“I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime.”
People tend to hate Michael Bay for what he represents, and the fact that he represents it so unrepentantly. His is a cinema of crass excess – a perma-pubescent who doesn’t know how to love anything without fetishizing it, he’s the Yasujiro Ozu of “vulgar auteurism” (don’t hurt yourself trying to unpack that one).
A graduate of Wesleyan University who got his start shooting commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola, Bay inserted himself into the movie business when he teamed up with Jerry Bruckheimer for “Bad Boys.” Yes, “Bad Boys” was his FIRST. FILM. That’s like showing up for your driver’s license test in a fighter jet. From there, Bay blew up, eager to bring his particularly destructive brand of cinema anywhere that could sustain an explosion. If you can name it, Bay can nuke it.
Bay’s persona is staunchly unapologetic, which makes it that much stranger and unappreciated that yesterday he apologized for “Armageddon,” which we’ll soon learn is hardly the worst film that he’s ever made. He’s also one of the few iconic auteurs of the last 20 years whose entire body of work has probably been seen by huge swaths of the American public – simply by virtue of going to the biggest new movie in town, even casual moviegoers might unknowingly be familiar with the complete output of Michael Bay.
With that in mind, and with his latest (and perhaps smallest) film "Pain & Gain" opening on Friday, hopefully you’ll all be able to form your own opinions on our rundown of Michael Bay’s directorial career, ranked from worst to best. Feel free to rant and rave about our choices in the comments section, it’s what Bay would want.
9.) TRANSFORMERS (2007)
“What are you rolling? Whippets? Goof balls? A little wowie sauce with the boys?”
A tonal nightmare that remains the only “Transformers” film to make the cardinal sin of trying to tell a coherent story, Bay’s most toxically stupid blockbuster set the tone for the franchise but failed to find its rhythm. Bay has been raked over the coals for his supposedly choppy and inelegant action sequences, but utter incoherence would have been better than the noncommittal stabs at middle ground that drive the set pieces here.
The problem with “Transformers” is that it doesn’t do anything enough – much like the alien robots that lend the film its title, the first installment of Bay’s most massive franchise can’t commit to any particular form, and settles for artlessness. It’s as crass as either of its sequels (the bit in which a Transformer “pees” on John Turturro is a low point for human / machine relations), but lacks the one thing that no Michael Bay film can survive without: reckless confidence.
8.) TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (2009)
“That’s old school, yo. That’s like... That’s Cybertronian.”
So yeah, conventional wisdom is that this sequel is and always will be Michael Bay’s greatest offense, but the untethered madness of the whole thing earns my most begrudging respect, the insane spectacle of its climactic battle on the Great Pyramids as hard to follow as it is to ignore. “Revenge of the Fallen” is a film in which Bay’s resources have clearly outpaced his vision, the divots left by the writers’ strike filled with shamelessly racist caricatures and useless sidekicks.
The college shenanigans are enjoyably out of their mind (Isabel Lucas’ robot sex tail is a classic, but a classic of what I’m not so sure), and the towering IMAX presentation was certainly the overload the first film was lacking. But when the story is that bad, a little incoherence goes a long way.
7.) THE ISLAND (2005)
“That tongue thing is amazing!”
The first half of Bay’s most high-concept film uses wet gloss and ripe body horror to varnish over the fact that it’s dystopian story of simple-minded clones (being harvested to supply organs for their real-world equivalents, natch) is the kind of thing that Rod Serling could have written over the course of a single cigarette. Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast as the bashfully naive Jordan Two Delta, her round features and flawless skin used to subvert her lab-grown celebrity image.
It’s all compelling enough until the clones escape and become the targets of a hugely destructive manhunt across a bland cityscape, the chaos merely serviceable when compared to the full-throated action sequences of Bay’s other films, which are not similarly burdened by the demands of such a wild premise. The third act’s inevitable return to the farm is as flat and perfunctory as anything Bay has ever shot, interesting only in how it lamely evinces a boneheaded pro-life argument.
6.) PEARL HARBOR (2001)
“I joined the army to do MY patriotic duty... AND... to meet guys.”
It was probably inevitable that “Pearl Harbor” would eventually be regarded as Bay’s most awful disasterpiece, as it pulverizes one of the most violent days in American history in an orgy of plastic pop culture. Bay’s ego is notoriously bombastic, and his cinema only works because he enters every room a couple seconds ahead of his feet, but a different kind of gall is required to turn tragedy into spectacle, memorializing a generation of Americans while selling their grandkids duffel bags full of popcorn.
There’s a Fordian “aw shucks” mentality to this love triangle between two good midwestern boys and the gal they both loved (there’s also a Fordian racism to the portrait of the Japanese), but the pop smear of Bay’s approach conflates the greatest pre-9/11 foreign attack on American soil with a tawdry romance that shamelessly targets modern teens by aping another international event, “Titanic.” It’s like doing brain surgery by going through the groin. Ben Affleck kickstarted a decade of irrelevance with his wooden flyboy, and Bay decided that he’d be better of focusing on box office history.
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5.) BAD BOYS (1995)
“You know you drive almost slow enough to drive Miss Daisy.”
“Bad Boys” was originally conceived as a buddy comedy co-starring Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, but, uh ... that’s not really Michael Bay’s style. A largely unremarkable action film that swelters with testosterone and tries its best not to slip off the rails, the original “Bad Boys” – the rare franchise-starter that’s based off the chorus to a gimmick song – finds Bay sketching out his future chaos, and earning a lifetime spot on TNT’s Sunday programming schedule in the process.
4.) TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011)
“Spare me, you gaseous sycophant! You know what you are told, which is nothing!”
Minority opinion ahoy! From the title on down, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” makes less sense than any of the other installments in the franchise (which is saying quite a bit), but it’s value resides in how it exists as outsider art in disguise. A spectacle so wild and enormous that it seems detonated directly from the writings of Guy Debord, “Dark of the Moon” submits the world to its fetishized destruction, completely abandoning any attempt at logic in favor of an associative montage that blends mad physical effects with colossal CG better than any film before or since (those dudes gliding through the imploding building really left an impression on me).
The introduction of 3D to the series forced Bay to slow down and orchestrate more fluid action, resulting in a third act that’s as beautiful and balletic as anything he’s ever shot. The movement and destruction is so obviously prioritized over every other facet of the filmmaking that the movie abruptly (and hilariously) ends as soon as the final battle is won, with Optimus dashing off a quick line of voiceover and the credits rolling in. At the end of the day, Michael Bay is just an overgrown kid at recess, and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is his ultimate playground.
3.) ARMAGEDDON (1998)
"I understand that you were handicapped by a natural immaturity, and I forgive you."
Oh, “Armageddon.” I’ll never forget being shipped off to summer camp on the day that Roger Ebert’s 1-star pan was published in my local newspaper, and having to wait an entire month (an eternity for a 14-year-old) to see this beautiful monstrosity, and damn was it ever worth the wait. Gloriously stupid (meathead oilmen drilling nukes into an asteroid?) and so assured of its summer blockbuster swagger, “Armageddon” is full of embarrassingly iconic moments and has even less concern for Earth than it does for the people who are on the planet sitting through this movie, but damn if it doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing. Infused with a feverish pre-millennial doom and organized by one of the greatest team-building montages in recorded history, “Armageddon” laid waste to the entire sub-genre of disaster porn. Even when Roland Emmerich raised the stakes with “2012,” the fun never felt bigger.
“Armageddon” has also enjoyed an unusually interesting post-theatrical life, as it was infamously released on DVD by the esteemed Criterion Collection (Bay fits their auteurist brand, and his films definitely showcased then nascent DVD technology), and then, just yesterday, apologized for by its maker. A slap in the face to those who always saw its charms.
2.) BAD BOYS II (2003)
“Wooooo, THAT one puckered up my butt-hole!”
Well, “Bad Boys II” is certainly the most Michael Bay film there is. A morally questionable (let’s leave it at “questionable”) and seemingly endless buffet of wanton violence, gay panic, casual racism and collateral damage, “Bad Boys II” is like if the original film fell into a vat of the secret ooze that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (hey shout-out to Bay’s future producing work!).
Choreographed with the finesse of Jacques Tati and lathered in the hormones of Roger Vadim, “Bad Boys II” is what happens when a studio is too busy sweeping wreckage off the streets of Miami to say “no.” Shot by Amir Mokri (whose graceful camera movements and poetic lighting are so indebted to the films of Terrence Malick that this might as well be called “The Tree of Death”) and replete with Bay’s most gruesomely bone-crunching kills, “Bad Boys II” is a firmly erect middle finger to every flavor of taste there is, and the closest that Will Smith has (or, um, will) ever come to risking the safety of his celebrity.
1.) THE ROCK (1996)
“Listen, I think we got started off on the wrong foot.Stan Goodspeed, FBl. Uh - Let's talk music. Do you like the Elton John song, ‘Rocket Man?’”
Choosing the best Michael Bay film is like choosing the best song by Right Said Fred – you know there must be others, but only one comes to mind as a legitimate option. “The Rock” is the Platonic Ideal of 1990s action cinema, a spinal tap directly into the id of teenage boys the world over. It was only Michael Bay’s second feature film (“Loveless” was only the second My Bloody Valentine album), but by the time the burgeoning auteur arrived on set he was as confident in his vision as any established master of the medium. A perfect blend of brusque comedy and beefcake military bravado (imagine Aaron Sorkin in his fictional fraternity days) that capitalizes on Nicolas Cage’s unique wit better than any film between “Raising Arizona” and “Adaptation,” “The Rock” was the movie that Steven Seagal had waited his entire life to make.
Bay’s masterpiece, which has earned a rather assured spot in The Criterion Collection, makes previous films of its ilk (like Seagal’s “Under Siege”) look like parodies of the genre they invented, pitting a unique pair of heroes against Ed Harris’ unusually complex villain in an incredible setting that keeps revealing fun new sides of itself until the very end (bonus: David Morse!).
An efficient action spectacle that’s as eminently quotable as a Coen brothers’ movie, “The Rock” is the movie that Michael Bay was born to make. He never really matured beyond this film, but some people just weren’t made to grow up.