Love him or hate him, Michael “GO GO GO GO GO MOVE MOVE MOVE MOVE MOVE!!!” Bay is one of the most influential blockbuster action directors of the last twenty-plus years. There are a handful of contemporary filmmakers whose distinct styles can be recognized in a millisecond by even the mildest of film buffs. The second you hear the words Wes Anderson, it’s near impossible not to think of whimsy overload, intentionally hokey practical special effects, and giant yellow titles. Quentin Tarantino? An ungodly yet effective mix of ’70s exploitation and ’60s French New Wave, simmered inside a gigantic ego.
So who do you think of when I describe the following shot?: After a bombastic, deafening, in-your-face chase sequence cut in a manner to appease the attention span of an average FPS gamer who misplaced his Ritalin, the protagonists lose sight of the bad guys. In order to land the tragic outcome of this situation with a thud, the low-angle camera swirls around our heroes as they rise up with a look of defeat (without giving an inch from their inherent badass charisma in the process), the aftermath of the wanton destruction burning in slow motion in the background.
Or how about chrome-tinted establishing shots awash in artificial lens flares, the camera randomly swinging all over the place, regardless of the location being shown? Long shots on expensive, CGI-laden action intercut with shaky extreme close-ups of the characters yelling some inane and tonally inappropriate one-liners? Shameless product placement, even by Hollywood standards? A tendency to always cater to the lowest common denominator with rampant misogyny, careless reaffirmation of racial stereotypes in service of an easy joke, not to mention altogether too frequent visits to embarrassingly outdated gay panic humor?
Of course descriptions of Bay’s trademark style do not always have to be negative. The man has long been the butt of an endless array of jokes and parodies, but with the right project, tone and narrative approach, his output can be quite enjoyable. He’s a builder of cinematic roller coaster rides, without a hint of pretension that he’s doing otherwise. It depends on each ride, and each individual rider, whether the end result is throwing up into a garbage can, or letting loose with an enthusiastic “Whooo!”, our arms in the air.
Bay took Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott’s application of money-shot-centric commercial and music video aesthetic into big budget popcorn features and turned the dial to 11 while bringing his own style to the table. In many ways, his filmography deserves a fresh look, especially considering that the fifth Transformers flick has landed in theaters. So, here’s our list of Bay’s feature efforts, from the worst to the bad to the tolerable … all to way to, gasp, good and perhaps even awesome.
13. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Spoiler alert: The bottom of the pile will be filled with Transformers movies, so much so that I actually considered compiling all of them into a single entry, since it’s damn near impossible to distinguish between any of the installments. That includes the first film, which for some reason is known by fans and non-fans alike as “the good one,” even though it’s just as pedantic, incomprehensible, nauseating, cynical and irredeemably stupid as the rest.
Even though this bloated franchise is still an inexplicably and depressingly popular box-office behemoth, it also feeds on Bay’s worse impulses as a blockbuster helmer. Awash in crude grade school humor, nonsensical scripts haphazardly glued together with gobbledygook sci-fi mythology, action that’s impossible to decipher thanks to an overuse of rapid-fire cutting and extreme close-up shaky-cam, bland cardboard characters that make it hard to give an iota of crap regarding who wins during said action, and an astoundingly shameless kowtowing to the gods of product placement, these films are the go-to examples for anyone trying to point out what’s wrong with big budget filmmaking these days, and with good reason.
The second film in the franchise, the interminably abrasive and astoundingly mean-spirited Revenge of the Fallen belongs on the bottom of the list, not just because it doesn’t have a single redeemable quality while clearly being the most cynically constructed of the bunch, but also because it’s irredeemably and shockingly racist.
Bay loves to fill his films with crude racial stereotypes as placeholders for comic relief. It’s damn near impossible to pop in a Bay flick and not come across a fat, sassy black woman or an awkward and timid Middle-Eastern or Indian character who goes “comically” apeshit during the final battle. As much as I can’t stand Bay’s willingness to keep going back to such obvious and ugly attempts at humor, I usually chalk this up to his thoughtless meathead sensibilities that sees making fun of women, nerds, LGBTQ people, and minorities as being funny in and of itself, instead of coming from a place of downright ugly racial prejudice. This line is summarily crossed with the inclusion of Mudflap and Skids, a duo of minstrel show throwback characters, complete with whiny “ghetto-talk,” gold teeth and chains, as well as any awful African-American stereotype you can think of. Revenge of the Fallen is already as annoying as the rest of the series, but the inclusion of these characters makes it an infuriating experience.
12. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Dark of the Moon is almost a carbon copy of Revenge of the Fallen: the same annoying Shia LaBeouf performance, further debasement of talented actors like John Turturro and Frances McDormand, the exact same narrative structure that has our heroes globe-trotting in search of yet another supreme energy-wielding thingamajig, all to leave the theater with a throbbing migraine and a diminished faith in humanity as a whole.
There are two elements that give Dark of the Moon a slight edge over Revenge of the Fallen. One, Bay actually listened to fan backlash and completely erased Mudflaps and Skids from the franchise, while also toning down the racial humor—although a scene with tech support by an Indian character doesn’t do it any favors—and two, the complete destruction of Chicago during the third act battle is kind of cool, in a mid-’90s peak Roland Emmerich disaster porn kind of way.
11. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
This one is just plain depressing. It’s as abrasive, proudly dumb and nonsensical as the rest, yet it also doesn’t have any of Bay’s bravado and go-for-broke style that’s found in the previous entries. Bay was already showing signs of Transformers fatigue in The Age of Extinction, but he’s firmly in autopilot mode at this point. He looks like he’s just going through the motions to deliver the bare minimum out of what’s expected from him and this franchise, so we don’t even get a memorable shot or an uber-stylized moment. He said this is the last Transformers film he’s directing. Let’s hope that’s true, because his obvious ennui towards The Last Knight shows that it’s really time to move on.
10. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
I don’t understand why the fourth installment of the franchise wasn’t a full-blown reboot that restarted the whole thing from scratch. None of the human characters from the first three return (Amen to that, although they’re replaced with their own array of annoying cardboard cutouts), and the story takes place in a near future where the shiny noisy robots are a thing of the past. Of course this doesn’t stop Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) from discovering Optimus Prime as a junky truck and kick-starting yet another overblown adventure where him and his family go after the thingy that does the thingy to the other thingy so the mythical thingy can finally do the all-powerful thingy.
Age of Extinction has a slight edge on the bottom two entries mainly because Mark Wahlberg is a better fit for a franchise that thrives on sweaty working class charisma and meathead charm. Also, the plucky adventures of Yeager and fam trying to invent homemade robotic appliances in their Texan barn during the first act has some charm to it. That is, until it’s invaded by yet another indecipherable and interminable equivalent of a toddler banging toys together in the backyard while a coke-fueled wolverine films it using a fish-eye lens. Also, I take the fact that it’s almost three hours long as a personal insult.
9. Transformers (2007)
So here we finally are: The “good one.” I’ll never understand what prompted Roger Ebert to give this laughably inept franchise starter a three-star review while rightfully giving the sequel half a star? As far as the gaudy aesthetic, dumb plot, annoying characters, and brazen product placement, they’re all here in spades. (One imagines Bay calling console manufacturers: “We’re thinking of a console that turns into a Transformer. Just to let you know, Xbox is currently offering the most dough.”) Perhaps it’s the novelty element that gives it that tiny advantage. As much as I was never really impressed with the design of the titular characters, I can see why the rest of the audience, especially those who grew up on the toys and the cartoon, would find the first time they saw a Transformer turn from a vehicle into a robot with the aid of some admittedly impressive CGI to be exhilarating. Also, the first Transformers film has the most cohesive plot, not that it means much, as well as a pretty intriguing first act that actually builds some suspense without treating every moment as a car and metal-porn money shot.
8. Pearl Harbor (2001)
In an attempt to branch out of his reputation as a helmer of dumb roller coaster action flicks, Bay tried his hand at an epic and expensive historical drama that offensively attempted to cram a laughably maudlin and straight-faced love triangle into the tragic attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The film was already a hard sell, since it was cynically trying to piggyback on Titanic’s extraordinary success by wrapping a romance around a real-life disaster. Bay and his screenwriter Randall Wallace didn’t help matters as they delivered a straight throwback to actual WWII-era propaganda melodramas without a hint of modernization.
Therefore, what would have come across as a understandable attempt to galvanize a society against the enemy during a crucial war in the 1940s comes across as a simplistic black-and-white look at a complex one in 2001, enough to label it as jingoistic and xenophobic. The fact that the final voice-over attempts to frame the horrifying deaths of over two hundred thousand Japanese civilians as America’sway of “kicking ass” after being attacked represents the tone-deaf cherry on this obtuse sundae.
Bay shows some admirable restraint during the first 90 minutes of this three-hour monstrosity as he focuses on the bus stop novel romance of the three protagonists. He tries to imbue a sense of old-school Hollywood elegance with shots of Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale wistfully staring into each other’s eyes while whatever country setting shines in the background, but it all ends up looking like a laundry detergent commercial. Bay delivers the goods expected from him when the impressively larger than life attack sequence rouses the audience from their peaceful slumber, only to put them right back to sleep with an unnecessary extended coda that shows the brave (and somehow all ruggedly handsome) pilots attacking Japanese facilities as a form of payback.
7. Armageddon (1998)
Armageddon is the beginning of Bay giving into his basest urges as a larger-than-life action auteur. What used to feel groundbreaking and brave in his previous output begins to look overblown and desperate to hang onto the audience’s attention span. The cuts become shorter, the characters become dumber, the plot becomes more and more nonsensical, the personality of the refreshing young genre filmmaker retracts as the trademark Bay cynicism begins to rear its ugly head.
As an unapologetic B-movie with a gigantic budget, Armageddon has a lot of exciting set pieces, even though it’s hard to give two shits about whether any of the wide array of simplistic archetype characters live or die. The premise about a bunch of expert oil drillers going to space in order to stop a giant asteroid from destroying Earth is ludicrous, but in all fairness, Bay does have some fun with it, even though he takes it far too seriously on some occasions.
6. Bad Boys II (2003)
As phony as the first Bad Boys’ lame ’70s sit-com style plot was, it was propped up by genuine charisma between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, as well as Bay’s inherent hunger for making a name in Hollywood after an illustrious career as a music video director. Most of that good will goes out the window in this abrasive and shockingly humorless sequel, as the somewhat annoying but affable buddy-cop duo from the first film are turned into full blown murderous psychopaths who should be the ones stopped by the authorities.
They terrorize a kid with guns for the kid’s unforgivable sin of attempting to date one of their daughters, destroy an entire poor neighborhood while probably killing thousands in the process to save a single character, and generally act like a bunch of entitled douche bags hiding behind the power of the badge the whole runtime. It’s fine to depict cops as anti-heroes—just look at Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant—but when we’re asked to root for them as action heroes, that’s when the wires get crossed. That being said, the action in Bad Boys II is some of the best in Bay’s career, complete with a stupendously fun midpoint car chase. Also, it’s hard to completely hate on a movie that primarily inspired Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg to write Hot Fuzz, which is perhaps the best comedy and action flick of the ’00s.
5. 13 Hours (2016)
It’s admirable for Bay to get out of his comfort zone and deliver a live-action remake of Team America: World Police as a palate cleanser between two Transformers movies. All jokes aside, and believe me when I say there are plenty of jokes to be made in expense of this combo of feature-length U.S. army commercial and jingoistic circlejerk, the story of the six brave men who came to the rescue of Americans targeted by a violent and heinous attack needed to be told. The problem is, it needed to be told by a director who could deftly mix objective realism with pulse-pounding gritty action, like Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow.
Bay’s binary worldview of every soldier being an unabashed saint, a series of messiah figures without any external or internal blemishes, while every other character is a college-educated elitist egghead who get in the way of our god-given freedoms to kick ass and (maybe) take names, turns 13 Hours into a borderline propaganda piece, instead of the levelheaded and emotionally resonant drama that Bay’s obviously going for. The film also commits the cardinal sin of any Bay flick: It contains dull, flat, and unengaging action. There’s only a single shot that has his usual flourish, and that’s directly cannibalized from Pearl Harbor.
The late-era Michael Mann style digital photography and flat realism of the action could have been more palatable if the rest of the film adhered to a similar tone. But having to sit through one simple-minded jingoistic scene after the other, it’s hard not at least expect some over-the-top fireworks when the shit hits the fan. 13 Hours get a bit of a pass because I genuinely believe that Bay doesn’t come from a place of cynicism with this one. I think he actually tried to present a serious and dramatically hefty recreation of the true events. He may have failed in the attempt, but that’s at least admirable.
4. Bad Boys (1995)
Bay’s first feature signifies an impressive entrance into boisterous Hollywood action cinema. Considering the relatively low budget of the film (producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer didn’t think much of this project as they focused entirely on their big ticket release, Crimson Tide), Bay delivers an explosive buddy-cop flick that efficiently mixes comedy and action. His technical approach of course represents the beginning of his overblown and subtlety-screwing style, so it has lost a lot of its freshness over the last twenty-plus years, but man it was cool and new at the time. Even though the dumb premise is taken straight out of a bad sit-com, which could have been easily resolved with a couple of quick lines of expository dialogue, Smith and Lawrence’s natural chemistry keeps the pacing afloat.
3. The Island (2005)
For the first half of The Island, Bay actually delivers a rather cerebral and intriguing piece of hard sci-fi pulp. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic society where a select few living in an underground facility are picked to go to “The Island”, supposedly the only inhabitable place left in the outside world. Yet as two members of this community, played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, delve deep into the truth behind The Island, they realize that they might not be in for the paradise they thought they were.
The twist behind the concept is extremely easy to guess, and the second half of the movie devolves into yet another predictable Bay actioner. Although, to be fair, the set pieces here are some of the best found in Bay’s career, especially a car chase scene that was so good, Bay reused shots from it in one of the Transformers films. Aided by empathetic performances by McGregor and Johansson, The Island ends up as a wholly forgettable yet fun sci-fi/action project.
2. Pain & Gain (2013)
Yes, Bay has the crude sense of humor of a high school jock, and that’s why he turns out to be the perfect choice to helm Pain & Gain, his first and so far only attempt at a non-action project. The obviously Coen Brothers and Scorsese-inspired dark crime comedy tells the true story of a trio of bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) who decide to grab the American dream by the balls and kidnap a rich jerk (Tony Shalhoub in a deliciously scenery-chewing performance) in order to extort him out of his money.
If you paid attention to the names I just mentioned as clear inspirations for Pain & Gain, you can easily guess how well those plans turn out for these idiots. By implementing his usual gaudy, cartoonish, and abrasive technical approach to Pain & Gain, Bay taps us directly into the vapid minds of these people who’ll do anything for a get-rich-quick scheme—who come across as comic book characters but sadly exist by the millions in this country—and comes up with the perfect tone for this story. The comic timing between the three leads is impeccable, and Bay manages to create a satirical hellhole where every character is a grotesque monster in some form or another, creating a nightmarish antidote to the American Dream.
1. The Rock (1996)
With The Rock, Bay’s then-burgeoning caliber as the new hotshot action director, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s expertise in creating cinematic roller coaster rides, and Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery’s effortless charisma culminates in an explosive late ’90s action classic. Since The Rock came at the beginning stages of Bay’s career, he probably didn’t have the clout to change much of the screenplay, which in turn creates his most morally gray project to date. Instead of fighting against nameless and faceless foreign bad guys, the heroes go after a bunch of deadly rockets being held by a group of disgruntled U.S. soldiers led by General Francis Hummel (Ed Harris, who gives the best performance in any Bay film).
This unfortunate scenario pits brother against brother, and even though the film takes appropriate glee out of every bullet and explosion that comes out of this ride, Bay treats this inner conflict with an deftly balanced operatic outlet. Yes, it has its share of dumb dialogue, just like any other Bay project, but at least hearing a line as head-smackingly stupid as “Winners go home and fuck the prom queen” through Connery’s bearded Scottish mouth makes the whole thing worthwhile. The midpoint car chase sequence, complete with every ’90s car chase cliché you can possibly think of, is still Bay’s most impressive and entertaining sequence.