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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren’t Dead, They’re in The Rock

By  · Published on January 20th, 2017

Alcatraz is a prison, a goodly one in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons.

For some, the exercise of selecting the best film from the catalog of director Michael Bay is akin to choosing the infectious disease would elicit the very least amount of projectile vomiting. For the hosts of the Junkfood Cinema podcast, it’s the catalyst for joyful revisiting of truly spectacular cinematic tributes to mayhem.

The argument is short, as Brian and Cargill will arrive quickly at the conclusion that 1996’s The Rock is not only Michael Bay’s best film, but also formula-shattering political thriller featuring one of cinema’s most interesting and empathetic villains.

Ed Harris stars as General Francis Hummel, a veteran marine with several black ops missions under his belt and a man fed up with the government’s lack of respect for its own soldiers. In opening voiceover, we hear Gen. Hummel pleading to some unseen commission to pay benefits to the families of soldiers killed during covert operations. When his formal protests of this injustice fall upon deaf ears, he resigns to the only recourse he feels he has: stealing rockets loaded with lethal nerve gas and holding the city of San Francisco hostage along with a group of tourists on Alcatraz island.

Yes, there are probably plenty of other avenues of recourse he could have pursued before the Alcatraz-gas-rockets plan, but again…Michael Bay.

Too many times in conversation, The Rock gets lumped in with many other films of the “terrorists-take-over-X-and-put-upon-hero-Y-must-stop-them” ilk. But The Rock is about as far from a Die Hard film as one can get…outside of Die Hard 5. First and foremost, the conceit of a formal general turning to terrorist tactics to force a corrupt military to behave more ethically is super politically meaty. It becomes even more complex when juxtaposed with the barrage of rah-rah helicopter shots and imagery paying tribute to the awesome might of Navy SEALs throughout the movie. Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer especially have more than earned their reputation for jingoism in their work, but The Rock somehow manages to be simultaneously jingoistic and wholly mistrusting of its government at the same time!

Furthermore, Hummel is not Hans Gruber. He is not a man posing as a terrorist for personal gain. Hummel’s politics are vital to him, and his cause is just, however he is posing as a terrorist in so much as he never actually intended to inflict harm on anyone. The nerve gas was a smokescreen, a way to wake up an ethically stagnant Pentagon and force them to honor their own troops. As we see during the course of the movie, Hummel is a man of tremendous honor and ardently opposed to murder. Unfortunately, he has hired mercenaries from within the Marines who do not share his respect for innocent life. It is this splinter cell of Harrorists (get it, terrorists hired by Ed Harris…you get it…where are you going) and the corrupt government that actually serve as the villains of The Rock while Hummel is but the antagonist figurehead; hence the tragedy.

Making Hummel seem all the more Shakespearean is the fact that the “heroes” of this movie aren’t really the heroes at all. Sean Connery as John Mason an American political prisoner from the UK seeking a commute of his life sentence for treason and Nicolas Cage as “chemical superfreak” Stanley Goodspeed are at all times on the periphery of this more interesting story. They were sent in with the SEAL team tasked with stopping Hummel, but when that team is spectacularly wiped out, they crawl around in the tunnels of Alcatraz bickering with one another before finally deciding to surreptitiously defuse all the rockets. Meanwhile we watch the tragedy of Hummel’s fall and death at the hands of his own mutinous men while Mason and Goodspeed prove to be the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this action thriller.

They aren’t totally removed, it’s true, but their involvement in the story precedes the rise of the true villains of the movie. If things had gone the way Hummel had initially intended, there would have been no need for Mason nor Goodspeed at all. Their Road to VX Gas is its own miniature farce and the source of almost all of The Rock’s effective comedic beats.

For more Shakespearean waxing on The Rock, as well as Brian’s ceaseless Sean Connery impression, download this week’s episode of Junkfood Cinema.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.