No other modern director drives a polarizing debate like Michael Bay does. The five-time Transformers director is as infamous as he is adored, with his distinct brand of action movie either driving audiences away or attracting them.
Seen as either an old-school action movie maestro or the embodiment of everything wrong with teenage boys’ fantasies, Bay has a distinct filmography of works that show the best and worst of his skills. While some show off his often ignored talents, others highlight why many aren’t wrong for thinking he’s overrated.
10 UNDERRATED: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (2016)
A retelling of the 2012 siege of an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, 13 Hours is the last movie anyone would expect from Bay. When word first got out that he would be adapting an event that’s understandably “too soon” for some, the ensuing backlash and ridicule were predictable. But surprisingly, 13 Hours wasn’t as offensive as feared.
Bay’s signature explosions and slow-motion are present, but the restrained 13 Hours feels foreign when put beside five Autobot-centric movies. The fact that Bay could direct something this grounded and somber shows his unsung skill and surprising maturity. At worst, there’s little to distinguish 13 Hours from other self-serious War On Terror movies, but that isn’t a deal breaker.
9 OVERRATED: 6 Underground (2019)
Basically a straight-faced Team America: World Police, Bay’s first Netflix venture is simultaneously his most recent and dated movie so far. Here, Bay takes the vigilante power fantasy to an international scale, where Ryan Reynolds’ mysterious billionaire/mercenary forms an unstoppable six-man team to help troubled nations dispose of their tyrannical dictators.
It’s not that 6 Underground is bad as it is archaic. From the frantically edited and exhausting set-pieces to its simplistic take on international politics to the egregious use of a parkour savant, 6 Underground feels like a remnant of the early 2000’s. At best, 6 Underground is disposable fun but at worst, it’s a sad reminder of how Bay’s once-innovative style aged poorly and how little he’s changed as a storyteller.
8 UNDERRATED: The Island (2005)
The closest to a horror movie Bay made himself instead of producing a remake through his production company Platinum Dunes, The Island is a fusion of dystopian movies and his modernized action stylings. Though it feels like two different movies crammed into one, The Island shows a side of Bay that’s rarely seen.
The Island’s first half is an effective and claustrophobic thriller, where the survivors of a supposed apocalypse question their reality. Unfortunately, the following act that unveils the truths undoes the atmosphere by devolving into Bay’s usual adrenaline-fueled mayhem. Even so, The Island shows that Bay is capable of subverting his default formula.
7 OVERRATED: Bad Boys I & II (1995 & 2003)
The movie that put Bay on the map and its first sequel could be read as a showcase of his best and worst. Bad Boys is the very definition of a juvenile power fantasy, where hard-talking, gun-totting badass cops solve everything by yelling and shooting at whoever looks slightly suspicious.
Putting aside Will Smith and Martin Lawrence being one of the best buddy-cop duos ever formed, it’s hard for anyone above the age of 13 to sincerely enjoy both Bad Boys because of how immature they are. Bad Boys II is especially guilty, devolving into a cacophony of swearing, macho posturing, and gunfire after just 10 minutes. Bad Boys only outgrew its lowbrow pitfalls in Bad Boys For Life, which Bay didn’t even direct.
6 UNDERRATED: Armageddon (1998)
This very ‘90s movie about a ragtag team of American oil drillers making a doomsday asteroid go boom is something of a punchline today, but the obvious can’t be denied: Armageddon is the disaster movie. No disaster movie – not even Roland Emmerich’s world-ending 2012 – could top Armageddon, and it’s unlikely any future movie could.
Everything about Armageddon – characters, premise, action, etc. – is perfectly over-the-top. Armageddon is the textbook Bay movie, filled with unapologetic ridiculousness and made of pure entertainment. Nothing here is remotely realistic or scientifically accurate, but who needs that when Bruce Willis sacrifices his life to blow up a space rock? Also, who could say no to Aerosmith’s music blaring over his funeral services?
5 OVERRATED: Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (2009)
A literal assault on the senses, Revenge of the Fallen is regarded as one of the worst sequels of all time that only succeeded in losing whatever goodwill Transformers inspired. It’s an incoherent mess of exposition and action, with toilet humor sprinkled for no good reason. Worst of all, it wasted the death of Optimus Prime – the most important moment for the Transformers fandom – by undoing it an hour later.
That said, Revenge of the Fallen’s quality isn’t wholly Bay’s fault since it was one of many projects affected by the 2007 Writers’ Guild Strike. Other roadblocks included: intrusive producers’ demands, a rushed release date, a potential Directors’ Guild strike, and more. Bay did what he could, but even his technical know-how couldn’t salvage this subpar The Transformers: The Movie remake.
4 UNDERRATED: The Rock (1996)
A common criticism of Bay’s works is their callous jingoism, which makes The Rock something of an oddball. Telling the story of two hand-picked government agents forcibly sent to Alcatraz to stop a unit of disgruntled American soldiers threatening terrorist action, The Rock boasts surprising amounts of nuance and complexity rarely seen in Bay’s movies while still being as explosive as needed.
The Rock can be seen as either a clever blockbuster that addresses the unfair military life, or a bombastic deconstruction of action movies that glorify soldiers by ignoring their harsh realities. Both lenses only give it more rewatch value. Making The Rock more impressive is that it was only Bay’s second movie, and one of the few that stood the test of time.
3 OVERRATED: Transformers (2007)
Often getting a pass for being the first of its series and for its novelty, Transformers is still a subpar live-action adaptation of the hit ‘80s franchise that strips the source material’s imagination in favor of needless realism. The story is a boilerplate military thriller at best and a transparent excuse to cobble barely comprehensible fights together. Even worse is how Transformers actively diverted attention from the titular robots-in-disguise to a bunch of human characters no one really cared for.
Transformers is indeed a landmark of special effects prowess, but that’s all it really is. To its credit, this mega-franchise’s start is arguably the best of Bay’s Transformers output, but that’s not saying much – especially when compared to the genuinely good Bumblebee, which Bay didn’t direct.
2 UNDERRATED: Pain & Gain (2013)
Made at the height of Transformers’ relevance, Pain & Gain – a darkly comical retelling of a ‘90s crime spree – was a welcome return to form for Bay. While it lacks the subtlety of its genre contemporaries, Pain & Gain still works because it’s the perfect antithesis to everything Michael Bay that’s still directed by the man himself.
Pain & Gain is a Bay movie through and through, not a departure from his style. Even though it’s uncharacteristically introspective about the follies and excesses of the American Dream rather than a blind worship of it, Pain & Gain is as in-your-face as expected. Helping matters is that unlike most of his other movies, Pain & Gain actually tries to say something. Whether it got its point across is debatable, but at least its overall message isn’t just a colossal explosion.
1 OVERRATED: Pearl Harbor (2001)
Bay’s movies are known for being problematic yet entertaining, but Pearl Harbor is the borderline-offensive exception. Based on the dark day that convinced America to enter World War II, Bay’s retelling that’s basically “Armageddon but World War II” ill-advisedly simplified and romanticized the events before, during, and after the attack.
Centered on a fictional love triangle stationed in the eponymous naval base, Pearl Harbor is a bloated, clichéd and overlong melodrama. Somehow, it loses focus of Pearl Harbor itself by turning it into a plot device that justifies the needless last act’s set-piece. Bay’s sensibilities cheapened one of America’s most difficult memories into a sappy thrill ride that feels wrong.
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