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Retrospective: The Films Of Michael Bay

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 23, 2014 at 1:08PM

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.
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Michael Bay Armageddon Set Photo

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

"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

"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

"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]

This article is related to: Michael Bay, Retrospective, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Features, Feature, Pain And Gain


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