Tom Jolliffe looks back at Michael Bay’s greatest film…
Michael Bay. Just how does one sum up the man’s cinematic legacy? Cast your mind back to the mid-90’s. He hurls himself onto the world stage and with ruthless aplomb figuratively unzips and plonks Bay Jnr down on the table and announces a new form of action film-making. When I was 14, I thought Bad Boys was up there with the greatest films of all time. We all have strange phases, I mean as a younger kid I thought Masters of The Universe was the GOAT (greatest of all time). Now I grant you, I was correct in my younger claim. As a teen? Regarding Michael Bay’s opening gambit? Perhaps my vision, through that blurred teenage existence, was sullied.
Bad Boys still stacks up as fun, but by God is it dumb. It’s one of the dumbest films ever made, with all the subtlety of Rodney Dangerfield attending a Royal dinner. Between the riffing of Smith and Lawrence too, there’s a sense that the rest of the interplay and the dynamics are a white guys idea of the black male dynamic too (with additionally somewhat blinkered and misogynistic views on top). Of course that was 1995 and times have changed and Bay has ch…uh…oh…no…no, his films are still exactly the same and just as lacking in subtlety. For better or worse, dependant on your reaction to a Bay film, he is still so unshakably Bay.
A career, which has included USA flag Tattoo on your dick levels of patriotism in films like Armageddon and Pearl Harbour, as well as smashy smashy robots in 4(?) Transformers films, has marked Bay’s card. Here’s the thing though…the man is an auteur. Sure there are directors with no real distinct style who might make more consistently reasonable films, but many of whom, rarely make memorable films. An Auteur of course doesn’t necessarily have to be good. Bay or indeed Zack Snyder might have the grace of Rodney Dangerfield performing Swan Lake in a bid to avert global crisis (oh Rodney, why couldn’t you make THAT film before you passed?) but they have their style.
As obnoxious and somewhat toxic as some of Bay’s work has been, there’s still, at his best, a gleeful and wanton approach to entertaining. It harks back to inner 12 year old boy in all adult males (because, I mean, could anyone else watch these??) who liked lighting matches and spraying deodorant cans or destroying toys in elaborate, slightly dangerous (pre-PC gone mad) ways. That might be a select audience, but that is an audience (and I suppose it extends out to a few more).
6 Underground is out now and it’s everything one would expect from Michael Bay, yet it’s also a welcome diversion from CGI Robots, or small ‘asides’ like Pain and Glory (and the one with Jim from the Office…). It’s unadulterated, old school Bay that has been, more than a few times already been described as, ‘the most Michael Bay film ever.’ Quite the sales pitch and to an extent it is. Connecting with the live-wire sassiness of Ryan Reynolds is certainly a clever move, and it’s got every Bay trope you could imagine (good, bad and ugly). Is it good? Well…it’s not going to make the Sight and Sound list.
There is still one film though, which perfectly encapsulates Bay, but also perfected his formula (all those changes to it since mere dashings of imperfection). It has everything but it has a wonderful balance and it also has that beautiful synergy where a cast is weaved together that means it couldn’t possibly be anything but awesome. You see Bay discovered something, before anyone else did… He thought that Nicolas Cage, could possibly be an action hero. Cage already had a solid reputation as not just an overacting huckster but also, on his day, a very accomplished actor. Bay had already turned the Fresh Prince into an action hero and paved the way for Independence Day, I-Robot (for which I’m sure Bay has issued repeated apologies) and more, he then did the same with Cage, allowing the world such majesty as Con Air and Face/Off.
I recall my reaction at seeing The Rock. Little did I also realise as a Sly and Arnold aficionado, that Bay was in fact directly contributing to a growing diversion away from muscle-bound icons like the Stallion and the Oak. The likes of Speed, The Rock, Bad Boys et al, were hitting big audiences, whilst the takings for the 80’s shirtless brigade were falling and the also-rans like Jean-Claude and Dolph were hurtling toward the bottom shelf. Still, I dug it. I mean the film has THE James Bond in it (That’s Timothy Dal…no I jest, Sean Connery) and it has Michael Biehn in it. It also has Tony Todd. Hicks…and Candyman…in supporting roles. Then you’ve got a fiercely, almost aggressively committed Ed Harris who gives much needed gravitas to a role that under the Bay style, could have come across as incredibly cheesy. Harris makes you believe it, even whilst the overwrought editing, music and flag waving, there is Bay Jr. slapping you across the face to love ‘merica.
The Rock is brilliant. It’s brilliant because Cage was an unexpectedly quirky stroke of genius. So unconvincing as an action guy (at that point) that we need a 92 year old Sean Connery (maybe not that old) in there to add the balls. Yet by the end, Cage has earned his stripes, his balls have dropped. By Con Air he was sweeping the ground up behind him with his gonads. Connery’s blunt, almost bordering half-hearted approach and growling machismo is a great counter to Cage’s theatricality, and in among all that is Bay’s gift for action. Before his camera and overlaying of too much CGI (namely robots) became too eye shatteringly crazy (and his editors went batshit), the Rock had an array of brilliant set pieces and relentless pace. It’s hard not to sink into the giddy, unrepentant goofiness of it all.
To this day, The Rock is a film that both perfectly encapsulates 90’s action and offers up one of the finest examples of it. It’s a film, that has all the subtlety of my Rodney Dangerfield gags, but it’s also the epitome of brawn over brains, style over substance, theme park over cinema. You’ll never escape the imprisoning realisation that Michael Bay did make a good movie and it’s still and will probably remain, his crowning glory.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has several features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019/2020, including Cyber Bride and Scarecrow’s Revenge both available on Prime. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.