"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-]