Michael Bay seems fitting to be the first entry into Monkeys Fighting Robots’ Undisputed Collection of Greatest Filmmakers*. There are few directors who have come to personify a generation, for better and worse, while also leaving a cultural crater the size of an asteroid quite like Mr. Bay. Now, having a lasting impact doesn’t necessarily make someone a great director. Hitler and Uwe Boll have had lasting impacts, after all (coincidence that they’re both German? — Just kidding, I’m not comparing a director to Hitler).
Michael Bay is known for being a fascist dictator on set and his ultimate control over the image he presents means we are able to get what each Great Filmmaker must have: a voice. The voice of Michael Bay is one of extreme kinetics; at once slick, commercial and cool yet perverse and self-gratifying. With a few exceptions, there isn’t a director working today who places as much of their unfiltered selves into the images we see.
Mr. Bay’s filmic eye was honed creating flashy commercials and music videos. Bay is amongst the first swath of narrative directors to emerge working in this fashion. There is a very real sense of commerciality in mainstream feature films and Bay came around at the exact right time when that commerciality deemed itself worthy of its own voice.
His first movie, Bad Boys, was an instant hit. Things were helped with it being headlined by upcoming superstars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (who, at the time, wasn’t a film superstar but was definitely one in pop culture) but, for the director, it was like kissing a girl (or guy) for the first time. It was clunky, it was jagged at the edges but dammit it was cool.
Michael Bay kissed the girl that was Bad Boys and went immediately to third base, making The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. During this period, his voice was firmly established but not quite understood. With all three being hits, the latter two of this trio cemented Bay as a divisive mainstream star, capable of crafting enormously successful films with enormous set pieces while also being completely tone deaf when given incompatible material.
In 2003, Mr. Bay once again visited his first kiss and this time went all the way. The resulting offspring was Bad Boys II. Up until this point, Bay’s voice was blunted either by learning the ropes of narrative cinema (Bad Boys) or making films he had no real business making (Pearl Harbor). By the time Bad Boys II came around, Bay was at the height of his filmmaking talents and was allowed to use whatever means necessary to bring the world another chapter in the saga of Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett. During this two and a half hour sun-drenched epic, Michael Bay finally revealed to the world his particular brand of sick. It crept in at the edges of his earlier work but here it was totally unsheathed and brandished like a sword dipped in syphilis.
One of the more interesting things about Michael Bay is his total lack of irony. When he holds an action set piece revolving around dodging human cadavers thrown from a van, there is absolutely no pretension or sense of metaphoric value. It’s just there. If there is no such thing as objectivity in art, Michael Bay is as close as we come to it. He is acutely aware of the subjectiveness his lens provides (especially when it comes to the objectification of women) but he presents it simply as is. It’s what he wants to see. It’s what titillates him. Therefore, it’s what you’re going to see. In Bad Boys II we are able to fully view an artistic statement through the lens of total objectivity. Mr. Bay is not a master manipulator when it comes to theme but fools viewers into thinking he is when baring his soul through the manipulations of his insanely crafted action beats.
Also, he gave us Michael Shannon as a white supremacist.
Warning: this clip from BAD BOYS II is NSFW, including language, violence and general hatefulness. It’s also ace filmmaking.
From here, we go into Mr. Bay’s most controversial phase. After having finally produced a bomb in The Island, Michael Bay directed Transformers. I wholeheartedly believe the first movie in this series gets a bit of undue hatred. It’s a fun time at the theater. Some fans with a little too much time on their hands may decry this as an utter mishandling of the series they so cherish but I say that way of thinking is a tad immature. Oh, and guess what Transformers is? Immature. The most accurate criticism leveled at these movies is that they are most definitely not for children. Bay’s voice has been proven to be a wild, dangerous one and filtering it though a movie about children’s toys is completely ill-advised. There are a handful of R-rated horror films I’d rather any 10-year-old watch than a Transformers movie.
If Transformers is decent at best, the less said of Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction the better. At the very least, what makes these Transformers movies interesting in the slightest is this strange, acceptable filtration of a madman. I pay for my ticket just to see what kind of sick nonsense Bay was able to get past the MPAA and Paramount when making his “kids movies”. We can rant and rave all we want about this series being the decline of human culture but the utter truth is that it reminded us that Michael Bay isn’t some PG-13 hackboy giving everyone a handshake after he tells them how fat their moms are.
No, no. The genius of Michael Bay is when he calls you fat and retarded, spits in your face then hugs you and licks his own saliva off your flesh with a toothy grin.
This is what I like to call Pain & Gain. If we have to bitch and moan about Transformers, I say it’s all worth it for this mean little film. For the first time, Mr. Bay is given a script with a pulse (written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely of the Captain America series and soon to be Avengers: Infinity War fame) and the perfect subject matter with which to imprint upon. In this world of steroids, creeps and misplaced eroticism, Bay finds his home. It’s like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” in that we finally get to see from which planet Michael Bay hails. The movie is shaggy but never fails to entertain and even manages to be poignant. If Michael Bay never works with Dwayne Johnson again, we’re all losers.
Michael Bay is a rocket in need of correct aiming. His visual touchstones are clear and recognizable even for film neophytes. He is a master craftsman and when matched with the correct, diseased material he transcends standard storytelling and becomes something else entirely. At their best, Michael Bay’s movies are an exploded hole-in-the-wall allowing us to see the wreckage of a man’s soul. That soul isn’t without its flaws but it is pure, it is beautiful and it is mother-effing Michael Bay.
Michael Bay’s newest non-Transformers extravaganza, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi opens this Friday. Go see it.
*”Undisputed Collection of Greatest Filmmakers” is a semi-regular column that attempts to place today’s working directors into a pantheon of greats, only surrounded in fellowship by talent of equally unparalleled measure. This collection is non-refundable.