Mason is the guy who has been forgotten about over the years and is the government's "mistake," if you will. And Hummel's character is the most interesting. He's an antagonist, though not in a pure sense of the word. His motivations are for his men, and the country that used him for its own purposes is now turning his back on them. Dramatically and realistically, that shunning is unforgivable, and the retribution, while in this film is extreme, the retribution he (or any GI) seeks is somewhat justifiable. And no, I'm not saying that gassing San Francisco is fine, I'm saying that giving your life in service to your country and watching them castigate you suddenly is atrocious, regardless of the fight.
So what about Bay? Well, as one who watched Transformers, I found it okay, but it seemed like when comparing that to The Rock cinematically, Bay's hand might appear a little restrained. That's not to say that his quick-cutting style isn't evident in both films, it is, but in The Rock it seems like there's a lot more time on each individual character over the course of the film, and there appears to be some use of the crane every so often, which I don't remember seeing on his last one. And while this does have its fair share of cuts, Bay wisely also lets the actors act and help tell the story, and it makes for a fun two hours and fifteen minutes. It might not be Truffaut, but Bay helps show us that you can put a lot of explosions and really cool gunplay and stunts with a fun, but if it's acted and executed properly, it becomes unique in its own way.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This 2.35:1 widescreen version of The Rock uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec and looks quite good. Blacks are pretty solid and consistent, but what impressed me was the detail in some of the tighter shots that focus on the characters, and they're razor sharp in their presentations. Some of the wider shots lose a little bit of detail in the background and don't have as much depth, but otherwise this is a very sound high definition presentation.
Well, it's The Rock, and the Rock with a PCM 5.1 soundtrack to boot, so that should answer about 90 percent of your expectations. The film is full of low-end fidelity, so give your subwoofer some room to do work. In addition, you've got surround panning used somewhat smartly, and the dialogue sounds clear and stands out a little more than similar action films, with dialogue staying in the center channel. It's the bee's knees, for sure.
Not only has Disney managed to bring over the extras from the two-disc Criterion version of this disc (save for some production stills), but they've also included a $10 mail-in rebate form if you still have the old Disney barebones DVD from years back. So a shout out goes to Disney for their customer goodwill and eye for completion. First off, a commentary with Bay, Cage, Harris, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and technical advisor Harry Humphries comes with the feature. It's recorded separately but edited together, and everyone shares their thoughts on the film, save for Humphries who dispels some of the myths about the SEALS in the film and describes some of what the actors had to do in preparation. As is usually the case, Bruckheimer's participation is scant and he doesn't add too much that I could tell, and the main participation seems to come from Bay and Cage. Bay discusses his intentions in some of the sequences while Cage recalls what he wanted to do to help shape the character. As he (and Harris) reveal, they apparently added a lot to their characters, which was nice to hear, because if the characters on the page were bland, this film probably would have withered on the vine. It's not a bad track.
But wait, there's more! A video interview with Jerry Bruckheimer (16:07) discusses his origins, like how he got into photography and movie production. "Secrets of Alcatraz" (14:39) is an interesting piece on the facility's beginnings. Some of those imprisoned recall their time there and the famous criminals who spent time within those walls are discussed. An outtake reel (8:51) follows, which helps illustrate how much Harris doesn't like flubbing a line, along with some various takes of a scene with Cage. "Hollywood Humphries and Teague" (8:18) shows you how to handle guns from a safety perspective with Humphries and Marshall Teague, who you might remember from Road House as the guy whose throat Patrick Swayze ripped out. If Chuck Norris ever dies, Dalton can surely take his place, but I digress. Humphries also discusses the faults of some of the gunhandling in 1996 Hollywood films to boot. "Action Effects: Movie Magic" (7:55) is more of an on-set piece showing a couple of the big stunts shot during principal photography, where a separate visual effects piece (7:46) covers the SEAL dive to get to Alcatraz with visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman. A target range session and interview piece with retired and active SEALS follows and runs almost six minutes, and then some footage on the film's premiere in Alcatraz (1:55) is next. Five TV spots (2:38), the film's teaser trailer (1:50) and the theatrical trailer (3:10), follow, along with the obligatory Disney "Movie Showcase" section that shows off high definition audio and video in specified scenes.
The Rock or, more specifically, its director, have had its fair share of detractors through the years, but the film is harmless entertainment, the audio and video definitely are worth the upgrade, and all of the extras are a nice surprise to have on the disc. The rebate helps too, so double-dip away.