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Is Michael Bay really that bad?

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One of the most recognisable directing styles in the world is that of director/producer Michael Bay, the former music video director who has gone on to create box office behemoths over the past 25 years. However, where he has generally had financial success his films have often been torn down by critics and as a result only 3 of his 14 features have achieved over a 50% critic rating by Rotten Tomatoes. His work has been criticised for having lacklustre plots, poor acting and in some circles he has even been accused of racism and sexism by some of his harshest critics. Moreover ‘Bayhem’ as his style of filmmaking has been referred to is often mocked and he is seen by many to be a bit of a bit of a joke when compared to his peers. However I do not totally agree with this, and I hope that in this article I can try to explain why I feel that Bay’s contribution to modern cinema is much more important than many would give him credit for. Now it seems is the perfect time to evaluate Mr Bay as his most recent movie ‘6 Underground’ was recently released on Netflix, and the Bad Boys series (which he started) has just had moderate success in its third instalment. I will discuss his films individually and then come to a conclusion about his overall career thus far.
Between 1995 and 1998 Bay had fantastic success with 3 massive action films which with the help of superstar producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer propelled him into the forefront of the moviegoing audience’s consciousness. First off came Bad Boys, an action comedy buddy cop movie starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Although it hasn’t aged quite as well as some other films of its era the first Bad Boys is still a massively enjoyable experience in the main part due to Smith and Lawrence’s comedic chemistry, but also due to the fact that the fast paced glossy style of action that Bay chose to use set the tone of the film perfectly and was new and exciting at the time. If Bad Boys was a good solid starting block, his next film (The Rock) truly is his masterpiece. For me this is a pitch perfect action film: the story is tight, the characters are intriguing, the pace is breakneck, and the set pieces are truly jaw dropping at times. Although clearly helped by an uncredited Tarantino rewrite this is the best written of all Bay’s films with the most intriguing plot as Nicholas Cage’s FBI scientist and Sean Connery’s mysterious ex-convict John Mason have to break into Alcatraz in order to foil a terrorist threat posed by a rogue US General played phenomenally by Ed Harris. If you haven’t seen this film, I would implore any fans of the action genre to go out and give it a watch, especially if the only Michael Bay films you have seen are some of the more disappointing ones that we will get onto later. After this second critical and commercial success Bay went up another level with 1998’s disaster epic Armageddon; this massive blockbuster went on to become the highest grossing film of that year at the Box Office and has endured in the public eye ever since. One thing I will say about Armageddon is that it is frankly ridiculous, an incredibly silly plot with some even stupider movie science that is applied. In fact, NASA actually shows the film to their recruits so that they can point out all the flaws that the film portrays as fact. If you can get over this though you will have a massively fun time; the action is over the top and insane in the best possible way, the special effects were incredible for the time and still hold up today, and it has superb ensemble A list cast who you grow to care for throughout the film. So at this point, although Armageddon was a bit of a step down from The Rock, Bay was on top of the film world.
Unfortunately, his next film was Pearl Harbor, which despite fantastic effects and an incredible set piece recreating the Japanese attack is one of the worst mainstream war films I have ever seen. It flaunts the facts which annoyed veterans of the real life conflict and historians alike, the romance plot it does try and show us is cliched and dull, and unfortunately unlike his past 3 films the humour and glossy directing style really didn’t fit the tone of the time and the story he was trying to tell. However Pearl Harbor was a massive financial success, and it was followed up with another one: Bad Boys II. Bad Boys II is essentially the first film on steroids, the action is more over the top, the jokes are over the top, and it is perhaps peak stereotypical Bayhem with numerous explosions and the shot parodied in Hot Fuzz where a helicopter flies over our heroes in slow motion whilst the camera performs a 360 degree spin. Bad Boys II is not by any means a well made or well thought out film, but it’s fun and exactly what the audience wanted from a sequel, it is certainly a guilty pleasure of mine and continued Bay’s box office dominance. Up next was the Island; a perfectly fine but largely forgettable action sci fi thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as two people living in an artificial environment that they slowly discover throughout the film. It doesn’t pull up any trees, but it’s a good film and well worth a watch if you have a spare couple of hours.
At this point Bay was about to enter the Transformers phase of his career. Now I could probably write a whole article dedicated to this series and how it eventually failed, but one thing I will say now is that Bay certainly stayed on the franchise too long and it helped tarnish his reputation. These films made billions at the worldwide box office but over time became tired, and Bay’s style started to really feel that way towards the end of the series. Now I do think that the first and third Transformers films are actually above average, and are definitely fun action romps. But the other three unfortunately are pretty turgid, the plots are convoluted and at times nonsensical which really becomes a problem when you’re telling a story over a series of films. Unfortunately, these films are where Bay’s reputation for portraying women as objects and subtle racism really took root; perhaps there is something there, perhaps not but his stubbornness in sticking to the same formula certainly didn’t help him get away from being marred by those criticisms. Moreover, the acting in a lot of these films was pretty poor, with big name dramatic actors coming in and giving paycheck performances which never felt intense or realistic. Despite incredible CGI in creating the transformers themselves you never really felt the grandness of what you were seeing on screen because a lot of the action was confusing with almost too much going on at once. I think when he eventually retires Bay will be perhaps grateful that The Last Knight (Transformers 5) underperformed as his reputation was really dwindling with each film. If anyone wants to see one of Bay’s harshest critics rip these films apart, I would encourage you to go and find Mark Kermode’s reviews of them as they’re highly entertaining.
Whilst in the Transformers phase Bay released two smaller movies: an action crime film based on a true story called Pain and Gain, in which three bodybuilders kidnap a rich businessman, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, which focuses on a group of American soldiers fighting against all the odds during the Libyan revolution. I for one actually enjoyed both these films, especially the latter as it really demonstrated Bay’s talent and an ability to slightly reign in his over the top style to tell interesting stories. And finally his latest Netflix film 6 Underground is completely bonkers and I am not quite sure if I mean that in a good or a bad way. It’s convoluted and often confusing, but at other times truly enjoyable with great action and exciting and entertaining characters. It is the complete opposite of 13 Hours where instead of reigning in his style he has doubled down on it with so many scenes that reek of his filmmaking style. I would definitely recommend watching it and you can make your own mind up on whether it is sublime or ridiculous.
Michael Bay once said that he makes films for 13-year-old boys, and the inner 13-year-old boy inside most of us and when you think about that it all makes a lot more sense. The fast cars, the guns, the explosions, the cool looking glossy feel and the general breakneck pace are all just to appeal to our slightly immature side and I don’t see anything wrong with that. If that’s not for you, that’s not for you and is probably why it is often stuffy older arthouse critics who aren’t his biggest fans. But there clearly is a vast audience out there who love watching escapist fantasy that appeals to our more immature excitable side, and that is why I think Bay has been such a success, he knows his audience and for the most part gives them exactly what they want.

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Michael Shiels

Film Editor | 19-20

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