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Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Bay

Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Bay

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. Which well, fine if we’re using the term strictly according to its broadest definition—we certainly could recognize a Bay film without having seen his screen credit, as his style is so instantly recognizable that it might as well have a “Michael Bay is Badass!!!” watermark over every shot. And this week we get another chance for the age-old debate to flare up again, and to be told by our commenters that we are waaay overthinking things, as the fourth movie in Bay’s signature franchise, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” hits theaters (and never is that phrase more appropriate than with Bay; it’s surprising his films don’t literally punch a hole through the screens onto which they’re projected/flung).

There’s no denying that back when we worked on this feature first (we present it now spruced up and updated from back in the Blogspot days), it 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 are his talents and quirks genuine enough (the man’s filmmaking style is so specific  as to be weirdly personal, even at its most bombastic) that we can set them apart from the dodgy storytelling ends to which he sometimes puts 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) but also hard to dismiss even when they’re being their most brainless. We’ve taken on a straight-faced evaluation of this guy’s work (and you might like to check out last year’s complementary run through of his best commercials and music videos too) that acknowledges 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 DP Wally Pfister), while also picking through the myriad 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 and Will Smith), Michael Bay quite literally exploded onto the screen with his flashy debut feature. Originally envisioned as a Disney buddy movie for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz of all people, producers Don Simpson (a year before his 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. However, the story (about some drugs stolen from police evidence) isn’t nearly 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 angles that circle Smith and Lawrence as they heroically stand mid-frame, to the length of Tea Leoni‘s skirt–would become a directorial hallmark that would inch Bay 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 (i.e. the one that even detractors find most bearable). [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) that consists of movie archetypes, 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 particular brand of 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 pivotal film of Michael Bay’s career. For one thing, it was his attempt at making a more grown-up, “serious” movie (along the lines of “Titanic,” so pretty serious, all right)—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 critically derided film and during a period where he strained for credibility, it certainly hurt him (and informed the bitter “fuck you” attitude of 2003’s all-up-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 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 the 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, but there’s evidence that points to the latter, since the home video “director’s cut” was actually far more interesting than what was released in theaters. It 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 that maybe deserves a slightly milder grade, but the theatrical release is what we’re really judging here and it will always be one of Bay’s (even) more ungainly and overwrought efforts, that mistakes melodrama for character relations and five-alarm action sequences for plot, and is furthermore just so self-serious and dull. [D-]

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” was a sign. ‘Retreat, reload, and come back meaner’ seems to be his motto, and with “Bad Boys II” he returned with guns blazing, sight trained on proper etiquette and good taste. With more or less a blank check budget-wise, working with the sequel to a barely-remembered action hit, “Bad Boys II” represents one of the definitive Bay experiences. 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 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, and film gruesome, gory shootouts and car chases with the gusto and clarity very few action directors have a handle on. In the end, the film 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: a sequence where a young raver’s dead body, 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 recouping 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 ( Kurtzman/Orci‘s work on the script was deemed 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, or maybe only second time after “The Rock,” the plot is not manhandled and left crying in a corner. Credit goes to McGregor and Johansson in making our leads just about relatable enough so that their high-octane journey meets 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 list the merits in terms of story and character of Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” it’d be a short conversation. 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 are artfully made, and stamped not only with his signature style but a consistent aesthetic look all their own (that rapidly became widely copied). And in a world of shoddy CGI, Bay, at least at this stage, imbued his special effects with a 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 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 dramatic reactions, riffs and occasional wit (though the humans 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. At least the first time out… [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 they utterly fail to form a cohesive whole. And 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,” and his worst since “Pearl Harbor.” [D] 

Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (2011)
A lot of passionate declarations of the “Fuck Michael Bay” and “I’m NEVER going to another ‘Transformers’ film” variety were made as we exited the theater after ‘Revenge of the Fallen,’ but damned if the trailer and high-concept premise for ‘Dark of the Moon‘ didn’t actually pique our interest: knitting real history (moon landing) into the daft Autobot/Decepticon war seemed a brave and at least partially intriguing move. Of course we were disappointed by the noisy and largely graceless, long-winded film that resulted, but if only because it clears the low watermark of the second entry with some ease, we have to say we didn’t feel quite as much vitriol towards it. And the main reason for that is that if you can make it through its absurdly turgid first two-thirds, which is just a lot of people saying things we already know (often in strange, affected accents) as though if they repeat the plot points often enough they will stop being so ridiculous (doesn’t work), leering cheesecake photography of replacement eye candy Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Shia LaBoeuf being unable to get a decent job although he’s saved the world a couple of times, the last act does reward you with a cookie: an all-out, balls-to-the-wall 30 minutes plus of the kind of OTT action that Bay can do so inimitably well. Chicago is evacuated and then gleefully destroyed as skyscrapers topple over, elite troops skydive in and a big metal snake thing bores through entire buildings. Plus Tyrese Gibson plays the exact same gung-ho-till-he-suddenly-turns-chickenshit character he plays in the “Fast & Furious” movies. In fact, the Chicago sequence is so brash and bold that it acts like a mind-wipe of the first two hours of exposition and sexism, and you’re in danger of leaving this time thinking “Huh, that wasn’t so bad…” [C]

Pain & Gain” (2012)
Budgeted at a lithe $26m, based on a true story, and featuring no non-human characters (OK, there’s a dog), “Pain & Gain” might be the mom-and-pop store to “Transformers” ‘ Wal-Mart in Bay’s empire, but that doesn’t mean that watching it doesn’t also feel like repeatedly shotgunning Bud Lights and intermittently smashing the cans into your forehead. Brash, trashy and apparently attempting to make a virtue of its utter brainlessness, “Pain & Gain” ‘s main issue is that it wants to be a satire, but is itself not smart enough for that, and then unfortunately assumes its audience, too, is as stupid as its dumb-as-fuck characters. And so it goes on way too long as Bay over-explains everything, throwing in every expositionary trick (voice-over narration, occasional titles, interrogation scenes, courtroom testimonies, flashbacks/forwards) to adorn a plot so ruthlessly simplistic three dunderheads could (and did) come up with it (and let’s not even get into the film’s rocky basis in fact, because that’s a whole other ball of wax). Mark Wahlberg is ideally cast as the musclebound meathead whose muddled philosophy of being a “doer” but also “America! Fuck yeah!” leads him to “mastermind” a plot to kidnap a rich client, into which endeavor he brings his even dimmer-bulb friend played by Anthony Mackie, who makes a handy receptacle into which to put a lot of “black men like fat girls” cliches. Sadder still, the charisma and genuine comic chops of Dwayne Johnson, the U.S.’ greatest natural resource, remain largely untapped by Bay, who trusts his actors to act even less than he trusts his audiences to follow what’s going on, and the whole thing becomes simply wearying as it goes on, no matter the day-glo production design and occasional burst of really-quite-nasty violence. Here, Bay’s talent for action, his clear way with cutting around a fistfight and of finding a moment of visual humor within a car crash pointedly contradicts his completely tone-deaf ear for story, dialogue or performance and so “Pain & Gain” provides the most compelling proof yet that the blockbuster director has built a billion-dollar career out of being the greatest second-unit director of all time. [C-]
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” opens Friday. — Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Katie Walsh, Mark Zhuravsky, Oli Lyttelton.

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