- Jacob Knight
Let Blockbusters Be Disreputable Again
In his now infamous one star review of Michael Bay's Armageddon (1998), Roger Ebert spat some of his most potent venom at the picture like a coiled cobra:
"Here it is at last, the first 150-minute trailer. Armageddon is cut together like its own highlights. Take almost any 30 seconds at random, and you'd have a TV ad. The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained. Whatever they're charging to get in, it's worth more to get out."
Ebert wasn't alone in his disdain. Despite grossing over half-a-billion dollars at the global box office, Bay's Irwin Allen-adjacent disaster porn spectacle on steroids was widely considered the"death of cinema", from the world's most trusted critics to the dregs of movie fandom, who populated AICN message boards under crude monikers like DANNYGLOVERSDICKBLOOD. Hell, there was even that one goofball who wrote a whole tongue-in-cheek song about Bay's juiced-up style to the tune of Stan Bush's "You've Got the Touch". He was the pariah who was given the keys to the kingdom, thanks to Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer having the Propaganda Films prodigy's back, stuffing their already rich studio war chests by funding his vulgar spectacles.
Bay has shrugged off these negative reviews in interviews, even going as far as embracing the somewhat mocking "Bayhem" label that's become synonymous with his finished products, co-opting the term as a means to describe his idiosyncratic, hands-on production methods. In a recent EW chat with Joshua Rothkopf, Bay said:
"Here's the thing, I don't read the critics. Don't tell me anything about critics because I don't read them. Bruckheimer always told me, 'Don't read the good, don't read the bad.' I make movies for audiences. And to each their own. You could like a book, you could not like a book. So I'm fine with it. Box office speaks for itself. So there's plenty of loyal fans. And I'm comfortable. You could either like it or not."
To be completely frank, this seems like bullshit - a standard PR talking point from a guy who has taken numerous lumps from the intelligentsia industrial complex throughout the years, only to lash out against those who get paid to hate his movies by simply leaning into his worst tendencies. Because how else could one explain following up the critical/commercial shellacking of his "old fashioned" war epic, Pearl Harbor (2001), with the mega-aggro meathead act of megaplex disobedience that is Bad Boys II (2003)? In the wake of his first real vie for respectability falling flat on its face, Bay had Will Smith wave a gun around and threaten to prison rape a teenager on Martin Lawrence's front porch. As far as a blatant big budget "fuck you" goes, it's unmatched.
Fast forward to present day and, unlike the '90s, where Propaganda classmates like Simon West and Dominic Sena (the latter of whom co-founded the legendary music video and commercial house with David Fincher) were helming Bayhem clones such as Con Air (1997) and Swordfish (2001), it's tough to imagine any Hollywood craftspeople attempting to replicate Bay's singular brand of unhinged adult entertainments. This seems especially true in the abysmal MCU epoch, where everything seems to be market tested and Film Twitter approved, as to not offend anyone's delicate political sensibilities or now warped sense of cinematic aesthetics.
Case in point: during it's opening weekend, Bay's latest smash 'em up slice of crime cinema, Ambulance (2022), was trounced by Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022), a Jim Carrey-starring video game sequel for kids (or, more pointedly, adults possessing the brains of children), to the tune of $71M, leaving the R-rated '90s chase film replication's paltry $8M in its day-glo dust. This absolute housing caused many box office analysts to clog the digital ether with questions of discernment. Thanks to COVID-19 changing the way most consume media - namely, reduced streaming windows in the wake of HBO Max's radical '21 release strategy - folks aren't turning out to movies like Ambulance like they were during Bay's Simpson/Bruckheimer heyday. The theatrical experiences folks believe to be the best bets are the ones continuing stories they're already familiar with: franchises and IP-driven installments that almost seem to emulate the soap opera craze of television's bygone past. In short, people want their stories, and little more, on the big screen.
There's definitely some truth to this line of thinking, but perhaps it's something else that's keeping patrons away from Michael Bay. Perhaps we've been lulled into a sense of safe consensus on storytelling's biggest stages, where we don't expect to be challenged, visually or otherwise. The MCU era is one where folks roll out for not just the familiar, right down to producer-driven "house style", but movies that reflect their own social concerns. Flicks like Jon Watts' Spider-Man trilogy average a 92% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes and, despite receiving a paltry 47% on RT, you can still easily find fans on various social media platforms claiming that anyone who rejected Chloe Zhao's Eternals (2021) did so because of her picture's diverse cast and progressive themes. Concurrently, there seems to be a new Marvel or Star Wars series beamed into living rooms every couple of months, hooking a steady drip of Avengers and Obi-Wan Kenobi into devotees' bloodstreams, so that they've become IP addicts, consistently requiring a quick fix before plunking their dollars down to watch Doctor Strange fight multiverse lions at their local 16-screen Coliseum.
To wit, the days of Steve Buscemi getting space dementia and riding a nuclear weapon like some sort of sexualized outer space rocking horse to the tune of $500M are long gone. While many took to Film Twitter to champion Bay's stalling Ambulance, citing the rare instance of auteurist vision in blockbuster action/adventure as a reason to reclaim the director's once reviled work, it's tough not to wonder if his movies' disreputable nature feels fresh in an age where we're told that we absolutely must buy into the MCU, Star Wars, or whatever franchise has currently taken hold of the dreaded Discourse. Even before these pictures come out, they're treated like massive events that are going to shape the zeitgeist before, in some cases, they even have a title - as we're treated to Comic-Con sized events just to let us know of an upcoming slate that stretches so far into the future you start questioning your own mortality. It's great for marketing, but bad for motion pictures.
At the same time, Michael Bay has created an entire economy in the Transformers films (2007 - ???) that even he seems to resent; a studio gig ATM machine that allows him to cash in when he needs a "one for me" favor to make a Pain & Gain (2013) or Ambulance. And even in those big robot money printers, Bay feels like an artist whose entire shtick resembles a cultural dare: the aforementioned sensory overload Ebert described coming at you so fast and furious that the viewer almost doesn't have time to process whether or not they should feel good about being entertained by it all. Can you imagine the obese Black mother from Bad Boys II screaming about "porno and homo shows" after misinterpreting an intimate moment between Peter Parker and Flash Thompson in the next Spider-Man sequel? Absolutely fucking not.
But that's the magic of Michael Bay. He operates on a lizard brain wavelength that connects to the dark heart of America while commanding every technical aspect of his productions to a masterful extent, meticulously crafting each and every frame of his movies, whether they contain three cars barrel-rolling through the air in the middle of a high-speed freeway chase, or a gaggle of kids triumphantly pretending to fly model spaceships in front of a John F. Kennedy mural. He has a point of view and a sense of humor all his own, and seems to be able to negotiate with studios via massive box office returns to retain all of these sensibilities. If he's able to smuggle in a bit of progressive messaging regarding the way the American government neglects those who fight for our freedom overseas, that's the icing on his high-caliber cake, not the cake itself.
Is this cake the healthiest thing to feed audiences? Of course not. It's fucking cake, dude. But while Jon Favreau and the Disney+ goon squad are your respectable uncles, placing you on their knee and lecturing you about how with great power comes with great responsibility (etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...), Bay is the dickhead cousin you always want to see at Thanksgiving, showing up half-cocked to turkey dinner and extolling the virtues of sleeping with as many strippers as humanly possible. There's a place for this guy at the table, even if you talk shit about him as soon as the holiday is over. Yet it seems like most audiences have become so brain-wormed by bland, serialized storytelling that we've forgotten how big a dining room table can be.
In 2022, the only place Bay's maximalist style seems to be thriving is in the international market, where propagandist epics like The Wandering Earth (2019, a/k/a Chinese Armageddon) and The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021, a/k/a Chinese Pearl Harbor) have co-opted a formal approach perfected by Bay (not to mention his Top Gun  granddaddy, Tony Scott), and transmuted his sense of blustery showmanship into their own thrilling, hyper-violent messaging platforms. It's a real shame to see Ambulance fail (though, to put on my Amazing Kreskin specs for a moment, it'll inevitably find an audience once it hits streaming), but that's the way we watch movies nowadays. Safety has been found in numbers while individuals with questionable taste are instantly shunned by the boring throng. Hopefully, places like Netflix will bail Bay out (just like they did with his bugfuck masterpiece, 6 Underground ), because the world needs to be told a dirty joke that makes them feel unclean every now and again.
Jacob Knight is the co-founder/host/editor of Secret Handshake.