Film directors can be a polarizing bunch. The greatest in the field can also be the most divisive. Some people love David Lynch, while others find his work impenetrable. Some admire Quentin Tarantino, while others find his work racially insensitive or exploitative. Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have made genuinely great movies only to have their reputations collapse amid very serious allegations. And then there’s Michael Bay. Bay likes his movies big and loud with frequent explosions. Some critics have called him artless, while others recognize that he has a defined aesthetic. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that he took Hollywood by storm 25 years ago and has been walking away from the carnage in slow-motion ever since.
Bay has arguably been filming cinematic action since he was a child. One sequence he shot on an 8mm camera involving a train set, firecrackers, and an unexpected bedroom blaze resulted in a fire department call and a two-week grounding. By 15, he was interning for George Lucas on Raiders of the Lost Ark. He double-majored in English and film; two weeks after finishing graduate school, he was directing music videos and commercials for Propaganda Films. Bay directed videos for artists as diverse as Meat Loaf, Faith Hill, Aerosmith, Tina Turner, and The Divinyls (yes, that one). It was the strength of that resume that landed him his big budget debut 25 years ago this week. In honor of the three types of explosions (and future potential energy), here are four ways that Bay blew up the movies.
1. Chemical Explosion: The Bad Boys Franchise
Will Smith made three movies before Bad Boys, but Bad Boys was where he went from “The Fresh Prince in a movie” to “Will Smith, Movie Star.” His big-screen partner, established comedian (and frequent film sidekick) Martin Lawrence, also made the jump to movie leading man status on the back of the film. Bad Boys was a solid hit, capitalizing on the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence (something Bay encouraged, which involved giving his actors lots of room to improvise). The film is also notable for beginning the lucrative collaboration that Bay would enjoy with producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. The 2003 sequel, Bad Boys II, was an even bigger hit, making almost twice as much as the first movie.
After that, the franchise sat for an improbable 17 years as concerns of scheduling and salaries worked themselves out. Bay ended up opting not to direct the picture, though Smith and Lawrence returned. Opening in January of 2020, Boy Boys for Life pulled in $425 million around the globe, accelerating plans for a fourth film.
2. Nuclear Explosion: The Rock and Armageddon
Bay went back to work with Bruckheimer and Simpson. The first result was The Rock, which would firmly establish Bay’s formula that started with Bad Boys: put significant star power in the center a high concept story with lots of action propelled by fast cuts and lots of camera movement. Sean Connery had been an action icon for decades, but the film repositioned Nicholas Cage as an action star in his own right. The movie was a massive hit, making back almost five times its budget.
The Bay/Bruckheimer express rolled right into Armageddon after The Rock. Again, high concept (drillers and demolitionists turned astronauts to stop asteroid with a nuke) met star power (Bruce Willis! Ben Affleck!) and over-the-top action set pieces. Though the movie was up against a similar film at the box office (Deep Impact), Armageddon went on to be the biggest moneymaker of 1998, eclipsing the worldwide take of The Rock by $200 million.
3. Mechanical Explosion: The Transformers Franchise
Transformers (Uploaded to YouTube by YouTube Movies)
After directing the critically derided but financially successful Pearl Harbor in 2001 and Bad Boys II in 2003, Bay had his first misstep with The Island in 2005, which barely made back its budget. Ironically, outlets like Slate put the blame on marketing, since a number of critics actually gave the sci-fi actioner lukewarm to positive responses. In 2007, Bay left no doubt about his clout when he rolled out the first film in the long-awaited live-action version of the Transformers saga.
The film shocked experts by taking over $700 worldwide. While some hardcore fans were put off by choices like the look of the robots or odd story moments (like potentially the most famous line in the mythology, “One shall stand, and one shall fall,” being delivered off-camera), the movie earned a lot of good will with strong effects work and huge set pieces. The second film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was an even bigger hit, and the third and fourth films both topped $1 billion. 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight slipped below the take of the first film, and Bay handed off the director’s megaphone to Travis Knight. Though Bay stayed on as producer, 2018’s Bumblebee was a reboot; it made slightly less, but it was still well-received and is scheduled for its own sequel.
4. Potential Energy: Producing Powerhouse and a Roboapocalypse
In 2001, Bay created the production company Platinum Dunes with Andrew Form and Brad Fuller. While the company has focused primarily on horror, including a number of reboots of horror classics (including Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and A Nightmare on Elm Street), they’ve also built new franchises like The Purge and A Quiet Place and its forthcoming sequel. Platinum Dunes has stepped outside of horror a couple of times, notably with Bay’s reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The company also produces series for television and streaming, like the Purge spin-off and Amazon’s Jack Ryan.
Like an explosion in progress, it doesn’t appear possible to contain Bay. With numerous producing projects in the offing, he’ll return to the director’s chair in the near future for a collaboration with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, who had a hand in producing the Transformers films, will also produce Roboapocalypse, based on the book by Daniel H. Wilson. While Bay may continue to have his detractors, it’s never slowed him down. Love or hate his movies, you can’t deny that they’ve left a lasting impression (and occasional smoking craters) across the face of film.
Featured image: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com