Say what you will about Michael Bay, but I generally like him. I think the quality of his output is about 50/50, which puts him on par with a lot of other solid filmmakers. Bay makes the kind of interesting and out-there choices that attract the kind of talent who are primarily known for Coen brothers movies. However, those choices can also be baffling and sink whatever project he’s working on. He delivers beautiful shots, and he knows how to frame action. Sometimes those talents are wasted on movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and sometimes they help to achieve action movie perfection, like The Rock.
The Rock is Bay’s best film. It’s hard to come up with a premise that’s more action-movie-ready. A disgruntled General (Ed Harris) and a group of marines take civilians hostage on Alcatraz and the only way to stop him is with a Navy SEAL team, a chemical weapons specialist (Nicolas Cage) and the only man who ever escaped from that prison (Sean Connery). It would be very, very hard to fuck that up. Not only does Bay deliver on the premise, I believe he brings a little something extra to it.
But let’s get down to business. Let’s talk about what’s actually important: how are the villains?
Action movies live or die by their antagonists. Die Hard has the king of action movie villains with Hans Gruber, but it’s also filled to the brim with stand-out goons and henchmen. Without memorable meat for our heroes to outsmart and outgun then, it’s a long wait for the finale.
The Rock has a fantastic cast for an action movie, and the talent on the villain’s side goes surprisingly deep. So I’ve decided to rank them. The main category in my criteria is memorability. They need to stand out from the crowd, and any movie’s goon squad fills with people vying for that top spot. Luckily, my choices here are objective and unimpeachable.
But first, the Honourable Mentions:
In the grand scheme of things, Humvee Guy’s villainy is pretty innocuous. But he is an asshole to a valet, and he does drive a Humvee, so fuck him.
David Marshall Grant/White House Chief of Staff Heydan Sinclair
The only reason this guy exists is because a movie like The Rock needs a younger dude for the Vietnam vet to dunk on. Ed Harris’s General Hummel talks about how he was runnin’ ops while this guy was still in diapers (or any variation on that line). We know Hummel means business and this guy sucks. Which would normally be fine, but he makes the list for a couple of reasons. First of all, the way he talks back to Harris’s character is really, really dumb. Would you actually endanger hostages lives just because a General mentioned Indo-China black-ops on a secure line? Secondly, I assume he had something to do with convincing the President to launch the strike at the end that almost kills Mason and Goodspeed. That little shit.
And now, the ultimate, unimpeachable ranking of the villains from The Rock.
Ingo Neuhaus/Marine That Dies
He couldn’t even make it out of the initial rocket heist before the actual mission at hand. It was probably for the best that they lost him this early. The poor guy probably thought he was cool-as-hell when he was dual-wielding tranquilizer guns and knocking out guards. Unfortunately, we, the audience, needed him as an example for what that VX gas does, so he had to go.
Whoever This Guy Is
Seriously, who is this guy? I can only seem to find him in this, like, team-building exercise scene. I can’t pinpoint him anywhere else, and I definitely can’t find a death scene for him. His only defining characteristics are hair and the fact that I noticed him. I’ll assume he tripped on the titular Rock and broke his neck.
Joseph Patrick Kelly/Hummel Marine C AKA Glass or Plastic
They’re at a crucial point in their mission, with only a couple rockets left, and this guy not only lets Nic Cage chat with him about whether he wants his liquefied remains stored in a glass jar or a plastic back, but he also lets Sean Connery sneak up on him. I don’t care how square his crew cut is, he would not make the grade in my rogue Marine outfit.
Jack Yates/Hummel Marine A
This guy is tall, bald, has a goatee and does some cool stuff when they steal the rockets. But he has a lot of marks against him. 1) When Mason and Goodspeed get into the morgue, he lets old-ass Sean Connery throw a knife into his throat as he just stands there and screams, and 2) his credit, in the end, was “Marine A.” Shame.
Brendan Kelly/Private Cox
Sometimes squads need “the funny one.” Predator has an effective one with Shane Black’s Hawkins. You know, someone to lighten the mood, take a little pressure off the incredibly tense situation. The problem with Private Cox is that he isn’t funny. Like, at all. He does nothing but smirk and quip at Mason and Goodspeed, and it’s a crime that he’s the penultimate heavy to get taken down. Sean Connery deserves better than that.
Raymond Cruz/Sergeant Rojas
As far as ways to die go, being thrown off a mine cart by Sean Connery and snapping your neck on some rocks is rather cool. But Sergeant Rojas, with his distinctive top-knot, looked like he was destined for greater things. The mine cart fight ends up taking out a couple of henchmen seemingly too early. I guess they had to start knocking people off eventually. Sorry, Rojas.
Juan A. Riojas/Hummel Marine B AKA The First Man Stanley Goodspeed Kills
Mostly relegated to being a tech guy, this character doesn’t stand out that much. He has hair, and his goatee isn’t very defined, so you know the other guys were shunning him in the lunch room. His biggest contribution is being the first villain that Goodspeed ends up killing. He does it to save Mason’s life and brings them both a little closer together. He ends up helping the heroes a lot.
Greg Collins/Private Gamble
Private Gamble doesn’t do a whole lot besides being kind of recognizable from some other action movies and TV procedurals. He makes a solid impression early on when they steal the rockets, but then he fizzles out. He gets extra points for having his head crushed by what I think is an air conditioning unit.
John C. McGinley/Captain Hendrix
It feels like a crime putting John C. McGinley this far down on a best villains list. He’s made great, memorable antagonists before in movies like Platoon and On Deadly Ground. Unfortunately, this movie tosses him away early on. Worst of all, the toss is done in a pretty inauspicious way. It seems promising when Mason sets him on fire, but then he just kind of falls into some water. The movie doesn’t effectively sell that it was a height that would kill him. It kind of looks like it helped him by putting his boot fire out. I like to think he lived and went on to do some other, better goon stuff in another action movie.
Bokeem Woodbine/Gunnery Sergeant Crisp
While Sergeant Crisp isn’t high on the list, Bokeem Woodbine would be in the running for best goon acting. He makes the most of a barely-written character. Crisp has served with Hummel before, and it shows. He’s also young and inexperienced, and that shows too. When Hummel shots him near the end, the hurt in his eyes works way better than it should. He is, ostensibly, just some henchman, but I actually felt bad that he felt betrayed. Great work, Woodbine. Middling work, Crisp.
Steve Harris/Private McCoy
“I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy” automatically puts Private McCoy in the running for best villain. It’s a badass, effective line that gets under Goodspeed’s skin. He’s also one of the last mercenaries standing, almost taking out Goodspeed before Mason pushes him off of a roof and makes him land in … yard sale junk? His anticlimactic end and lack of a solid character keep him from being higher up, but Steve Harris’s presence alone gives this character a big boost.
Ed Harris/Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel
It may seem like Hummel comes in too low on this list, but that’s not a mark against the character or the actor. Ed Harris kills it in this movie, obviously. What knocks him down a few pegs is the fact that Hummel is bluffing throughout most of the film. He takes a semi-face-turn by the end, so how can he be the best villain? Sure, you want some measure of relatability or sympathy with your villain (see the number one entry), but we see too many cracks in the facade. You want your main villain to bend but not break. Hummel would be at the top if this were the most heroic villain, or maybe the most relatable villain. The best villain in The Rock? Sorry, Ed.
John Spencer/FBI Director James Womack
Womack is, on the surface, on the protagonists’ side. But he’s such an awful shit. He rips up Mason’s pardon and his main concern after everything on Alcatraz goes down is making sure Mason is dead. Worst of all, wanting to gloat over the actual corpse! John Spencer plays a great political operative and law enforcement official, which makes him very adept at playing slimy and sneaky. It’s pretty clearly something he enjoys playing based on his performance in The Rock. Like most of his roles, he excels at it. He deserves to be the only entry on this list who didn’t plan to take a bunch of innocent people hostage because he’s a raging hard-on.
Gregory Sporleder/Captain Frye
The cool thing about Captain Frye is that he’s kind of a surprise final villain. He’s a secondary villain, for sure, and one of the main goons, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would peg him as the “final boss” when the film started. The shift on the villain’s side is part of what makes The Rock so good and interesting. Frye’s villainy — and willingness to kill millions — helps us sympathize with Hummel. Sporleder sells it. His sharp, stony face sells a lot of it. He could pull off serial killer, stone cold soldier or asshole boyfriend. There’s a wide variety available to this guy. He also sells the line “come on, let’s be all we can be” in the funny, chilling way it should be delivered.
He’s also the dude who gets to eat one of those green balls and show us its effects. If that isn’t memorable, then I don’t know what is.
Tony Todd/Captain Darrow
Captain Darrow gets the runner-up spot because it’s him. He’s the Rocket Man.
He also knows how this shit* works.
*”This shit” refers to knives and rockets, but not VX gas.
David Morse/Major Tom Baxter
He is easily the best villain. The others are too evil, Hummel is a little too good, and Womack is a little too goofy. Baxter wins the top spot because he’s the right-hand man (he’s like Bob the Goon from Batman, Karl from Die Hard, or Everett McGill’s character from Under Seige 2: Dark Territory) of the lead villain, which automatically puts him at the top of the other goons. You know immediately he’s either smarter, crazier or stronger than the rest of the goons. Baxter is the smarter variety. David Morse is a big dude. I bet he could hold his own with a lot of the others.
The number one fact that makes him the best villain in the film is that he’s ride or die with Hummel. He follows the mission out completely, which is a bit of a Catch-22. Hummel cops out and decides not to launch the rockets at the end. Frye and Darrow go rogue and decide, fuck it, they’re launching the missiles. Baxter rides the line and, thanks to that, comes out as the top villain. He tries to talk Hummel into completing the mission, but when he can’t, he still has his back and pays the price for it. This is the guy you want if you’re going to kidnap some people and hold them hostage.
As a bonus, I’d also like to mention the best protagonist in the film. There are some solid candidates in the running. You’ve got Cage, Connery, Michael Biehn. But the true winner is…
William Forsythe/FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Ernest Paxton
Paxton has the advantage of being played by Forsythe, automatically making him cool-as-hell. He’s also calm and collected, a far cry from the bumbling, room service devouring FBI agents we see earlier on in the film. Paxton gives Goodspeed a pep talk when he needs it, comforts Goodspeed’s girlfriend and even helps him cover up Mason’s escape at the end. Plus, he has to spend most of the movie putting up with Womack’s shit. Paxton is the best.