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The Films Of Michael Bay: A Retrospective

The Films Of Michael Bay: A Retrospective

Fuck Michael Bay. Michael Bay rules.

That seems to be about as simple and accurate a summary you’re likely to get on the blockbuster director whose work, depending on who you ask, is either completely bereft of integrity and humanity or proves that Bay is something of a modern day auteur. The mark of an auteur is essentially — you can recognize their films without having seen their screen credit. As “Transformers” co-writer Roberto Orci put it in an excellent GQ piece on Bay (which we covered here), “It’s amazing to have a movie where you can look at five minutes and go, ‘That’s a Michael Bay movie.’ To have a style that distinct — like it or hate it, it deserves study.”

And study it we shall. There’s no denying that work on this feature facilitated some fevered discussion for our crew. Does Bay boil down to a multi-millionaire who flatters the inherent racism, sexism and low-brow misanthropy of the worst instincts of American pop culture? Or is it necessary to accept his quirks (the man’s filmmaking style is specific enough as to be weirdly personal) and question the merit of to what storytelling ends he uses them? The truth is that Bay, for better or worse, embodies both of those aspects, making his films difficult to embrace even when they are at their most enjoyable (which is usually when shit is blowing up spectacularly). We’ve taken on a straight-faced evaluation of this guy’s work, that acknowledges, rightfully, his complete control and mastery over the worlds he creates — let’s not forget, he has two films in the Criterion Collection, and your boyfriend Christopher Nolan watches Bay films religiously, according to DoP Wally Pfister — while also picking through the myriad of ways in which his films can lean toward the aesthetically tasteless and genuinely misanthropic. Here we go:

“Bad Boys” (1995)
With a shoestring budget ($19 million) and a pair of then-television actors (Martin Lawrence & Will Smith), Michael Bay quite literally exploded onto the screen with his flashy debut feature. Originally envisioned as a Disney buddy movie with Dana Carvey & Jon Lovitz of all people, producers Don Simpson (a year before his drug-related death) and Jerry Bruckheimer (who would go on to become one of Bay’s frequent collaborators) adjusted the screenplay to suit the new actors, which is to imply that there was a script. Which there wasn’t. But looking back on the film, the story (about some stolen drugs from police evidence) isn’t as compelling as the chemistry between the two leads and the already apparent visual stamp Bay puts all over this thing. A slight holdover from the neon-and-smog-filled Tony Scott era that preceded him, every detail of the film – from the dewy sweatiness of the actors to the way the sets are assembled (with billowy curtains and giant signs, indoors) to the swirling camera angle that follows Smith and Lawrence as they triumphantly stand to the length of Tea Leoni’s skirt – would become directorial hallmarks that would inch him further away from “some action movie director” realms and closer to “auteur” territory. It would also inspire the director’s most notoriously outré film, the hellzapoppin’ “Bad Boys II.” But we’ll get to that in a minute. [B-]

“The Rock” (1996)
Nicolas Cage, you’ve got your Oscar. Welcome to the world of Michael Bay. This slick, high-concept actioner sports a deliciously ripe premise, with Cage as the wonderfully-named Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical weapons specialist who joins a team of special ops dedicated to breaking into Alcatraz to stop a terrorist threat. It’s never that simple, of course, so beginning a tradition of Bay films where an improbable risk is taken by trusting an untrained loose cannon, the team employs John Patrick Mason, the only man to break out of The Rock. As played by Sean Connery, Mason is an aggressively old-school presence, a man’s-man whose attitude clashes heavily with his high-tech collaborators. While Connery and Cage are a compelling duo, the movie makes Goodspeed less of an intellectual and more of an obsessive-compulsive nerd who needs to “man up,” diluting any unpredictability that might emerge from such a loaded setup. And while Ed Harris’ renegade general-turned-villain is initially compelling, like the rest of the largely overlong film, his motivations grow distant in a packed third act that sullies the relatively punchy action spectacle of the first two hours. Still, it’s an entertaining piece of work and arguably Bay’s “best” film. [B]

“Armageddon” (1998)
Sound and fury signifying nothing. At this point, “Armageddon” is less of a movie than a Michael Bay checklist. The story, such as it is, involves deep core drillers employed by NASA to travel into space to annihilate a fast-approaching asteroid, or as one character puts it, “Basically all the worst parts of the Bible.” When asked by star Ben Affleck on the DVD commentary why they simply didn’t train astronauts to drill, Bay famously replied, “Shut up.” The gang-written script spotlights a team led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis at his smirkiest) who consist of movie-types, with Owen Wilson as The Cowboy, Steve Buscemi as The Pervert, and Michael Clarke Duncan as The Black One… the characterizations don’t get any deeper from there. To their credit, Bay has never had a more committed cast, and Willis and Billy Bob Thornton, as an exposition machine with a tragic backstory, develop a genuine camaraderie based on hoary Screenwriting 101 cliches. But for every moment that clicks in a dim, crowd-pleasing b-movie manner (Will Patton as the Morose Redneck who Loves His Family), there are two that don’t, usually involving Bay’s trademark slapstick humor — extra credit given to Peter “A Perfect” Stormare, who sets Russian-American relations back decades with his Teutonic Space Madness. Ultimately, “Armageddon” is a victim of its own excess — visually, the film sings when the questionable physics allow for a number of teeth-rattling action sequences. But when the final credits roll, the main emotion tends to be exhaustion or, to anyone who kept their eyes open, a headache. [C-]

“Pearl Harbor” (2001)
“Pearl Harbor” might be the defining film of Michael Bay’s career. For one, it was his attempt at making a more grown-up, “serious” movie (along the lines of “Titanic”) – a three-pronged romance starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale told against the backdrop of the most famous surprise military raid in American history. For another, it would be his most widely derided film, critically, yet, and during a period where he strained for credibility, it certainly hurt him (and informed the bitter “fuck you” attitude of 2003’s in-your-face “Bad Boys II”). It would also prove to be the last movie he would make for Disney (former Disney chief Dick Cook was quoted in a recent GQ oral history of the auteur as saying that the film was “one of the most difficult shoots of modern history”), which had been his home and multimillion dollar playground since 1996’s “The Rock.” Maybe even a slight attempt at readjusting his style to confirm to the movie’s aw-shucks vibe was a miscalculation, or maybe the story was simply too ungainly. There’s evidence that points to the latter, since far more interesting than what was released in theaters was the home video “director’s cut,” which runs only a minute longer than the previous version but reinstates a significant amount of violence into the battle sequences (giving them a more visceral punch) and, most importantly, refocuses the story on the friendship between the Hartnett and Affleck characters and not the soapy love triangle angle that consumed the original cut. It makes it a much more traditional Bay affair, about dudes getting down to some really hairy business, and a more successful one too, but this is certainly still one of his more ungainly and overwrought efforts, that mistakes melodrama for character relations and five-alarm action sequences to fill in the gaps of everything else. [C-]

“Bad Boys II” (2003)
Bay had won several battles with studios, stars and marketing departments on the way to massive box office success. To him, the very public rejection of “Pearl Harbor,” the one Bay picture regarded as a failure because of its signature Bay-isms, was a sign. ‘Retreat, reload, and come back meaner’ seemed to be his motto, and with “Bad Boys II” he returned with guns blazing towards proper etiquette and good taste. With a blank check from Disney, working with the sequel to a barely-remembered action hit, “Bad Boys II” represents the definitive Bay experience. Though Marcus and Mike had returned, Marcus was notably more manic and minstrely (the puffed-up Martin Lawrence looking the worse for wear) while his partner, now played by the much-bigger star in Will Smith, was sexed-up and sociopathic. On the trail of a massive drug ring, the two cops, with a seemingly limitless budget, blast through and kill hundreds of perps in the isn’t-this-awesome style of Bay’s empty extravagance. Everything about “Bad Boys II” is excessive, gaudy, tacky and ultimately soul-murdering, as we are meant to cheer two maniacs who would “jokingly” threaten one of their daughter’s comely pre-teen dates with a gun as they tear Miami, and then Cuba, to pieces, including a row of favelas in a bit that directly apes “Police Story.” But to bash “Bad Boys II” is to bash a certain sensibility, as this blockbuster sequel is complete, unfiltered Bay, with loaded sequences of homophobia (an intimate dialogue scene is played for gay panic), racism (the only non-criminal Hispanic characters are the butt of jokes) and sexism (an extended scene of Marcus fondling a buxom corpse). It’s also loaded with some of the giddiest, most insane practical action sequences seen in the modern action era, as Bay and his effects team toss cars freely against each other, shooting gruesome, gory shootouts and car chases with the gusto and clarity missing from every action filmmaker currently working. In the end, “Bad Boys II” is so toxic that it can wear the title of Most Violent Movie Ever Made, both in regards to explosions and bullets as well as in regards to the human spirit. Even with the extended moments of non-stop violence, a sequence where a young raver’s dead body is carelessly tossed to the pavement introduces Diddy’s “Shake Your Tailfeather” says everything you need to know about “Bad Boys II.” [C-]

“The Island” (2005)
The only true “bomb” (the film was deemed as such despite recuperating its $126 million budget, earning $162 mil worldwide) in Bay’s filmography may well be the most interesting film he’s made so far. A cobbling together of various sci-fi tropes lends credibility to this big-budget chaser when two clones (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson) break out of captivity and escape to an unpredictable world beyond, where their counterparts are alive and well. Meanwhile Sean Bean’s cold-hearted moneyman harvests the organs of conscious clones and Djimon Hounsou fills the thankless shoes of a mercenary out to kill our leads. Bay dials back the aesthetic just enough to tell a simple story unnecessarily complicated by occasional tech brogue (the Caspian Tredwell-Owen/Kurtzman/Orci script was solid enough to land them the ‘Transformers‘ gig). There are still perfectly lush images (the Thin White Duke would probably shed a tear at the sight of the impeccable surgical lab), but for the first time, the plot is not manhandled and left crying in a corner. Credit goes to McGregor and Johansson in making our leads relatable and their high octane journey steeped in the minimum emotional requirements. While horny fanboys decry the lack of Johansson nudity (the actress dourly noted that Bay turned down her request to get naked), the film can stand on two feet without it, and for Michael Bay, that’s an honest step forward. [B-]

“Transformers” (2007)
It’s a movie about space robots based on a popular ’80s toy– if we tried to debate the merits of story and character of Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” we’d be here all night. Can’t we just appreciate the hulking, metallic heap of cinematic candy? If we’re gonna get cavities, we might as well enjoy the process. Despite the fact that his films are morally questionable (at best) and he struggles to portray characters beyond cartoonish stereotype, it’s impossible to deny that they aren’t artfully made, and stamped not only with his signature style but a consistent aesthetic look all their own (that rapidly becomes widely copied). And in a world of shoddy CGI, Bay imbues his special effects with his reverence for the practical: the Autobots and Decepticons clank and whir and hum with the weightiness of real machinery, and his manipulation of the light with sand, smoke, sweat and shiny, shiny chrome keeps everything rooted in his typical visceral hyper-reality, instead of some dull, washed out computer world. His keen visual sense of storytelling means that even in the chaos of robotic eyeball assault, there’s a clear sense of space and timing, leaving room for performers like Shia LaBoeuf to fill in the spaces in his machine-fetishizing sequences with riffs and wit (though they often badly need reeling in). Bay does right by fans of “Transformers” by treating the material seriously and with an epic scope, and most importantly, delivering an entertaining flick. That’s not to say the same about the second… [B-]

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009)
Few moments in the entire gnashing, casually misogynistic filmography of Michael Bay are as inexcusable as the characters of Mudflap and Skids, a pair of transforming robots that, despite defending the earth heroically from the evil Decepticons, can’t triumph over ageless racist stereotypes. They speak in a pidgin dialect (not unlike similar computer-generated monstrosity Jar Jar Binks), have gold teeth, oversized ears, and appear ineffectual and dumb. Most damningly, however, might be the fact that they’re voiced by a pair of white actors. Ouch. While the trials of making “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” have been widely documented (namely that the film started shooting without a completed screenplay, thanks to time constraints related to the WGA writer’s strike, although Bay doesn’t seem to credit his writers when he gets good reviews, strangely enough), there’s still an oddly fascinating texture to “Revenge of the Fallen,” mostly in the cacophonous way that the action sequences build on one another. Unforgettable images are scattered throughout – robots awakening on the ocean floor, a knife-thin creature made out of silvery bobs – although fail to form a cohesive whole. That said, the story is an abomination, the plotting torpid beyond belief and the film does not at all deserve its two and a half hour running time. By the time the movie concludes, in what feels like a nearly hour-long battle in the desert that includes, amongst other things, a giant robot eating one of the great pyramids of Egypt and an inappropriate dick joke, you’ve either gotten lost in Bay’s delirious alternate reality, or have checked out completely. Either way, this is undoubtedly Bay’s wildest, most out-of-control weird movie since “Bad Boys II.” [D] —  Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Katie Walsh, Mark Zhuravsky,

“Transformers: Dark Of The Moon” hits theaters today.

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Jessica Kiang

@Gabe an “E” is a fail grade in some parts.

And I must also agree with the majority of Mr Arkadin’s assessments – there is no way Pearl Harbor or Transformers 2 should be given passing grades.

Honestly, The Rock may not be his only watchable film, but for my money it’s definitely his only REwatchable film. And we’re talking maybe two, three times max, over the course of a lifetime, including that time you came home drunk and caught 8 minutes of it on TV before passing out.

Gabe Toro

Not sure what an “E” is, but I am down with Mr. Arkadian’s feelings.

Mr. Arkadin

I really disagree with the statement/notion that he has a distinct style or could be titled an auteur for that matter (crazy idea!). Bay just (re-)makes the same 2-3 (popular action) films/sequences since 1995.

Therefore it’s more like: “OMG, those money mongers gave this idiot another ~150+ million dollars and he did shit out roughly the same movie again.”
“How does it look?” someone might still ask.
The answer: “Expensive, very expensive! Some SFX/CGI guys had a lot of work – and did a fine job -, but other than that, it looks, sounds and feels sterile and totally devoid of any human condition you could hope to relate to.”

“Well, that there is exactly his unique, over the top bombastic style, a testament to his creative influence as a controversial filmmaker. Also he makes a lot of profit!” [/smug]

Ultimately I guess: Fuck Michael Bay and fuck his ‘supporters’ just the same, because not being able to combine action and storytelling is not a talent, it’s a lack thereof. He is certainly not one of the worst, but most certainly not a unique director.

Bad Boys [D+]
The Rock [C]
Pearl Harbor [E]
Armageddon [D]
Bad Boys II [E]
The Island [C+]
Transformers [D]
Transformers 2 [F]


One Michael Bay in the Criterion Collection — totally fine. Shitty as he is, future generations can look at Armageddon as a prime example of Hollywood junk in the 90s and 00s.

Two Michael Bay films in the Criterion Collection — go to hell.

To be fair, I think at least one of the insert essays is written by Bay’s old college film professor, who was on the CC decision-making staff, I guess. So that might explain his inclusion (beyond $$ reasons).


Armageddon is a solid B+


Oliver, the opening of this piece: Greatest two sentences ever written! Says everything.

Edward Davis

@Marrrk 2nd # point, absolutely, Bay does action like no other and someone like Nolan COULD use him to direct those action sequences.

But action only does not a good movie make unless like @actionman, you put a massive premium on action over basic, cogent thought.


“It’s amazing to have a movie where you can look at five minutes and go, ‘That’s a Michael Bay movie.’ To have a style that distinct — like it or hate it, it deserves study.” The same could be said of Ed Wood and other mediocre or simply bad artists.


a few thoughts:

– terrible taste in films but wonderful taste in third-person speaking has actlonman

– i wish Bay’s only job was to come in and direct action sequences for other directors. I’m looking at you, Chris Nolan.

– wait, wait, wait, wait. Scarlett offered boobs and Bay turned them down?? fuck this fucking guy.


Peter “A Perfect” Stormare made me wince.

Katie Walsh

I want to hang out with actionman.


“Bad Boys II” is an action masterpiece. Transformers 3 is literally some of the best on screen action ever.

The real question is what does Bay do now?


Actionman does enjoy getting baked and watching Michael Bay film, yes. But above all, Actionman feels that Bay’s brand of badassery and action filmmaking is the best in the biz.

Erik McClanahan

Thanks Styles. Correction made on the name.


Cage’s character is named GOODSPEED, not Godspeed. Also…fuck Michael Bay.

dead farts club

actlonman just ate a shitload of paste.

Edward Davis

Whoa, this actlonman is apparently baked sky high when he watches movies.


The Rock A+
Bad Boys II A+
Bad Boys A
Transformers A
The Island A-
Transformers 2 B+
Armageddon C+
Pearl Harbor C

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