Wednesday, 1 February 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (7/30): 'The Rock':

"What is wrong with these people, huh? Mason? Don't you think there's a lot of, uh, a lot of anger flowing around this island? Kind of a pubescent volatility? Don't you think? A lotta angst, a lot of "I'm sixteen, I'm angry at my father" syndrome? I mean grow up! We're stuck on an island with a bunch of violence-for-pleasure-seeking psychopathic marines, SHAME-ON-THEM!"

I was surprised to hear the above rant voiced by the hero of a 1996 Michael Bay action movie. Welcome to 'The Rock' - the latest entry for "FilmQuest 2012" - where it is spoken (or shouted) by Nicolas Cage's FBI chemical weapons specialist Stanley Goodspeed. It seems to be criticising the violent machismo of every Bay movie (even the ones that hadn't been made yet). And it's not an isolated case: elsewhere Sean Connery's ace escape artist and former SAS operative Captain Mason cites Oscar Wilde in declaring patriotism "the virtue of the vicious".

Both quotes seemingly run in direct opposition to much of what we see throughout Bay's movie, which fetishises American military men, might is right pragmatism and the star spangled banner as much as ever. There are sombre speeches about the importance of respecting the armed forces and about the honour involved in "serving", just like all of Bay's other glossy feature length army recruitment videos (and with the same frenetic cutting). 'The Rock' is in many ways the definitive "get the President on the phone" movie: full of ultra-macho one-liners, strangely charming vulgarities and fist-pumping moments of explosive violence. It's a film in which, without irony, people say things like:
  • "Your best? Losers always go on about doing their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen."
  • "This is the toughest call I've ever had to make... airstike approved!"
  • "This man knows our most intimate secrets from the last half-century: the alien landing at Roswell, the truth about the JFK assassination. Mason's angry, he's lethal, he's a trained killer... and HE is the only hope that we have got!"
  • "General, we've shed the same blood in the same mud - you know god damn well I can't give that order!"
  • "Make no mistake, gentlemen. We are in the fight of our lives against maybe the greatest battalion commander of the Vietnam war, I shit you not!"
  • "The whole world is being Fed-exed to hell in a handcart!"
  • "You're between the rock and a hard case."

Anyone who's seen it will know there are a million more zingers like those, most punctuated by the cocking of a gun or the twang of an electric guitar. 'The Rock' invented hi-octane... then shot it into space on the back of a radioactive unicorn on crack where it exploded with the heat of a billion suns. You get the point: it's a film that waves its big dick in your face to the sound of the American national anthem. It's a film so over the top that it sometimes feels less like Bay's 'Armageddon' and more like Wes Anderson's MTV Awards parody of 'Armageddon'. Yet remember those two quotes from before? They feel like they're from a different movie universe.

Perhaps it's not surprising that 'The Rock' should exhibit signs of multiple personality disorder: it is the fruit of at least eight different writers - most of whom are uncredited for reasons only those within the nebulous and highly litigious world of Hollywood writing credits could explain. Among the uncredited are voices as disparate and distinctive as Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino (highly speculative, but perhaps some of that liberal-minded critique came from Sorkin).

But wherever the lines came from and however much they contradict each other (undermining whatever the point of 'The Rock' is in the process) there is little sense in denying that it's in the same bracket as 'Casablanca', 'Withnail & I' or 'The Big Lebowski' in terms of how endlessly quotable it is. Personally I love all the lines which lay out the stakes in really direct fashion, such as this doozy: "Look, I'm just a biochemist. Most of the time, I work in a little glass jar and lead a very uneventful life. I drive a Volvo, a beige one. But what I'm dealing with here is one of the most deadly substances the earth has ever known, so what say you cut me some FRIGGIN' SLACK?" What more do we need to know about the disparity between the life of Cage's character and the gravity of the situation he finds himself in? 'The Rock' is the sworn enemy of subtlety and I wouldn't have it any other way.

After foiling Ed Harris' apparently noble terrorist plot (it's easy to forget that pre-9/11 a lot of movie terrorism was domestic), Cage ends up in possession of the MacGuffin microfilm, holding information that got Connery's character locked up in Alcatraz for life without trial. Goodspeed's never previously expressed any interest in possessing this information, so why does his attainment of it count as a win? The answer: it just does. Especially because it facilitates one of the best (and most irreverent) final lines ever: "Honey, you wanna know who really killed JFK?"

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