Michael Bay’s own namesake has become associated in trendy circles with dreadful, overpriced filmmaking. He’s the punchbag of Hollywood, the director critics love to hate, seemingly leaping from one disaster to the next and, all the while, racking up budgets that could have fed Africa. Indeed, such is his reputation that there’s nobody outside the early-teen demographic who would defend his films on an artistic level – whilst they tend to vary quite considerably in quality, even his best works are contrived and nonsensical, lacking any obvious character of their own. With all this in mind, could it ever be possible, in the near-future, to redeem Bay? Is there a single ‘good’ film to his name, or is his status well-deserved?
‘Wholly forgettable’ is a term that best describes the fruit of Bay’s directorial career – despite the money tied into them, there’s no escaping the fact that these are very thin, unremarkable pictures. A second viewing of Transformers (2007) is bound to disappoint anybody wowed by the globe-trotting antics of Shia LaBeouf and his CG robots in their younger years; it’s really just an overlong, very dated action flick, and the sequels are plain horrible (though definitely not as bad as the Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, not forgetting 2012’s Transformers-inspired Battleship adaptation).
Armageddon (1998) has left a cultural imprint (the President’s speech, the Aerosmith theme) far more compelling than the film itself, as has The Rock (1996), dominated by an ageing Sean Connery in one of his last major roles. Bad Boys (1995) is derivative baloney set to a hot soundtrack, whilst Pearl Harbor (2001) is little more than a technically accomplished mess. A more disciplined, philosophical filmmaker, a Ridley Scott or James Cameron, could produce infinitely better blockbusters on a fraction of the budget studios have turned over to Bay; his set pieces are loud and handsome, but never memorable.
Pain & Gain (2014) is arguably one of the most divisive movies of the last half-decade, garnering a string of happily average reviews whilst topping several critics’ ‘Worst of the Year’ lists. Let it be said that one cannot help but admire the director’s enthusiasm here – it’s micro-Bay, a crude and very violent true-crime caper done on a (relatively) low budget. The story of three gym-bros (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) embroiled in an air-headed scam, the film is fast-paced, energetic and visually absorbing; that alone is unlikely to compensate for its overcooked satire on the ’Merican Dream, and it does, admittedly, milk acts of real-life criminal brutality for laughs (Tony Shalhoub’s depiction of a wealthy victim, in particular, borders on slander). Nevertheless, those who attacked it post-release appear to have been ripping largely on Bay’s established reputation. Pain & Gain is unoriginal, trashy and pretty stupid – all the things Bad Boys was –, but it’s too aware of its own ridiculousness to merit serious complaint, and the leads are all clearly having a good time.
Like Pain & Gain, The Island (2005) cannot hold its own narrative weight, dissolving in its final act into an unexceptional action marathon, but it’s easily Bay’s most interesting film to date, juggling themes of isolation and social alienation much better than M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, released a year before it. Ewan McGregor is Lincoln Six Echo, raised among others in a remote compound with the understanding that the outside world can no longer sustain human life; inevitably, he defects, making several shocking discoveries along the way. Bay is unfocused as ever, and the whole thing could have benefited from far more talking – the explosions and car chases really get in the way of the film’s better sections –, but it’s far from terrible, abound with glimmers of, yes, actual cleverness.
Michael Bay will never be looked upon as a great filmmaker, and far too much damage has been done already to rehabilitate him critically – his most recent piece, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, is a Donald Trump campaign ad disguised as an action film –, but his indisputable bad-ness is far from consistent, and, where most fall utterly flat, several of his movies function rather well as light, decidedly OTT entertainment. Such is the joy of low expectations.