ROCK, THE – Blu-ray review

When you see the words “A Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production,” you know the film is going to have gigantic explosions that give rise to huge fireballs–in slow motion, of course. There’s also going to be plenty of blazing gunfire, nail-biting chases, unbelievable stunts, and spectacular crashes. Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s all you get. But with “The Rock,” a superior action flick if there ever was one, you also get a tinderbox script and some dynamite performances.

Sean Connery is in top form as John Patrick Mason, a former British spy who’s been secretly imprisoned because he knows and has done things that his country and the U.S. would rather deny. But because Mason’s areas of expertise include the island prison of Alcatraz (he was the only person ever to successfully escape from “The Rock”), authorities spring him, hoping he’ll agree to guide an elite squad back into the maximum security prison.

The “why” seems a little far-fetched at first: A group of commandos led by the much-decorated and respected General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) has occupied the island, taken 81 tourists hostage, and aimed 15 rockets stolen from an army weapons depot straight at populous San Francisco. Complicating matters is that those weapons have been armed with a lethal nerve gas that could wipe out the entire city if just one of the rockets landed. So a crucial person added to the mission is Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), an FBI chemical weapons expert who says he’s field-tested but turns out to be as green (and goofy) as they come. That sets up a great pairing of experts, while plot twists up the ante for both men: Goodspeed’s fiancé has come to San Francisco to be with him, and Mason has a daughter who lives in the city. With Connery and Cage so intent on foiling the bad guys and with all the major actors turning in great performances, it’s easy to go along with the doomsday premise.

What also elevates the film is a script that takes full advantage of the Connery-Cage pairing and the reputation each actor has of being able to balance action with wry humor. There are plenty of funny moments in this film, and yet none of them detracts (or DIStracts) from the drama at hand. Like any good action film, the action is slam-bang and the pacing just short of out-of-control, and it helps that director Michael Bay actually filmed inside Alcatraz. That in itself sets up a fascinating tour as we visually wind through the bowels of the legendary prison.

It also doesn’t hurt that the film includes some memorable scenes, the most stunning of which has Mason teaching an old spy nemesis (John Spencer, “The West Wing”) a lesson by putting his life in instant and surprising peril.

The supporting cast isn’t as strong-or at least not strong enough to fight whatever clichés have worked their way into the script. There’s the gung-ho take-no-prisoners guy, the wild-eyed loose cannon, and the generic troopers on the commando side, with a few I-don’t-want-to-die guys on the rescue side. But none of them are nearly as important as the three stars, who really bring their characters to life. Plus, when the film starts to edge too close to familiar territory, we’re rescued by a funny moment or another action turn. And while “The Rock” has always looked a bit dark on DVD, it seems brighter on Blu-ray, and a pure joy to watch.

The 1080p picture looks really sharp. “The Rock” was shot using Super 35 in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and that ratio is preserved here. I don’t have a previous version to compare it to, but the framing appears to be accurate. There are no artifacts or signs of compression that jump out at me, and no edge distortion. The colors seem natural, and there’s plenty of detail, especially in close-ups of the faces.

The soundtrack is an English PCM 5.1 (uncompressed, 48kHz/16-bit) audio that’s really rich and resonant. Every bullet pops and zings in believable ways as it zips sonically across your TV room. An ambush scene is especially strong in this respect. Additional audio options are English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

Interestingly, for a Buena Vista release, the bonus features are all from the Criterion two-disc DVD. There’s an okay commentary track featuring Cage, Harris, Bay, Bruckheimer, and technical advisor Harry Humphries, along with the documentary “Secrets of Alcatraz” (with its fascinating vintage footage), an excessively serious interview with Bruckheimer, nine minutes of outtakes, a short feature on Navy SEALS with Humphries walking you through it, another one on weapons, and another on special effects for “Dive.” They’re mostly decent bonus features, topped with the usual trailers, TV spots, and, in this case, a short clip on “The Rock” premier.

Bottom Line:
Strong characters and an intelligent script make this slam-bang action film better than most. It’s a great outing for both Connery and Cage. And it looks really impressive on Blu-ray.