A group of rogue U.S. Force Recon Marines, led by disenchanted Brigadier General Frank Hummel and his adjutant Major Tom Baxter, seize a stockpile of deadly VX gas–armed M55 rockets. The next day, Hummel and his men seize control of Alcatraz Island and take several tourists hostage. Hummel threatens to launch the rockets against San Francisco unless the government pays $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 and whose deaths were not compensated.
The Pentagon and FBI develop a plan to retake the island with a U.S. Navy SEAL team, enlisting the FBI's top chemical weapons specialist, Doctor Stanley Goodspeed. Goodspeed's confidence, already shaky as he is a "lab rat" with minimal combat training and experience, is further tested when his fiancée Carla reveals she is pregnant.
FBI director James Womack is forced to turn to federal prisoner John Mason, a 60-year-old British national who has been imprisoned without charges for three decades. Mason is the only Alcatraz inmate ever to escape the island, doing so in 1963 through uncharted underground tunnels.
While in custody at the Fairmont Hotel, Mason flees. He steals a Hummer H1 and Goodspeed pursues in a commandeered Ferrari F355, resulting in a chase through the streets. Mason seeks out his estranged daughter Jade; Goodspeed arrives with a team to re-arrest Mason, revealing to Jade that he is aiding the FBI.
Goodspeed, Mason, and the SEALs infiltrate Alcatraz. However, Hummel's Marines are alerted to their presence and ambush them in a shower room. All the SEALs are killed, leaving only Mason and Goodspeed alive. Mason sees his chance to escape custody and disarms Goodspeed, but Goodspeed convinces him to help defuse the rockets, since Mason's daughter is also at risk.
Mason and Goodspeed eliminate several teams of Marines and disable 12 of the 15 rockets by removing their guidance chips. Hummel threatens to execute a hostage if they do not surrender and return the guidance chips. Mason destroys the chips, then surrenders to Hummel, trying to reason with him as well as buy Goodspeed some time. Though Goodspeed disables another rocket, the Marines capture him. With the incursion team lost, the military initiates their backup plan: an air strike by F/A-18s with thermite plasma, which will neutralize the poison gas but kill everyone on the island.
Mason and Goodspeed escape, and Mason explains why he was held prisoner: he was a British SAS Captain who stole a microfilm containing details of the United States's most closely guarded secrets, refusing to give it up when captured because he knew he would be killed if he did. When the deadline for the transfer of the ransom arrives, Hummel and his men fire one of the operational rockets, only for Hummel to change his mind and changing the coordinates for the rocket to splash into San Francisco Bay. When confronted by two of his men, Captain Frye and Darrow, Hummel orders them to exit Alcatraz with a few hostages and the remaining rockets to cover their retreat, while he will assume blame. Realizing they will not be paid their $1 million apiece, Frye and Darrow mutiny against Hummel and Baxter, killing the latter and mortally wounding the former.
Darrow and Frye proceed with the plan to fire on San Francisco. While Mason deals with the remaining Marines, Goodspeed seeks out the last rocket, which Hummel reveals the location for with his dying breath. As the jets approach, Goodspeed kills both Darrow and Frye, disarming the rocket. He signals the jets that the threat is over.
Goodspeed tells Mason that Womack tore up his pardon, then informs his superiors that Mason was killed. Mason gives Goodspeed a note that holds the location of the microfilm. Some time later, Goodspeed and Carla recover the microfilm containing a half-century of state secrets, including who actually killedJohn F. Kennedy.
Produced at a budget of $75,000,000, the film was a smash hit, grossing a total of $134,069,511 domestically and $200,993,110 internationally, for a worldwide total of $335,062,621. Of the year 1996, it was the seventh highest home-grossing film in the U.S., and the fourth highest-grossing U.S. film worldwide.
Jonathan Hensleigh participated in writing the script, which became the subject of a dispute with the Writers Guild of America. In this case, the spec script (by David Weisberg and Douglas Cook) was reworked by several writers, but other than the original team, Mark Rosner was the only one granted official credit by guild arbitration. The rule is that the credited writing team must contribute 50% of the final script (effectively limiting credits to the screenplay's initial authors, plus one re-write team). Despite their work on the script, neither Hensleigh nor Aaron Sorkin was credited in the film. The director Michael Bay wrote an open letter of protest, in which he criticized the arbitration procedure as a "sham" and a "travesty". He said Hensleigh had worked closely with him on the movie and should have received screen credit. Quentin Tarantino was also an uncredited screenwriter.
L.A.-based British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were brought in at Connery's request to rewrite his lines, but ended up altering much of the film's dialogue. It was Nicolas Cage's idea that his character would not swear; his euphemisms include "gee whiz." Bay had worked closely with Ed Harris to develop his character as concretely as possible, later adding a sympathetic edge to Hummel.
There were tensions during shooting between director Michael Bay and Walt Disney Studios executives who were supervising the production. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection DVD, Bay recalls a time when he was preparing to leave the set for a meeting with the executives when he was approached by Sean Connery in golfing attire. Connery, who also produced the film, asked Bay where he was going, and when Bay explained he had a meeting with the executives, Connery asked if he could accompany him. Bay complied and when he arrived in the conference room, the executives' jaws dropped when they saw Connery appear behind him. According to Bay, Connery then stood up for Bay and insisted that he was doing a good job and should be left alone.
The scene in which FBI director Womack is thrown off the balcony was filmed on location at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The filming led to numerous calls to the hotel by people who saw a man dangling from the balcony.
In the scene in which Paxton demands to know from Womack who Mason is, Paxton utters, "Yeah, I know all the cloak and dagger stories." This line was a direct reference to Forsythe's earlier film, Cloak & Dagger.
In the original UK DVD release, the scene in which Connery throws a knife through Scarpetti's throat and says "you must never hesitate" to Cage was cut, although this scene was shown on British television. Consequently, a later scene in which Connery says to Cage, "I'm rather glad you didn't hesitate too long" lost its impact on viewers who had not seen the first scene. Other cuts included the reduction of multiple gunshot impacts into Gamble's feet in the morgue down to a single hit; a close-up of his screaming face as the air conditioner falls onto him; a sound cut to Mason snapping a Marine's neck and two bloody gunshot wounds (to Hummel and Baxter), both near the end of the film.
The Rock received generally positive reviews from film critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 66%, based on 64 reviews. The sites consensus says, "For visceral thrills, it can't be beat. Just don't expect The Rock to engage your brain." To date, it is Michael Bay's highest rated film on the site and is the only film of his to have a "fresh" score. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 59 out of 100, based on 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Todd McCarthy of Variety gave the movie a positive review, commenting "The yarn has its share of gaping holes and jaw-dropping improbabilities, but director Michael Bay sweeps them all aside with his never-take-a-breath pacing." Richard Corliss, writing for the Time expresses favorable opinions towards the film, saying "Slick, brutal and almost human, this is the team-spirit action movie Mission: Impossible should have been." 
The film was selected for a limited edition DVD release by the Criterion Collection, a distributor of primarily arthouse films it categorizes as "important classic and contemporary films" and "cinema at its finest". In an essay supporting the selection of The Rock, Roger Ebert, who was strongly critical of most of Bay's later films, gave the film a 3 1/2 out of four stars, calling it "an action picture that rises to the top of the genre because of a literate, witty screenplay and skilled craftsmanship in the direction and special effects."
In 2014, Time Out polled several film critics, directors, actors and stunt actors to list their top action films. The Rock was listed at 74th place on this list.
The soundtrack to The Rock was released on June 7, 1996. Nick Glennie-Smith, Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams were the principal composers, with additional music composed by Don Harper and Steven M. Stern.
"Hummell Gets The Rockets"
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith
"Rock House Jail"
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith, Don Harper, Steven M. Stern
"In The Tunnels"
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams, Don Harper, Steven M. Stern
"Mason's Walk - First Launch"
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith
"Fort Walton - Kansas"
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith
Hans Zimmer, Nick Glennie-Smith, Harry Gregson-Williams, Don Harper