Ranking the Films of Michael Bay: Nick’s List

Michael Bay may be the most divisive filmmaker working in Hollywood today. His films are derided by critics and fanboys alike, and yet they somehow manage to make hundreds of millions of dollars and set box office records. He shoots everything like its porn and has got a terrible, juvenile sense of humor, one that is simultaneously cornball, misogynistic, and racist. He’s caused so much destruction on screen that he’s been given his own word: “Bayhem.”

That being said, no matter how brainless or offensive his films may be, you can’t deny Bay’s technical prowess. He’s got a sense of style that is truly his own and a great eye for arresting visuals. There’s a reason he’s got two films on the Criterion Collection and is studied and copied by filmmakers like Peter Berg and Christopher Nolan (who is reported to watch his films religiously).

With the release of his latest film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, I thought it was as appropriate a time as ever to go through Bay’s filmography and rank the good and the bad. So without further adieu, I give you… the films of Michael Bay.

10: Pearl Harbor (2001)

It’s not that it’s a bad movie (which it is), but rather that Bay is the worst fit for this kind of material. The forty minute attack on Pearl Harbor? I’d watch that sequence again. The two and a half hours of melodrama surrounding it? Not so much.

Attempting to capture the spirit and success of the recently released Titanic, while also infusing the romanticism of 1940’s war epics, might’ve worked in the hands of a different director. But Bay doesn’t know how to balance the shifting tones. One moment we’re watching thousands of unsuspecting soldiers and innocents die, then cutting to Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett engaged in a dog fight like it’s a scene from Top Gun.

You can make all the arguments you want about how it’s in the spirit of old war films, but in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, it just comes off as naive and trivializing the deaths of real people. I’m sure there’s a way to pull that style off, but I don’t think Bay is capable of doing it. If you want to watch a great movie about Pearl Harbor, watchTora! Tora! Tora! instead.

9. Bad Boys (1995)

Bay’s debut as a feature film director, as well as the film that helped launched the cinematic careers of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, isn’t so much a bad as it is boring. Not just by Bay standards, but general action film ones as well. Sure, there’s plenty of gun fire, explosions, and humor between the characters, but none of it really sticks or stands out.

Bay’s just developing his iconic directorial style here, and you get a glimpse of it, but it’s not enough to separate it from other buddy action comedies of the time… except when it comes to the performances by the two leads. The relationship between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is just as entertaining as any buddy cop duo put on screen.

It’s no secret that the script wasn’t exactly in good shape when they started shooting, so Bay heavily relied on his two stars ability to improvise and help strengthen certain scenes. And while that leads to great lines or moments, it doesn’t quite gel into a cohesive whole.

8. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

I have a soft spot for the Transformers films. Yeah, I know, they’re big and dumb and represent everything that is wrong with modern cinema, but what can I say? There’s just something about giant robots punching each other and the humans caught in the middle of it all that I kind of dig. I don’t like using the term “guilty pleasure” because I actually don’t feel guilty about the films I like and defend. And yes, that includes the Transformers movies.

That is… except for this one. For the most part, I should say. I think the premise involving Transformers being linked to the formation of ancient civilizations is kind of cool (I’m a sucker for “they’ve been here before!” plot lines). There’s a fun little sequence near the beginning that has a bunch of kitchen appliances being turned into little Transformers and wreaking havoc on the house like they’re in a scene from Gremlins. And then to top it all off, there’s a pretty spectacular forest battle between Optimus Prime and a gang of Decepticons that needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. But sadly, that’s not enough for a movie that runs over two and a half hours long.

The movie is a mess, a product of the Writer’s Strike back in 2008. What goodwill the first film had is basically thrown out the window by means of tasteless, offensive gags, mind numbing action that drags on and on, and scenes that barely link together. Which is a shame cause, like I mentioned above, there are actually some interesting ideas and set pieces stuffed in the middle of all this.

7. Bad Boys II (2003)

If I were to chose one film that accurately described Michael Bay as a director (and possibly as a human being), it would be this. The film opens with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence infiltrating a KKK ceremony (complete with large burning cross) and ends with them driving a Humvee through a South American shanty time, a big old middle finger to poor people everywhere.

Watching Bad Boys II will change your life. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I can’t say. Some people love this film, while others vehemently hate it. I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to deny the skill and dedication it takes to make a film as excessive and amoral as this, but it just goes on far too long for my tastes.

There’s been talk of making a Bad Boys III for almost a decade now. Honestly, I don’t know how you can top Bad Boys II. But if anyone can, it’s Michael Bay.

6. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

This movie is worth watching for the climax alone. I’m not a fan of action set pieces that overstay their welcome (seeTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen), but somehow Bay has crafted an entire third act that’s built around a single battle sequence and it works.

The city of Chicago is evacuated and then subsequently destroyed, allowing skyscrapers to topple over, elite military troopers to skydive in, and a giant metallic snake to plow through buildings. But it’s not all chaos and confusion. There’s an actual plan in play and I was surprised at how easy it was to follow. There’s a clear path and destination, and the Transformers are actually indistinguishable from each other, something that wasn’t always the case in the first two films.

It’s exhilarating, it’s suspenseful, it’s fun. Which helps, because there really isn’t a whole lot to the hour and a half leading up to the finale. It’s mostly just build up that barely has any affect on the resulting action. But hey, you probably won’t until complain until you stop to think about it the day after watching.

5. Armageddon (1998)

Armageddon is big and dumb and I kind of love it for that. It’s perhaps as pure a modern summer blockbluster as you can find. In fact, along with Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, it helped usher in a new era of disaster films that we still see today (which, depending on your opinion, is either really good or really bad). Despite its bloated two and a half hour running time, Bay manages to keep things moving, even in scenes where the immediate danger of an asteroid the size of Texas isn’t felt.

4. The Island (2005)

Bay’s most underrated film is also one of his best. It was a rare failure at the box office for him, which is a shame because I think it’s a type of film he should attempt more often, one that is actually about something. In this case, the conflict between human cloning and dignity. Sure, it takes its cues from a lot of 70’s sci-fi films, but I think the director successfully manages to make it his own.

It’s also remarkably restrained. That is, for a Bay film. Plot and characters are actually given a chance to breathe and develop. Speaking of characters, the film may also feature the most likeable cast Bay has ever assembled. His usual nasty and self-loathing cast of characters is pushed to the sidelines here. Instead, the heroes are naïve innocents, while the villains are well meaning professions who’ve just crossed one too many moral boundaries.

3. Transformers (2007)

It’s the story of a boy and his first car. Not something you expect to hinge a Michael Bay film on. But then again, the first Transformers isn’t your typical Michael Bay film. Sure, there are explosions, crude humor, and Megan Fox to ogle over, but the movie’s spirit and tone is much closer to the Steven Spielberg films of the 80’s (which makes sense as he is a producer on this franchise).

That aspect alone grounds this world of giant transforming robots in an interesting way. Like The Island, it’s pretty restrained by Bay standards. Even in the big fight scenes, we’re reminded that there’s a human heart at the center of this metallic beast. It’s a shame that the sequels haven’t been as evenly balanced as this first film.

Side note: While I enjoy Bay’s work on this film, wouldn’t GI Joe have been a more appropriate Hasbro product for him to bring to the big screen? Just saying…

2. The Rock (1996)

Michael Bay has made a lot of movies that people love to hate. But the one that almost everyone agrees is actually good is The Rock. It has so little of Bay’s worst tendencies and almost all of his good ones. There is little of Bay’s trademark sense of bad humor to be found here. Instead, it’s a full-on pulp action film that owes a lot to the work of Don Siegel.

The high-concept actioner features a pretty great premise, with a renegade general taking over Alcatraz Island to unleash a nerve gas attack upon San Francisco. Of course, the only two people able to take down such a threat are a mild mannered chemical weapons specialist played by Nicolas Cage (awesome!) and an ex-con and former Alcatraz inmate played by Sean Connery (even more awesome!).

The Rock is a work of style, tone, and energy. An action picture that stands at the top of its genre thanks to a literate and witty script.  It’s also proof that Bay is at his best when he’s actually given something good to work with.

1. Pain & Gain (2013)

I first saw Pain & Gain when it was released last year. It was my detox after a stressful move and semester of college. And If Michael Bay films are anything, they are detoxes.

But those going in expecting the usual Bayhem and madness are bound to be more than a little surprised. This film actually has more in common with the works of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino than it does with the action films of Bay’s career. It’s like Fargo or Reservoir Dogs, but on steroids. It’s about a couple of body builders who think they deserve a bigger piece of the American Dream, so they kidnap a rich guy and deprive him of his wealth. But of course, being a film of this kind, things hardly go as planned.

There’s only one explosion in the film and barely any gunfire, which leaves room for actual character exploration (a difference from character development, as these characters end the film just as stupid and clueless, if not more so, than when they began). The three leads are a trio of bumbling idiots played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Anthony Mackie, and Bay uses every chance he gets to make sure we’re laughing at them and not with them. That’s kind of what’s interesting about the film: Bay seems like he’s in on the joke.

I don’t know if Bay suddenly gained self-awareness, but all of his usual schtick now seems to be used in service of the plot and characters instead of as distraction from a lack thereof.  Bay’s “America! ‘Eff yeah!” attitude finally shows its dark side, giving us a lead character who thinks he can get away with robbery and murder just because he “deserves it.” His roided out body causes him to look down upon everyone else in contempt, something Bay himself appears to do in each of his films. But here, he gets punished for that, not rewarded or cheered on.

There’s way more I could say about this film, but I’ve already taken up more space than I was originally planning to. I’ll take a million Transformer movies as long as it means that Bay gets to keep making these smaller, character films in between. I honestly feel like Bay’s best film could still be ahead of him. What that could be, I have no idea. But I’m excited to find out.

Now it’s your turn. How would you rank the films of Michael Bay? Let us know in the comments below!