Ed Harris is really an under appreciated actor. I grew up watching this man give a thunderous performance in almost every role he was in. Everything from The Abyss, to Milk Money (yeah I said it), to Apollo 13, to The Rock, all the way to National Treasure 2.
The Rock stands out as probably his greatest role… which is sad, because if you take him out of the equation… given the star power in this movie (and there was a lot) it really was a rather run-of-the-mill action flick. Ed Harris moves this movie to classic status… by ruining it at the same time. The worst part is that it’s not his fault.
Let’s take a look at the basic plot from Wikipedia:
“Disenchanted Brigadier General Francis Hummel and his second-in-command Major Tom Baxter lead a group of rogue U.S. Force Recon Marines against a heavily guarded naval weapons depot to steal a stockpile of sixteen VX gas-loaded M55 rockets, ultimately losing one of their own men in the process. The next day, along with newly-recruited Captains Frye and Darrow, Hummel and his men seize control of Alcatraz Island, taking eighty-one tourists hostage. Hummel threatens to launch the rockets against San Francisco unless the U.S. government pays him $100 million from a military slush fund, which he will distribute to his men and the families of Recon Marines who died on clandestine missions under his command, but whose deaths were not compensated.
The Department of Defense and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) develop a plan to retake the island using a U.S. Navy SEAL team led by Commander Anderson, the FBI’s top chemical weapons specialist, Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, and the only inmate to ever escape Alcatraz: John Mason. FBI Director James Womack bribes Mason with a pardon (which Womack subsequently destroys) and Mason is set up in a hotel.”
Long story short, Mason and Godspeed infiltrate the Rock, Hummel’s not-so idealistic men turn on him and try to launch the rockets. Hummel is killed, and the unlikely duo destroys the bombs and kills the remaining marines. Mason escapes to destinations unknown.
So now that everyone who hasn’t seen the movie is up to speed, let’s delve into why we’re all here. How did Ed Harris simultaneously save and ruin this movie? Well… Let’s look at his performance:
Throughout the movie, but in this scene especially, he is giving the role his all. That is a man I could 100% buy is a military commander, not only by his looks, but his thundering voice, his posture, and the way he speaks. Ed Harris IS General Hummel. There is no other way to put it.
Now, Hummel is a double-edged sword in this movie. He’s a great villain, but he’s arguably the most likeable and relatable character in the entire cast! He’s a man who has done everything by the book all his life, a man who has made the right choices and done what was asked of him by his government… even when his government didn’t uphold their end of the bargain… and that’s where the problem begins.
Hummel, played by Harris is too good, and it’s almost like the movie realizes this by absolving him of all villainy close to the end of the movie and having Tony Todd replace him as the arch-villain by the end of the movie. Todd is then killed off within minutes.
Harris’s acting as Hummel made the character too good and while that acting made the movie memorable, established a great villain which saved the movie, it also tipped the scales against the supposed heroes of the movie. Literally if anyone else played Hummel, the movie would not have been able to gloss over one of it’s most glaring flaws; NOTHING was accomplished. Yes, the people who were held hostage were saved, yes the rockets were disarmed… but what else?
See, that’s the trick, by the end of the movie, you’ve all but forgotten about WHY they were there in the first place… and the movie never brings it up again:
The movie starts off with General Hummel desperately trying to get the government to listen and admit the mistakes it made. This is all done to the backdrop of Hummel repeatedly saying over the radio “I won’t let you down! I won’t let you down, son!” Which then concludes with “They’re not coming for us, are they, sir?”
In the end, his words fall on deaf ears. His men are left to rot where they fell, their families are fed stories about what happened to them, and they’re denied medals and benefits. Hummel, still loyal to the troops he sent to die, and having exhausted all legal avenues, says a final goodbye to his deceased wife, and apologizes for not being able to make them listen. He then goes into overdrive, stealing chemical weapons before taking hostages and establishing Alcatraz as his base.
He demands that, to secure the release of the hostages and the surrendering of the rockets, the government will pay reparations to the families of his fallen comrades from a slush where the Pentagon kept blood money from illegal arms sales.
None of that ever happens. Those families are never paid reparations, the wrongs that started this movie are never righted, and what’s worse… the people who locked Mason up are never made to answer for what they’ve done. All of the true wrongs is this movie are glossed over and never righted.
This is how Ed Harris Simultaneously ruined and saved The Rock. His acting made the villain memorable, which IMHO you need either an incredible ending and/or a terrific villain in order to make a good movie. The rest tends to fall into place. Harris gives us that villain, but in the end, between the writing, and his superb performance, the character was TOO sympathetic. Most audiences will sympathize with him over all the underhanded backstabbing going on in the good guys’ camp. However, the movie then makes you forget about the good he was trying to do and kills him off well before the ending to draw focus away from him. It’s like the writers were completely self-aware that they made the villain too good.
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