It’s easy to be a movie snob these days. Thanks to the Internet, something truly unexpected has taken place: People have actually become snobs about mainstream movies!
What was once reserved for art-house features and traditional Oscar material has now become fair game in the realm of big budget blockbusters. Now, even directors of movies featuring giant robots disguised as trucks are held to the same standards as directors of more supposedly substantive material.
No modern-day director inspires more ire and apologetic diatribes in equal measure than jump cut master Michael Bay. This is perhaps unfair to Bay, who is still in many ways a superior filmmaker to true hacks such as Bret Ratner and Paul W.S. Anderson. Still, he isn’t exactly Francis Ford Coppola either. We certainly can’t count his purportedly horrible personality and the allegations of sexism and racism against him when none of that has been proven without a reasonable doubt.
But is Bay as bad as so many seem to believe? Below is a critical reexamination of his work and my attempt to answer that oh-so-important question:
Bad Boys– Fresh off his music video directing success, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson tapped him to direct a low budget action film starring two TV stars named Wil Smith and Martin Lawrence. In the mid-Nineties, making a movie that looked like a music video was a huge selling point and the movie launched its director and two stars onto a whole new level. Still, even those of us who like the movie should be willing to admit it’s a relatively empty affair, more a collection of moments than a story or character study.
The Rock-The following year saw Bay moving into grander territory with a big budget action film starring Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris. The explosions were bigger, the sets more impressive, and the performances were legendarily over the top…in a good way. This is one of the few films Bay has directed that showed his true strengths in relation to character interaction and pacing.
Armageddon– Bay’s first truly awful film was also one of his most successful. Since the late ’90s were all about comets, asteroids and volcanoes, it made sense that Bruckheimer’s hit machine would capitalize on the trend. This is where Bay’s weaknesses began showing through. The entire film is an over long macho grunt fest filled with flat jokes, superfluous females, and implausibility standing in the place of true drama.
Pearl Harbor– Easily his worst film to date, “Pearl harbor” also distinguishes itself as Bay’s first official ode to military butt kissing. Nothing about this drawn out romance novel is good and forget about historical accuracy. Ben Affleck was on a career downslide and this steaming pile merely served to expedite it.
Bad Boys II– The sequel was inevitable, although far too many years passed between films. Still, despite critics, it was an enjoyable film filled with lots of incredible action set pieces and more confident performances by the two leads. Unlike other Bay films, the female character served a point and wasn’t an extension of the males.
The Island– Many critics felt this was Bay’s stumbling point and even he, in a remarkably childish move, chose to blame the lack of star power of Ewan McGregor as the reason it was his least successful film. On the contrary, “The Island” is Bay’s one undeniably quality film. In its first hour, it is a solid piece of somber science fiction with light touches of intelligent humor. In its second hour, it becomes an action film with a point. He would never reach this level of sophistication again.
Transformers– Michael got his franchise! The man has never denied that he makes movies for teenage boys, so a film based on a popular 1980’s toy and cartoon seemed inevitable. And to be fair, it works rather well. For the first time, Bay is on the cusp of creating a film that harkens back to the blockbusters of not so long ago, where likable characters dealt with enormous odds and prevailed while the audience cheered. It’s a solid outing and a good beginning to a potentially good series.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen– And then this unfocused mess came out. Perhaps we’ll never know why this movie was such an incoherent jumble of incompleteness, but one thing was clear: Bay no longer cared about story. He had become pure spectacle at this point, making films featuring ridiculously overwhelming visuals without a care in the world for coherence. From its shifting, uneven tone to its obnoxious, extraneous characters and nonsensical plot, the second film in the franchise is a showcase for all of Bay’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. Also, by now, Bay’s military fetishism is on full display.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon– It gets better, just not by very much. The third film in the franchise does attempt to have a story and it’s a coherent one. While it suffers from too many obnoxious characters (by now a Bay trademark) it does focus the story into something resembling real drama.
I will end the analysis here because I have not yet seen “Pain and Gain.” What conclusion can we draw from the body of work listed above? For one thing, Bay was never going to be one of the greats, nor did he show any interest in doing so. He was a music video guy who got chosen to make popcorn movies and never stopped. Michael Bay is a workman-like director who knows how to thrill special effects hungry audiences. It’s difficult to label someone a hack when they never made any pretenses at greatness or art.
Mainstream movie snobs apparently disagree.