Michael Bay Retrospective
Editor’s Notes: Transformers: Age of Extinction is now out in wide release.
Michael Bay is an auteur. An auteur who is a couple of million shy from grossing $5bn worldwide. Although that my detract many of you, making you recoil in film theory horror at the thought of someone putting Michael Bay in the same ring as Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick, it is indeed true. He could be one who even revels in the excess and extremism that Gaspar Noé is familiar with. “Bayisms” and “Bayhem” are terms to describe his revel same excessive violence that Gaspar Noé revels in - although their certificate ratings certainly differ. Clearly this is a hyperbolic comparison but there is a pinch of truth to it. Michael Bay’s career was born in stylistic excess, where if something isn’t working, throw an explosion in there for good measure. That is the general critical consensus from film critics and bloggers alike, that are almost wholly unified on social media in their disdain for Michael Bay. Michael Bay really isn’t as bad as people bemoan. He does what he does. As he’s said before, he makes films for “teenage boys” which isn’t the biggest crime ever committed - except for his trivial overt sexualisation of thinly written female characters. He is at least a passionate director making full on films, rather than a half-assed director slumming it. He really believes his films are great. That’s admirable.
His career originated in the commercial industry; something that is clear from his films. All flair selling the product, very little artistic substance behind the image. The image is there to be aesthetically pleasing, exciting, usually bombastic. His first foray into filmmaking was a film that heavily advertised Porsche in a way that was actually impressive, seeming like a legitimate conversation between two people. That conversation opens the film. Bad Boys got two comedic actors into the lead roles of a massive action film. It launched Will Smith as a blockbuster star, rather than the Fresh Prince that was in living rooms for 6 successful years. Alongside him was Martin Lawrence, a comedian that had his own comedy show much like Will Smith. Really he gathered two people in a similar stage of their careers and begun launching them into an entirely new direction with a loud, lavish eccentricity that would only become more exaggerated throughout his career. Bad Boysis massive amounts of fun. It works because of the chemistry of the duo, sparking indignantly at each other mostly, as good friends do. Michael Bay is at his best when he allows his people to become the characters, allowing their performances to be as big and as comical as his spark-filled explosion - even when it’s a wooden door. Allowing that wooden door to have sparks is basically what the majority of his characters are. They’d be rudimentary but necessary, when he allows them to blow up, they become something a lot more fun. It especially contains some fantastic action sequences, most famously a foot chase scene that is choreographed with such precision that a stunt man is a split second away from being hit by a speeding 4X4.
Michael Bay’s style was set in stone from the off, only with every picture did it get larger and even more dynamic. Next up was directing the notoriously difficult duo of Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, his most critically successful film to date. A chemist and ex-con are in a race against time when a group of military men try to lead a nerve gas attack to San Francisco from the famous Alcatraz. Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay seem to be a perfect fit, for the audience. One provides an excess amount of money to blow stuff up, the latter loves blowing up stuff more than anyone else. Putting them together means that the critics practically have aneurysms every two years when they combine to release something. The Rock though is surprisingly more intelligent for a blockbuster by Bay and Bruckheimer. For once, you have a villain who isn’t so one-dimensional that all you do is hate him and the filmmakers who made him so plainly evil. Ed Harris’s confliction and truly troubled mind brings sympathy to the audience who don’t want to hate him, but really do not want to see him succeed. That, bundled together with the bizarre odd-couple comedy of Cage and Connery, means you have an action film that has substance and laughs - a rarity considering Bay focuses only on the latter.
Armageddon followed two years later which is the most melodramatic action film put to screen. Its entire premise is based on the simply stupid idea of training drillers to be specialist astronauts instead of training the astronauts to drill. That coupled together with Aerosmith’s most emotional song means you have audiences flooding in tears while critics get angry at the overt exploitation being put in front of them. Manipulating the audience is unforgivable when it’s completely unearned, hinging entirely on the melodrama of what is essentially showing a puppy death on screen. It’s sure to get the audience weeping in the most disingenuous of manners. It deserves to be ignored. His next piece, deserves to be ignored perhaps even more. Pearl Harbor is an offensive blockbuster that exploits a tragedy for a few big bangs. What’s worse is how Michael Bay spoke of Kate Beckinsale before the film. In an interview, he openly said: “I wasn’t sure about her at first…she wore black leather trousers in her screen test and I thought she was a little nasty…it was easy to think of this woman as a slut.” That is beyond unacceptable. He is known for his ogling of women but sexualisation of a woman is not necessary an evil thing, but when done in the vein of misogyny like it seems he does, then it really is. Hard at all to imagine how a director could say this and get away with it. It isn’t the only thing he said about the talented actress either. Bay then had the audacity to claim that Beckinsale - a woman who is clearly gorgeous - wasn’t “too beautiful” and made a sweeping statement about how “women feel disturbed when they see someone’s too pretty.” These outrageous comments got swept under by the general public unfortunately, brushed under the rug as if the misogyny, objectification and sexuality of a woman is shameful. Funny that a director think that when he gets his characters to stay at them, in white, while they usually hide, scream or be the damsel in distress.
Michael Bay, oddly, accomplished something that eludes the film industry and a lot of directors: a sequel that’s better than its predecessor. Back to the fictional police ‘Tactical Narcotics Team’ (TNT), Bad Boys II was the film and it did everything it should in a sequel. It amped up the stakes, the humour and the character relationships which are brought to life thanks to the performances from Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Joe Pantoliano reprises his role as the typical angry police captain but when he exclaims “A boat?!”, it is never impossible not to laugh. He brings life and originality to his absolutely insane character who is sure to keel over in the third (if there ever is one) from a heart attack or aneurysm - especially since that humour is right up Michael Bay’s alley. Perhaps Michael Bay needs to indulge himself but keep it under control, which is what Bad Boys II feels like. It has the typical excess, the plane fly over, the dynamic camera, the excessive running time but in this it all adds to something: character, narrative or spectacle. Others in this career could easily be trimmed out with a really great editor. Or merely a good one. If you want a scene that encapsulates Michael Bay in a scene, then have a look at the ambitious and marvellously done scene of a camera circling between two rooms through two holes, between the leads and stereotypical Haitian criminals. This is the only time where it feels like his ignorance is least offensive, which obviously isn’t as glowing as it sounds. It does try to make humour out of bizarre situations that might make audiences uncomfortable like two black cops busting up a KKK meeting while a cross burns and the camera dollies along. Though many will criticise it, it’s hard not to get swept up in the kinetic energy that dynamic cameras, colourful explosions and some of the most bizarrely comedic moments that come from a recount of a car chase body count, an accidental ingestion of super-ecstasy and a mistaken onscreen confession that only gets ruined by a character’s homophobic reaction to it.
The next part of his career has disappointed entirely. The Island was a generic sci-fi thriller of a poorly conceptualised dystopian future with added booms. Perhaps the only good thing to come from it was brining Scarlett Johansson to the public conscience after her great turn in Lost in Translation. After that brought one of the most successful franchises of all time. A trilogy was released between 2007 and 2011 which is basically three identical films that somehow have a longer running time. Together, those films have grossed just under $2.7bn dollars. Currently, the fourth one has grossed $301m in its opening weekend - a $100m of which is domestic. The franchise created stars in CGI more than anything, with moments of really impressive spectacle. It’s hard to argue with the quality of the effects and the stunts involved. Though many like to see nothing but problems with the films, the first is far from awful. The story moves on at a steady pace, it delves into small character moments - mainly for humour but they’re there - and then it uses its excessive budget to make a sensory overload. It uses great sound design, sound mixing, its production values are spectacular and with the beauty of top of the line CGI, it really took the audiences away to this world. Many may bemoan it but when you see a kid’s face light up at Optimus Prime or Bumblebee, how is it really that harmful? That’s where the sequels come in. The second especially has a lot of problems for audiences to see, subconsciously. Robots are overtly racist by making them urban or ghetto, then adding in illiteracy to them in the most vile of stereotypes - even though they’re robots, people working on this film still thought it was a good idea. When you think it can’t get worse, Michael Bay throws giant Decepticon testicles into the face of millions, effectively teabagging the audience. Its only redeeming moment is a fight scene choreographed in a forest that is utterly awe-inspiring, utilising the spectacle aspect of cinema to magical effect. Unfortunately, its ignorance is passed off as entirely innocent or harmless when it practically spits in the face of everyone with an interest in geography, jumping thousands of miles in 10 minutes. Then came the third,Dark of the Moon and the trailer promised something that didn’t deliver. The colour palette had changed, it was darker, it was drained, it seemed apocalyptical, less sparkly. It was only the colouring that found this change, turning up the spectacle again but dimming down the logic or general principles of the universe.
Pain & Gain was his first film outside of the Transformers franchise since 2007. Being almost 6 years later, directors usually take breaks between the franchises to hit that passion project home now that they can get the financial backing. Pain & Gain is Michael Bay’s equivalent to a passion project. Gathering together Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie together was near perfect casting for the roles, all three spending what looks like 25 hours a day in a gym and eating only chicken with broccoli. Beefing up for the material with a testosterone filled crime of the dumb. The characters almost perfectly relate to Michael Bay as a person: unintentionally humorous, seriously over the top, seeing no problems with what they’re done, accidentally uncomfortable. Pain & Gain was advertised as something a lot funnier and light-hearted than it actually was, putting emphasis on a kidnapping gone wrong because they went for the wrong BMW. Instead, what follows is a dark tale about three idiots who really felt they deserved to be rich, to own everything, to drive around in expensive cars and live life care free, because they believed it was their destiny at any cost. Laughs do exist in the film but they are fewer than originally advertised but what is worse is that it’s laced with the horrible, haunting fact that this is the truth. Michael Bay even draws attention to it halfway through the film so that everyone knows it isn’t a filmmaker running rampant but rather capitalists getting what they want in the most violent of means. By having the character they steal from be an irredeemable, snivelling egomaniac, it’s like the actions the trio take to torture the assets away are perfectly acceptable. That is the type of mean-spirited attitude that plagues his films.
Like it or not, Michael Bay is here to stay. Alongside his chaotic directing career, Bay is producing some of the worst horror remakes under the Silver Dune banner. Put that together with a directing career that is about to fly over $5bn as Transformers: Age of Extinction hits the cinemas in America and parts of Asia, still to be released in the Europe. That many will have studios begging Bay to make more films, even if it’s bloodless Bayhem in Transformers or the overt violence of films like Bad Boys and Pain & Gain. According to IMDb, Bad Boys III is confirmed to be his next directorial but IMDb is far from the barometer of truth. It will be interesting to see what is next for Michael Bay who is still distancing himself from Transformers 5, as he did 4, 3 and 2. Saying that publicly is possibly a bargaining tool to get even more money for the next outing. He could probably charge more than most stars currently by his proven box office success. Whatever you think of Michael Bay, there is talent there, organising some outrageous stunts surrounded by flames followed by a hit or miss one-liner. The truth is, with a good action-comedy script with enough explosions and genuine character beats, Michael Bay could really make an utterly brilliant film. Though you may disagree, the auteur does have a knack for the loud and bombastic but interspersed in his films are character moments. Critics may disagree with that but Revenge of the Fallen proves that with by handing out scenes to the mother character - that is a character beat, whether you like it or not, whether it’s deep or shallow. Currently it’s unconfirmed what’s next for the action specialist but it’ll likely be a huge success and has an 80% chance of being a sequel. With a talented editor, a script written by one or two people only, a couple of actors with real chemistry and talent, Michael Bay could easily make a fantastic film that will apologise for all his prior indiscretions. Look at The Rock for example.