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The Films Of Michael Bay: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 29, 2011 at 5:44AM

Fuck Michael Bay. Michael Bay rules.
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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]

This article is related to: Feature, The Essentials, Michael Bay, Features, Retrospective


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