Michael Bay’s first movie, Bad Boys, opens with Martin Lawrence and Will Smith riding around Miami in Smith’s $105K Porsche 911. Smith is mad that Lawrence is eating fast food in his car, and Lawrence is mad that it doesn’t have cupholders. Then a couple dudes try to jack the car. Martin Lawrence kicks one of them in the nuts and yells “WESLEY SNIPES! PASSENGER 57!” at him — a decidedly blunt reference to Snipes’s 1992 “Die Hard on a Plane” movie.
That sort of moment defines Michael Bay, just as much as the explosions and the hot ladies and the military fetishism do. It’s the glue that brings it all together. Michael Bay characters can’t help but run their mouths, always saying the first dumb thing to pop into their heads. The startling contrast between that mundanity and whatever world-shattering event is going on outside has always been a key part of the Michael Bay Experience. Some people find that off-putting. I think it’s glorious.
Even the many folks who hate Michael Bay will admit that he’s an incredible craftsman. When it comes to staging large-scale action set pieces, nobody beats him, and we all can recognize a Bay movie when we see it. It’s not incidental that Paramount keeps hounding him to come back for more Transformers movies, because most directors wouldn’t be able to do what he does with them. With the exception of the second of those films (a badly edited and incoherent mess) Bay has been able to turn even what appears to be the most soulless of ultra-budget toy ads into trash masterpieces. There’s more to him a gift for making things blow up.
Michael Bay isn’t trying to be Steven Spielberg. He’s not aiming to win any Oscars… well, except maybe for Pearl Harbor, Disney’s ill-advised attempt to ape Titanic. Pearl Harbor may not have jokes, but it is a trash romance nonetheless. Bay has said Pearl Harbor was intended to emulate the sort of movies that had come out during the time in which it was set, and that’s why the love triangle at its center is so ham-fisted and goofy. It was like that on purpose. It’s not that Pearl Harbor is even a great movie; it’s a misfire, particularly because it’s three hours long. But at least it’s an unmistakable Michael Bay misfire.
“Trash” is not a descriptor I use as an insult. I love trash. It’s where I live. Bay is John Carpenter with lots of money to play with. He’s Paul Verhoeven without the rampant social commentary. He’s a more brash pre-Titanic James Cameron. He’s Ridley Scott, except when the screenplays he’s given are garbage (which is often) he just tells the actors to make up their own lines.
But nobody else does wildly indulgent mass-market trash like Michael Bay. It’s the reason he was the youngest director to earn $1 billion in box office receipts, and why his total today is above $5.7 billion. Bay’s brand of filmmaking has been so successful because it’s uncomplicated, and it’s fun, and it’s impeccable.
Some folks would tell you the Transformers movies epitomize him, but peak Michael Bay remains Bad Boys II. I first saw that film in the theater opening weekend when I was 16. It was eye-opening.
Bad Boys II has everything. It’s violent, lewd and hilarious. At one point Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are involved in a car chase with a van transporting dead bodies — dead bodies that fall out the back and get run over. At another, a 15-year-old boy picks up Lawrence’s daughter for a date and Lawrence and Smith take the “scary cop dad” shtick to an impossibly extreme place (a gun is pulled and a sexual proposition is wagered). And who can forget that the movie opens with Lawrence and Smith breaking up a KKK rally they’d been surreptitiously hanging out at under white hoods?
Roger Ebert used words like “cruel,” “unpleasant" and “ugly” to describe it. "The heroes of Bad Boys II are egotistical monsters, concerned only with their power, their one-liners, their weapons, their cars, their desires,” he wrote. “Everybody involved in this project needs to do some community service.” Somehow that only added to its brilliance for me.
Michael Bay, see, is making movies that don’t take place on our earth. They’re instead set on his earth, a world of very capable idiots who don’t care if they look stupid; who never fuck up in a way that’s permanently harmful to those around them. “At least no cops died,” Joe Pantoliano says in Bad Boys II, after a ridiculous car chase in which several cop cars actually are blown up. This is escapism at its essence, a total lack of self-consciousness in an uber-self-conscious era. Bay movies are like this because Bay thinks it’s fun, social responsibility be damned. That seemingly uncaring looseness is calculated, not an oversight. That sort of sensibility will of course be polarizing, but it’s also the work of an artist doing things the way he wants to do them.
What I learned that night, from that masterful showcase of what felt like every different kind of indulgence a movie could contain, was to embrace the trash. I can love Whale Rider, an excellent contemplative indie film about an adolescent Maori girl that I’d seen the previous week, and also the movie where rats have sex onscreen and Miami cops invade Cuba. Real cinephiles should be able to enjoy every type of movie, even if our preferences and what we value most will vary wildly. And that’s what I was figuring out how to do.
You might think that Bay’s new Benghazi film, 13 Hours, is another departure from what he does so well. It’s a growling, gritty war movie, after all, one that appears to be going after the success of stuff like Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down. That ignores the subject matter, though. Benghazi, the subject of endless conservative conspiracy theories (and, consequently, memes), getting a straight-faced, big-budget movie treatment from Michael Bay is perhaps the most natural thing that could happen because of its blanket absurdity. The actual event that took place in 2012 and the starkly partisan political way we talk about it are completely divorced from one another. Stripped of that cultural context, there’s nothing really unusual about Hollywood making a movie about it. But with that cultural context, having the Transformers and the Armageddon and the Bad Boys guy be the one to handle the movie depiction of that event is somehow apt.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bay chose to take on the project just because of how off-brand it is. The movie itself isn’t trying to be funny, but “Bayghazi” is a perfect storm of cultural meta-humor. Which, like the separation between what actually happened and the lens through which we view it, is in turn divorced from whether or not the movie is actually good. So to navigate that weird cultural maze, having a guy like Bay, a brilliant filmmaker who primarily is concerned with surface-level stimulation, do this is the only way it could possibly come out as something that doesn’t quite resemble somebody’s political propaganda.
13 Hours is part of the new face of Bay: his last non-Transformers movie was Pain & Gain, a mid-budget crime comedy that had no action set pieces but was nonetheless Michael Bay through and through. Bay the trash auteur is evolving, and that’s great even if he does become less accessible in doing so. He’s earned the ability to do what he wants. History will remember him fondly, because nobody’s better at doing what Michael Bay does than Michael Bay.