Listen, nobody blows shit up like Michael Bay. He’s arguably the most famous action director in the world right now, if not of all time, and with good reason. He invented a style of action filmmaking that has become a cinematic language all its own, and is responsible for some of the most successful movies ever made. The man is a homunculus of Lamborghinis and pure testosterone, and might be the only person in history to have completely transformed into a meme of himself.
But there’s a genuine talent present in that shell of car parts and sunglasses. You only need to look at how many directors have tried to imitate his style with disastrous results to know that a deft hand created all those whirling low-angle shots replete with lens flares. Bay is an undeniably skilled technician, and while that might be the only aspect of filmmaking he is good at, he is very fucking good at it. Unfortunately, his extremely problematic views routinely seep into his work, so to enjoy his movies, you have to be willing to sit through a handful of extremely dated gay jokes and roll your eyes all the way into the back of your head every time he introduces a female character by parking the camera directly on her butt. Weirdly, these things seem to be the most present in his Transformers movies, a fact my mother discovered when she took my ten-year-old nephew to see one thinking it would be like the harmless cartoon I watched as a kid. You were wrong, Mom. Dead wrong.
Bay’s latest film 6 Underground, starring Ryan Reynolds as the leader of a team of vigilantes who all faked their own deaths in order to target extremely dangerous international criminals, premieres on Netflix today, and it’s a pretty big deal. With a budget of $150 million, it’s the most expensive movie ever produced by Netflix, and it looks like Bay has spent every last dime of that production money blowing shit up into the goddamn stratosphere. To celebrate the release of 6 Underground, I’ve ranked all of Bay’s previous films, beginning with the least good and building all the way up to the best good.
10. The Transformers Sequels
The Transformers sequels can easily be described as four of the worst movies ever made, or, for brevity’s sake, one of the worst movies ever made. Like the big-screen Cybertronians themselves, they’re virtually indistinguishable from each other. The franchise is a 10 ½ hour loud noise that occasionally takes breaks long enough to tell homophobic and/or racist jokes, ogle its actresses, and have Mark Wahlberg drink a beer. Remember how long-winded and overblown the Star Wars prequels got, with George Lucas behind the wheel at the height of his power with nobody left around him willing to tell him “no”? That’s Michael Bay making the Transformers sequels. Already a self-indulgent director by nature, these four films are Bay at his most gratuitous, weaving incomprehensible plots around action sequences so overloaded with visual effects that you can’t even tell what’s happening. Also, the shortest of the Transformers sequels clocks in at a brisk 2 ½ hours, with one of them damn near hitting the 3-hour mark. That’s entirely too much time to spend watching Transformers.
9. Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor was Michael Bay’s first “failure,” which is a strange thing to say about a movie that made almost half a billion dollars and won an Academy Award (the first and only one of Bay’s films to do so). Pearl Harbor failed in the sense that critics hated it (not exactly new territory for Bay), it didn’t make as much money as his previous mega-budgeted film Armageddon, and history has not been kind to it. Let me just say that I completely agree with history on this one. This movie deserved to fail. Watching this bloated sack of melodrama, I get the feeling that Bay saw James Cameron’s Titanic, which had just become the biggest film of all time, and decided to try and make Pearl Harbor a love story as well. I guess I understand the impulse, as both films prominently feature the sinking of boats, but taking the story of one of the most important days in American history and turning it into a weird love triangle between Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett delivering the most wooden performances of their respective careers seems like a poor decision. Really, any time Michael Bay attempts to make an actual drama is cause for alarm (see Armageddon). That said, Bay is an extremely talented action director, and the attack on Pearl Harbor is a well-staged sequence that’s definitely worth seeing. Just skip to that part of the movie and then turn it off immediately.
Armageddon was the highest-grossing film in the entire world in 1998, and I suspect a large portion of that success might be due to the hit Aerosmith song on the movie’s soundtrack. That song slapped before we even knew songs did that, and it slapped worldwide. The movie, on the other hand, is just kind of OK. Bruce Willis stars as Harry Stamper, an offshore oil driller who must travel into space with his crew to drill a hole in an apocalyptic asteroid and deposit a nuclear device to blast it apart into harmless fragments before it crashes into Earth and obliterates the human race. Harry’s daughter, played by Liv Tyler, is in love with Stamper’s oil-drilling protege A.J. (Ben Affleck), but A.J. and Harry have to put their differences aside to save the world. To be perfectly honest, it’s classic Hollywood melodrama, executed by an impressive ensemble cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Will Patton, Peter Stormare, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, and Owen Wilson. It’s cheesy and entirely too long, and the premise is ludicrous on its face, but Armageddon is a fun and memorable watch. And rest assured, Michael Bay still found a way to include car chases and explosions in space.
Transformers isn’t the best movie about Transformers (that distinction goes to Travis Knight’s Bumblebee), but Transformers walked so that Bumblebee could run. And unlike it’s numerous sequels, Transformers is also kind of a real movie; Bay takes time establishing a human cast of characters that we actually kinda sorta care about, a little bit, and the action scenes are staged from their point of view, which gives the audience an anchor point and prevents all the explosions and shapeshifting metal aliens from becoming visual gibberish. And the opening sequence, wherein a Decepticon helicopter attacks a military base, is very well done and genuinely creepy. Thanks in large part to Shia LaBeouf’s performance as the perpetually bewildered high school student Sam Witwicky, Transformers still feels like a fun summer action film based on something you used to love as a kid. And that final action sequence is a freaking blast - I almost stood up in the theater when Starscream showed up. This movie was never great, but there was definitely something to it that’s missing in all of the sequels.
6. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Nobody ever wanted to hear Michael Bay weigh in on a contentious geopolitical fiasco that cost several human lives, but that didn’t stop him from making Pearl Harbor, so here we are. 13 Hours is essentially Michael Bay’s Black Hawk Down, and, historical inaccuracy and jingoistic revisionism aside, it isn’t half bad. It’s a retelling of the infamous 2012 Benghazi attack on an American diplomatic facility in Libya, focusing on the team of American private military contractors tasked with protecting the diplomats. Arguably the most notable thing about 13 Hours is that it gave us swole John Krasinski, who bulked up for his role as one of the contractors. The always-excellent James Badge Dale plays his friend and commander. It’s a decent thriller that gradually tightens a noose around the main characters before erupting into an extended action sequence expertly staged by a man who loves explosions more than anything in this world.
5. The Island
The Island might be Michael Bay’s most forgotten film, in that nobody ever talks about it and I routinely forget that it exists. It came out in 2005, which was sort of a blasted wasteland for movies, and on top of that it was a critical and commercial bomb. But it’s not that bad! It’s about a mysterious dystopian facility whose residents live in almost childlike simplicity until they finally earn their promised trip to the mythical Island. As it turns out, they’re all clones of wealthy, powerful people, created for the purposes of organ harvesting. So a trip to “the Island” is the same thing as taking the family dog to “the farm.” It’s a fairly decent science fiction premise that Bay clumsily transforms into an action chase film midway through. Now, Bay is unassailably a great action director, and I’ve already said that the science fiction element was genuinely intriguing. It’s just that Bay isn’t able to make the two pieces fit, so the whole thing comes off like “worse Minority Report.” But Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson turn in fun performances as the runaway clones, and some of the action sequences are pretty great. (Bay famously reused footage from one of the car chases in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.)
4. Bad Boys II
The sequel to Bay’s 1995 hit Bad Boys reteams Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as the wealthiest cops in Miami. Seriously, look at the size of Lawrence’s house in this movie. I think it’s legitimately bigger than the villainous drug dealer’s. Bad Boys II successfully recaptures what made Bay’s debut film so enjoyable by letting its two stars be charming and funny. Smith and Lawrence have great chemistry, and the scenes in which they get to bounce off of each other are the best parts of the movie. The main problem with this big-budget action comedy sequel is arguably the action, in that there’s simply too much of it. That sounds like a weird complaint, but after hitting the second hour of the film’s 2 1/2 hour runtime, you definitely start to wonder if maybe one or two of the car chases or gunfights could’ve been cut. Oh well. Michael Bay’s gonna Michael Bay. Also, Michael Shannon shows up in a delightful early role in which he spends most of his time stuffed in NFL legend Dan Marino’s trunk. So honestly, this movie rules.
3. Pain & Gain
The true-crime black comedy Pain & Gain is easily the strangest film in Bay’s enormous Bud Light-sponsored holster. Based on a series of articles written by Pete Collins for Miami New Times, the movie follows a group of impossibly muscular criminals who hatch a bizarre scheme to kidnap a rich man from their gym. Things spiral wildly out of control almost immediately, ending in extortion, torture, fraud, attempted murder, more kidnapping, and finally multiple murder. The trio, played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie, are cartoonish dimwits. They’re perpetually in over their heads, and as their plan continues to escalate in both violence and absurdity, they handle it with such dumb-guy unearned confidence that you truly can’t help but laugh, even when they’re cutting up dead bodies to be dissolved in drums of acid. The movie was criticized for trivializing the reprehensible acts committed by the real-life Sun Gym gang, and I can’t really disagree - Bay wanted to make a comedy, so when presented with the choice of jokes or pathos, he goes with jokes 100% of the time. And it is very funny, although the humor always carries Bay’s undeniable mean-spiritedness. Just don’t think of it as a documentary, because it absolutely isn’t.
2. Bad Boys
Bad Boys was originally supposed to be made starring Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, and knowing there’s a universe in which that film exists is a thought experiment that will send your brain into a catatonic feedback loop. Michael Bay’s directorial debut is an over-the-top buddy cop action comedy that takes place in a world populated by R-rated cartoon characters. (Honestly, that’s the world in which all of Bay’s films takes place.) However, stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are so much fun and have so much chemistry together that Bay at the very least understands when he needs to stay the hell out of their way. The end result is the perfect blend of Bay’s gonzo action movie sensibilities with two genuinely funny and charismatic main characters. It’s a formula Bay has tried to repeat several times over in his career, but while he always delivers the action, his actors have never been able to live up to the legendary pairing of Smith and Lawrence as loose cannon Miami PD detectives.
1. The Rock
The Rock is not only Michael Bay’s finest film, it’s also a perfect snapshot of the height of 90s action movies and is arguably the reason Nicolas Cage became the version of Nicolas Cage he remains to this day. Cage wasn’t an action star in 1996; prior to The Rock, he’d starred almost exclusively in comedies and dramas. Bay had the glorious vision to pair him up as a comedic sidekick to a profusely hairpieced Sean Connery and toss them both into a secret mission to infiltrate the island prison of Alcatraz to rescue a bunch of tourists taken hostage by a rogue Marine Corps general looking to blackmail the United States government into paying benefits to the families of soldiers killed on classified missions. Ed Harris plays the sympathetic general, and his impressive cast of underlings include David Morse, John C McGinley, Tony Todd, and Bokeem Woodbine. John Spencer (Rest in Paradise) even shows up as the most grizzled FBI chief in recorded history.
Bay blows so much shit up in The Rock that the carbon footprint of this movie alone must’ve shaved 500 years off the Earth’s lifespan. Connery and Cage trade barbs as they work their way through the island, dispatching the traitorous marines with shocking amounts of violence including a man getting his head crushed by an air conditioner and Cage delivering a protracted diatribe about the Elton John song “Rocket Man” before killing his foe with an actual rocket. This is Michael Bay's greatest work, and I will hear no argument to the contrary.
Our handy, extensive guide is updated weekly with all-new picks.