In this report, I'm going to give Bay a fair assessment and see if he is as bad as we make him out to be. I won't be judging films he's produced (that's a totally different article in itself) - only the films where he is credited as director. I will try to be as unbiased as possible and judge each movie by its own merits, but when something sticks out to me as personally upsetting I'll address it as such...
Purely judging him as an action director, Michael Bay is a step above the average studio filmmaker. Bay wins a few points Bad Boys II, which had terrific action sequences and coordination, but that's the only movie where his action stands out to me as being exciting and fun, as well as having any tension. The rest of his movies have very average action scenes. Any time a movie needs slow motion just so the audience can keep up with what's going on is a sign of poor action direction.
In some ways this is the weakest of Bay's skill set. One of the things that irritated me about Transformers: Dark of the Moon was Bay's general camera work. It seems like he spent all of his millions of dollars and couldn't afford one tripod. The camera is constantly moving when it's unnecessary, adding to the franticness his scenes already have. This is something that has become more of an issue with his recent films and while I'm not assessing him purely on the Transformers franchise, that's where his flaws are most apparent.
When Bay's not constantly moving the camera, he shoots everything fetishistically. His commercial making sensibilities take over and if you were to take a ten-second clip from one of the driving scenes, which tend to last two minutes, and put a Chevy logo on the screen you could easily mistake it for an advertisement. This may be intentional because of all the obvious product placement, but then I'd have to take even more points off for sacrificing his artistic integrity for extra money that he clearly doesn't need when the movies are already a license to print money.
Comments: Everything is filmed like a commercial, the action isn't all that focused or memorable, and he needs to take product placement money to buy a tripod.
Bay has worked with a number of great actors - Frances McDormand, Ed Harris and Ewan McGregor to name but a few. And he's managed to make them all give forgettable performances. Bay generally has people do three kinds of acting: talking fast, yelling, or full-on serious. Sometimes he'll have people switch things up and yell while they're being full-on serious, but generally speaking there's not a whole lot in between. There's also not much subtlety to the performances in Michael Bay movies, or even any stand out performances. Generally speaking he gets average performances out of his actors, but I've never seen somebody sleepwalk through a Michael Bay movie either, so I'll give him that.
Where Bay frustrates a lot of people, myself included, is by taking great actors and reducing them to doing insulting, immature things for cheap laughs. He takes actors and makes them a walking punch line (see John Turturro and John Malkovich). It made me angry to see John Turturro embarrass himself in Transformers and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but John Malkovich in Transformers: Dark of the Moon made my stomach flip. Malkovich play fighting with Bumblebee made me physically ill, and I have never wanted to walk out of a movie more in my life than during that scene. For the simple fact he takes actors and makes them play caricatures of himself, squandering their talents, Bay loses a lot of respect and major points.
Comments: Bay normally gets consistent decent performances out of people, but when somebody is bad in a Michael Bay film, they're probably at the very worst of their career.
SCRIPT TO SCREEN
As a director your job is basically to take a weak script and make it better, or take a good script and try to get as much of the vision right as possible. This is a hard one because a Michael Bay movie is only as good as his script. If you give him a good script you'll get a good product. Bad Boys II, The Rock, and Pain & Gain are more or less good movies (or entertaining movies, at least). But when Bay gets a bad script he seems to make the final product worse. There's a way to take a bad script and make a decent movie. You can shift the focus from certain elements, or have the actors try to sell it differently, or even focus on cinematography. The scripts seem to weigh Bay down, impacting on the quality of everything in the movie. The only thing people come out of his movies praising are the special effects.
Comments: Is only as good as his scripts.
There's no denying the amount of stinkers in Michael Bay's filmography. For every decent to good movie he's made, there are two horrible ones. Not taking into account his producing credits, he's got one of the worst track records for any high profile director and while his movies are all well made, they don't have enough character development and are lacking in any real substance.
Comments: A few golden nuggets, but not enough to offset the number of critical failures.
WORKING WITH ACTORS: C-
SCRIPT TO SCREEN: C
Pros: When given good material Bay delivers. His movies are very well made and appeal to a mass audience. Special effects and aesthetics are very appealing on a visceral level.
Cons: Squanders potential and lacks focus. Does not work well with others and is incapable of making something better than the sum of its parts. Extremely average output. Lack of subtlety or sensitivity leads to instances of intentional and unintentional racism and misogyny.
Final Thoughts: It's fair to say that Michael Bay isn't the worst filmmaker working right now, but he's definitely deserving of some of the criticism directed his way. His cockiness and ego in both interviews and his movies are hard to separate from his body of work. In spite of that, Pain & Gain was a huge step in the right direction and showed massive improvement - one can only hope this shows promise of a Bay who tries harder to stretch himself. So, I'm hopeful for Transformers 4, if for no other reason than "how much worse can it really get?" Famous last words? Hopefully not...
Do you agree with this assessment of Michael Bay's career to date? Let us know in the comments below...
Anthony Stokes is a blogger and independent filmmaker.