Michael Bay – excuse me, the proper title is 2-time Criterion Collection released Michael Bay – is like the Kenny Powers of directors. He favors excess and showboating over all forms of thoughtful nuance and subtlety, he isn’t afraid to sell himself out and abandon critical respectability for money and fame, and he doesn’t give a single care to what you think about him. This weekend will see the release of his 4th Transformers movie with Transformers: Age of Extinction. My question is why is Michael Bay still making these films? Believe it or not, Michael Bay actually can do better.
Nobody glorifies America in their films more than Michael Bay does. If Michael Bay could drape himself in an American flag at all times he probably would. Michael Bay is freedom in all caps. FREEDOM. He’s practically a propaganda filmmaker working at a blockbuster budget level. What Leni Reifenstahl was doing for Germany and Sergei Eisenstein was doing for Russia, Michael Bay is doing for America. Consider the various shots in Armageddon where working class families gather around the tv/radio to hear the President speak, or the numerous times Bay sets his characters in his films in front of an American flag. He introduces Bruce Willis’s character in Armageddon by having him hit golf balls at a Greenpeace ship protesting his oil drilling in the ocean. His films are American patriotic fist-pumps and middle-fingers to anti-capitalists translated into celluloid.
Michael Bay doesn’t care about logic, he cares about entertainment. He’s all for forgoing any pauses of logic as long as the payoff is popcorn-in-hand type audience entertainment. In fact, this fun fact about Armageddon from IMDB below perfectly sums up Michael Bay’s attitude towards conventional logic.
For the first half of his career Michael Bay thrived on this type of manic lunacy, always striving for the biggest bang for his buck. He came in at the right time of the 90s action film: right in that comfy middle portion where you could still rip off the plot of Die Hard without people realizing it, but still well enough before films like The Matrix where practical stunts were still the way to go, and before The Bourne Identity mainstreamed gritty realistic action. His debut Bad Boys took on the mold of the buddy cop genre, and completely embraced how ridiculous and heightened the action was in this film. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence were right in step with Bay’s approach, creating some enjoyable chemistry for the audience to latch onto throughout the high-octane shootouts.
His next film The Rock doubled down in this type of constant and insane urgency, going the Die Hard route on a bigger scale – Alcatraz Island. The best way to explain how insane this film is the simple dialogue exchange they actually wrote and filmed: “I’ll do my best.” “Your best?….Losers always whine about their best…Winners go home and f**k the prom queen!” “Carla was the prom queen.” It’s beyond ridiculous, and who better than Bay, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery to take you there and revel in the high-stakes lunacy?
A good 90% of the scenes in Armageddon go from “We’re gonna be okay” to “We’re all gonna die” in a matter of seconds, and then repeats the formula for 2+ hours. It’s so ridiculous, and a bit much for the running time but it’s the exact type of ridiculous that Bay can have fun with. He doesn’t want you to contemplate anything from his films, even one with stretches of logic like Armageddon. He just wants you to have some fun. The problem came with Pearl Harbor. Nobody can defend that 3-hour dump. It made sense for him to do it with his love of all things American, but the thing is it was the wrong type of story for him to tell. He shouldn’t be telling 180-minute war epics with romance and pauses for reflection, or if he is it should be half the runtime Pearl Harbor was. This film forced him to ground himself in historical accuracy and logic, something that he just can’t do. Luckily he bounced back with the insanely fun Bad Boys 2, going back to the well of what made him appealing in the first place. The Island was a solidly shot action piece, but once again Bay’s just not the type for higher theorizing. It’s easy to be mad at him for his stupidity, but he’s so good at making stupidity a fun time at the theater you can’t help but admire how aware he is of what his strong suits are.
I was 15 years old when the first Transformers came out, and let me tell you that film is the stuff that a 15 year old boy in the height of puberty’s dreams are made of – gigantic robots, excessive explosions and scantily clad women. Then the second one came out and it was a self-defeating move for Michael Bay. The film bogged itself down in explaining its logic and circumstance, not realizing that the key with Michael Bay is to get rid of any of that. The 3rd film in the franchise followed the same pattern, making two incredibly dull films for ones that are about fighting space robots.
Pain & Gain was incredibly unique for Michael Bay. It was almost an anti-thesis to Michael Bay. Here he was satirizing and mocking the same type of patriotism that he had previously championed, but shooting it with the same excessive and manic style he always had. With committed and hilarious performances from Mark Wahlberg, The Rock (Never Dwayne Johnson, just The Rock) and Anthony Mackie, Bay turned out a biting satire of how much a sham the American dream is and reminded audiences that there was a real filmmaker in him that had been lost among the robots. Michael Bay could really make an effective piece of filmmaking. For the first time since I had become a coherent cinephile, I was excited for Michael Bay. What was he going to do next? Now that he had broken himself creatively out of Transformers, where was he going to take it? My good will had all but vanished when he announced he would be returning for this Friday’s Age of Extinction.
Before I go forward, it should be stressed that it’s not like the Transformers franchise was anything that special to begin with like say The Matrix franchise, but the Transformers films had started out fun if nothing else and have since devolved into one indistinguishable action sequence to another. I want to see Optimus Prime backhand a robot T-Rex as much as the next person, but at this point…what is the point? The Transformers franchise embodies every complaint growing about summer blockbusters – phoned in, lifeless and predictable. You get the sense that anybody could direct these films, leaving the burning question – why is the guy behind the Bad Boys films and Pain & Gain still doing films about farting robots? We essentially got the wrong Michael Bay franchise off the ground. We should be living in a world where we have 4 Bad Boys films with a 5th on the way, not one where he’s made 4 Transformers films with a 5th on the way.
Maybe we’ve reached the point in action films where the overkill and lunacy he built his career on just doesn’t sell like it used to. Are the Transformers films the only way Bay can have his say anymore? After all they’ve each made monstrous amounts of money, with the 4th likely to do the same proving that there will always be an audience for them as long as there are 15-year old boys in the height of puberty. Michael Bay has committed himself to this franchise for better or (undoubtedly) worse. Michael Bay will always be making ridiculous and explosive action films, it’s in his DNA. I just hope he makes ones that are fun to watch again.