Director Spotlight: Michael Bay
by Barry Wurst
July 9, 2007
There's a moment in Bad Boys II that completely captures the essence of what makes a Michael Bay movie. For reasons that are too elaborate to explain, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are behind the wheel of a car and a bunch of dislodged automobiles are being hurled at them as they drive at a speed even Paris Hilton could appreciate. The golden moment is when we see a car fly past Lawrence, missing his head by mere inches and he gives out an enthusiastic "woo!" This unabashedly over-the-top, logic-free, stupid and utterly cool visual is pure Bay, in that it offers audiences a wild kick and demonstrates just how far Bay will go to give his audience a good time.
July 9 - Michael Bay
His many detractors have their valid points - he doesn't let most of his shots go on for more than a couple of seconds and bathes his imagery with garish colors, making his films look like souped-up MTV videos. Also, while the action scenes have always been strong, Bay has rarely gotten great performances from his actors or made a film where story or characters were strong (or in some cases, present at all). These arguable points are somewhat meaningless, as with just one exception, audiences have gone again and again to Bay's movies and made him one of the most popular action movie filmmakers in the world.
When Bad Boys (1995) came out in 1995, it had a number of aces up its sleeve. For one, it was produced by the late Don Simpson and the still-successful Jerry Bruckheimer, whose numerous 80's hits (Top Gun, Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop I and II) were precursors to Bay's films. It seems as though they passed the torch onto Bay, who would go on to make the sort of slick, body count-heavy, budget busting, soundtrack-driven action extravaganzas that made Simpson and Bruckheimer kings of the genre. Also, the film starred Will Smith in his action movie debut, though Martin Lawrence got top billing and, truth be told, was a bigger star at the time (Independence Day wouldn't open for another year). Smith established himself as an action hero with this one, though in truth, Téa Leoni steals the film in a key supporting role. Lawrence and Smith make a solid cop-movie team, as their many scenes together crackle (their opener is a howler) and the plot, about an identity switch, has some funny payoffs. The movie opened before the crowded summer season, had a hit soundtrack (highlighted by Diana King's popular "Shy Guy") and made a big impression with audiences.
The Rock (1996) would end up the last movie Simpson would co-produce (he died from, let's say, a famously excessive lifestyle) and it wound up a big summer hit. Many have pointed out how genuinely dumb and illogical the movie gets at times, not to mention that even Ed Harris (cast as the villain) has admitted that he had a hard time saying some of his lines with a straight face. Here's what works: of all people, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage (in his action movie debut) have a solid chemistry and are great fun to watch, the action scenes (especially a San Francisco chase sequence) are thrilling and the film succeeds at what it aims to be - a fun summer movie ride. Audiences made it a big hit (as opposed to less enthusiastic critics) and it firmly established Bay as the next big action movie director to watch.
Two years later, he re-surfaced with Armageddon (1998). At the time, most talked about how Bruce Willis did the film in order to get out of another Disney film (the never-made Broadway Bawler) that had a troubled history. Disney let Willis walk off of Broadway and contracted him to do four films, all of which (Armageddon, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Disney's The Kid) were big hits and gave fire to Willis' on-again, off-again hot streak. The biggest one to benefit from the success of Armageddon was Ben Affleck, who went from "the next big thing" to "global superstar" overnight. Notice I'm not talking about the film itself. While it is much better than the similar Deep Impact (released two months before) and has great visual effects, the film's crazily frenetic editing, bad dialogue and overall silliness (who can save the world from a killer asteroid? Oil Drillers!) didn't sell me, then or now. Audiences made it the biggest hit of the summer of 1998, the hit soundtrack (featuring that Aerosmith tune that still won't go away) was a must-own and jaded critics got hemorrhoids (instead of asteroids) from sitting through the 150-minute epic.
When Pearl Harbor (2001) was announced and the trailer was first unveiled, many saw it as a potential Best Picture candidate and possibly a definitive look at what happened on that horrible day. The hype was deafening, the anticipation was never bigger for a Bay movie and a huge opening was guaranteed. How could it possibly not have been the biggest hit of the summer of 2001? Easy, few liked it. While the Criterion DVD company released spectacular special editions for The Rock and Armageddon, no critical enthusiasm or, for that matter, ANY long-term enthusiasm greeted this 3-hour, blatantly Titanic-wannabe. It had the hottest cast, the biggest budget at the time, some incredible special effects, a Honolulu premiere and looked like the must-see of the summer. By June, it made a lot of money ($198 million), but, like the 1998 Godzilla remake, audiences abandoned it once word of mouth got around and critics took turns urinating on it.
Some saw Bad Boys II (2003) as a return to form, as Bay went back to what audiences loved him for the first time (big action, loud music, broad comedy, elephantine budget). Like Pearl Harbor and Men in Black II, the film was so expensive that, while it made a ton of money, it wasn't enough to cover the expense of making it. Audiences turned out in droves (and the top-selling soundtrack helped), while a few people with good taste noted how a) ridiculously overlong it is (147 minutes), b) tasteless it is (we get women being called "bitches" and the KKK in the first scene!) and c) tired, stupid and desperate it is. The easy chemistry between Smith and Lawrence in the first film now looked strained. Fans made it a popular diversion, while critics took turns defecating on it.
Oddly enough, many of the critics who wrote off Bay (and reported how he was famously a screaming, arrogant, egomaniac on the set of his films) went to his corner on The Island (2005). Despite not being remotely original, the film, get this, was story and character-driven, not to mention ambitious and fairly clever. Even though it doesn't hold up through the end (and never tops it's spectacular air chase sequence), those who wrote off Bay (like myself) noted that it was, truth be told, his best film yet. Audiences, astonishingly, didn't agree, making it a big, embarrassing flop. It is worth noting that it was the only film of Bay's NOT produced by Jerry Bruckheimer at this point.
Bay's new producing partner, Steven Spielberg, is reportedly a huge factor why Bay's latest, Transformers (2007), works as well as it does. It seems, while Bay's strength remains in big blow ’em up action, Spielberg's ability with character, story arch and building narrative has been said to propel the film, with his contribution being as evident as his ghost-directing Poltergeist. Nevertheless, once the box office grosses are in, it will be Bay who finds a big comeback. It seems his best work it still ahead of him and his popularity will return in full force this summer. What I hope to not see from Mr. Bay: Bad Boys III.