It’s been an interesting quarter century of action cinema. Ever since the white heat of Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal began to cool in the mid-90s, the genre has gone through a variety of phases. For a brief moment, the end of the millennium belonged to John Woo, who brought his balletic gunplay and white doves from Hong Kong with Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off. In the wake of 9/11, action was no laughing matter, stone serious Bourne films and prestige, Oscar-winning war films. Then superheroes took over the market, until an indestructible merchant of death named John Wick grabbed his fair share.
Meanwhile, over in his own corner, unfettered and unchanging through it all, is Michael Bay. It’s been 25 years since the music-video workhorse took his talents to the big screen, with two pop culture sensations making their own respective leaps into the blockbuster stratosphere; things only got crazier from there. Bad Boys is tricky to analyze after all these years, after Michael Bay has reshaped much of the action landscape, and after a career full of insanely awful movies that still, somehow, manage to be so disciplined in vision and specific in style that they are exactly what they are supposed to be. There’s too much Michael Bay baggage to assess anything Bad Boys achieves or where it falls short, because what was once fresh and exciting and new is now old hat.
I do have a distinct memory of seeing Bad Boys with my friend Corey at the United Artists 6 in town, having no prior knowledge of this music video director. I knew what that rushing desert road and the lighting strike announcing the presence of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer meant, but Bay was just some hired gun in 1995, no Tony Scott. I remember being absolutely head-over-heels in love with Bad Boys as a fifteen-year old, because I was right at the sweet spot of the demographic. Martin Lawrence was hilarious, Will Smith was a badass, and the jokes rained down between the bullets and car chases. There are still some great chases in Bad Boys, and some of the jokes don’t feel corny as hell (though many do). At the time Bay was still operating like a music video director, barely free of that scene, and I was a satisfied teenager when I left the theater that day, no doubt. Little did I know Michael Bay would be front and center through my adolescence, for better or worse.
His next film, The Rock, may still be his best movie. It’s big and bold and every major player in the cast – Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris – is on board with the absurdity, which sells everything. It plays like a James Cameron film, albeit one with a little more sleaze and swearing. The Alcatraz setting is fully realized, and it was an early indication that Michael Bay was going to have a signature style, one that… sort of mutated… more than it evolved over time. Two years after The Rock, he hit the jackpot with Bruce Willis and an ensemble of young stars in Armageddon – quite possibly the early, first peak of Michael Bay dumb insanity – to the tune of $554.6 million.
That isn’t to say Armageddon isn’t fun, and surprisingly emotional… at least it was to yours truly as a teenager entering the world. Yeah, I may have had something in my eye during Bruce’s farewell to Liv Tyler, so what? Armageddon is a blast, and it’s loud and funny and it never stops moving long enough for anyone to consider what may actually be happening. In only three movies’ time, Michael Bay reached a level of obnoxious auteur audacity, forever impossible for any of his peers to emulate. He’d cornered the market on action cranked up to eleven, action overflowing with enough gags and stunts to mask the laundry list of flaws.
Bay took a shot at prestigious historical drama in May of 2001 with Pearl Harbor, a truly amazing piece of cinema Roger Ebert so perfectly labeled “a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours.” All Bay cared about was the attack sequence, a chaotic CGI smorgasbord of dogfights and explosions that fills nearly an hour of screen time. The bigger issue was the romantic triangle covering two more hours, a stodgy wannabe Titanic melodrama with a trio of ill-equipped actors (Kate Beckinsale? Ben Affleck?! JOSH HARTNETT!!!), of which I dare anyone to remember a single second.
Turns out, none of it mattered anyway, because the Japanese attack on our military was shown with such a bold, arrogant sensationalism, that it put butts in seats and earned $450 million worldwide. It was Memorial Day, of course this garish misrepresentation of American history would sell like gangbusters. Bay won in spite of making an indefensibly bad movie, but thankfully he was smart enough to realize historical epics weren’t going to be his bag (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here). His next film was Bad Boys II, the final stage in the evolution (or mutation?) of Bay as a trash action auteur with an endless budget and plenty of horrible taste to somehow transcend offensiveness and achieve untouchable autonomy.
Bad Boys II was a huge hit, of course, one I haven’t seen from start to finish since the theater. I understand there are fans out there, and while I do understand that this wild-ass sequel is a perfect distillation of everything Michael Bay represents, I simply do not have the time. It doesn’t offend me, there are just too may movies I haven’t seen to spend 150 minutes in that chaos. Taking offense to his work is a fool’s errand, and by never changing his stripes, Michael Bay’s brand has become bulletproof. It’s pretty racist, sure, it objectifies women and has a Klan rally and rats fucking, yeah yeah… nobody cares. Especially Michael Bay.
The sequel was a solid enough hit to justify its existence, but Bay was clearly ready to pivot, having poured everything but the kitchen sink into the bombast of BBII. He somehow quietly snuck The Island into theaters, a modest attempt to ratchet back and focus at least a little more on plot and storytelling. The Island was a decent enough thriller with an interesting cast, but it was an odd choice for Bay and a flop, and it has to be one of the most forgotten movies of the 21st century.
After his first financial stumble, an amazing feat when you consider the preceding candidates, Michael Bay launched the biggest, loudest, most obnoxious metal-crunching franchise in the history of cinema. The original Tranformers is a fun action movie with a dedicated Shia LaBeouf performance, and if there ever were a muse for Michael Bay it was early 2000s Megan Fox. The rest of the movies are impossible to discern from each other if you stumble upon one on TV and LaBeouf or Mark Wahlberg isn’t on the screen; even then, if you see Mark Wahlberg and his silly long hair, is there any way to tell if it’s the fourth or fifth movie? There isn’t.
Occasionally, in between increasingly frenetic and incomprehensible Transformers sequels, Michael Bay tried his hand at more “serious” action fare with Pain and Gain, a pitch-black comedy that has become shorthand for the “Bay being serious” defense. Pain and Gain is a fine enough movie, entertaining and some of the black comedy is an entirely different frequency than so much of Bay’s vapid tomfoolery, but nobody sits down to watch this again the same way they return to Bad Boys or Armageddon or even Transformers.
In 2016, the Year The Country Couldn’t Handle, Bay went serious again, deathly serious this time around, as he adapted the Benghazi book 13 Hours into a feature film starring newly-minted action star John Krasinski. It came and went, laughed off by smug media and only a minor blip on the radar in January of that year. It appeared that Michael Bay was receding from the top of the mountain, his brand of hyperactive juvenile action having run its course in the blockbuster space.
Bay’s latest film, 6 Underground, found what appeared to be a sizable audience on Netflix last year, and it was a return to the early days of dumb jokes and assholes blowing things up. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect smarmy cypher for the director. This sort of action is where Bay is most comfortable, and most reliable. No matter how annoying his aesthetic has become, or how tiresome his movies grew as the years became decades, there is no denying he belongs in the same discussion as Scorsese, as Coppola, as De Palma, et. al., when it comes to auteur theory. Michael Bay’s films are so succinctly his, so unabashedly belonging to their author, that every wannabe Bay filmmaker is spotted and exposed almost immediately. Often imitated, never duplicated.
Throughout every step of the action movie evolution, Michael Bay has been around, doing his own thing, because he reached the final form of what Tony Scott and the Bruckheimer/Simpson steamroller started in the 80s. It’s easy to dunk on Bay because he’s a towering, world-renowned douchebag and he’s a little sexist and he’s a poisonous potion of smooth-brained American alchemy… but for any film fan in or around my age to claim they weren’t in a seat opening weekend for The Rock or Armageddon, lapping up every ounce of raunchy juvenile wit and absorbing the thump of every fireball shooting a car ten feet in the air, that’s revisionist history. Plain and simple.
People have tried to emulate what Michael Bay is doing for 25 years, but they’ve failed, washed up on the shore of imitators while the brash adventurer soldiers on, leaping from tough action auteur to prestige epic absurdity to robots in disguise, and never slowing down, never giving a damn what one single critic says about his movies. Currently, he’s tied to the long gestating Robopocalypse adaptation, but that’s bounced from one director to another, and who knows what will become of that. Who knows what will be next for any of us, but whatever comes out on the other side, I imagine Michael Bay will still be there, doing his thing, like it or not.