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The Films Of Michael Bay: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
June 29, 2011 5:44 AM
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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]

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  • actionman | June 30, 2011 3:46 AMReply

    Kathleen -- I'd hang out anytime :)

  • Jessica Kiang | June 30, 2011 3:28 AMReply

    @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 | June 30, 2011 2:19 AMReply

    Not sure what an "E" is, but I am down with Mr. Arkadian's feelings.

  • Mr. Arkadin | June 29, 2011 11:57 AMReply

    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]

  • zxcvb | June 29, 2011 11:36 AMReply

    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).

  • Rashad | June 29, 2011 9:31 AMReply

    Armageddon is a solid B+

  • scribe | June 29, 2011 8:09 AMReply

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

  • Edward Davis | June 29, 2011 7:55 AMReply

    @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.

  • Xian | June 29, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    “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.

  • Marrrk | June 29, 2011 7:38 AMReply

    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.

  • Abner | June 29, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    Peter "A Perfect" Stormare made me wince.

  • Kathleen Walsh | June 29, 2011 7:11 AMReply

    I want to hang out with actionman.

  • Thislalife | June 29, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    "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 | June 29, 2011 6:43 AMReply

    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 | June 29, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    Thanks Styles. Correction made on the name.

  • styles | June 29, 2011 6:34 AMReply

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

  • dead farts club | June 29, 2011 6:30 AMReply

    actlonman just ate a shitload of paste.

  • Edward Davis | June 29, 2011 6:17 AMReply

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

  • actlonman | June 29, 2011 6:15 AMReply

    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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