Of all the directors who graduated from music videos and commercial work to feature films in the 1990s — a roll call that includes such luminaries as David Fincher, Antoine Fuqua, Spike Jonze, Brett Ratner, Dominic Sena, Gore Verbinski, and Simon West — the reigning king of the summer popcorn flick has to be Michael Bay. Including Transformers: The Last Knight (due June 21), ten of his 13 films have come out between Memorial Day and Labor Day (plus two in April, which is basically summer now). Over the next few weeks, Craig J. Clark will be mapping the road that led Bay — and the rest of us — to this point.
Oh, and the other thing: Craig had never seen a Michael Bay movie before now. Godspeed, Craig.
Part I: Humble Beginnings (1995-1998)
After cutting his teeth directing videos for the likes of Donny Osmond, Divinyls, Vanilla Ice, and Meat Loaf, as well as the Aaron Burr “Got Milk?” commercial, Michael Bay fell in with bombastic producing partners Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Top Gun, Days of Thunder), who had just the script for him to pin his big-screen aspirations on. Originally developed as a vehicle for Saturday Night Live alums Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, 1995’s Bad Boys teamed Martin Lawrence and Will Smith — then two of television’s biggest stars — as mismatched Miami police detectives and made them bankable movie stars in the process.
Top-billed Lawrence plays Malcolm, the family man who constantly complains about not getting any “quality time” with his ball-busting wife, while Smith — still a year away from the quantum leap that was Independence Day — is Mike, the smooth player with the swanky bachelor pad. Even he has to forgo the pleasures of the flesh, though, while they’re busy running down those responsible for stealing an enormous quantity of heroin from the evidence room of their precinct. These bad boys can hobnob with hookers (it’s intimated that Mike is in love with one) and half-naked massage therapists all they want, but hopping into bed with them is strictly off the table. That goes double for third wheel Julie (Téa Leoni), the petrified witness to a murder tangentially related to the heroin theft that sets the plot in motion, although how long the two of them have to solve the case changes at least once while they’re on it. “Just do what you do, only faster,” barks their captain (played by Joe Pantoliano), a credo that Bay took to heart as well, especially as he got deeper into his career.
While Bad Boys was produced on a “teeny-tiny budget” (according to Bay) of $19 million, its $65 million domestic take gave Simpson and Bruckheimer the confidence to give him $75 million to spend on their follow-up, 1996’s The Rock, which carried over the ticking-clock scenario and near-pathological avoidance of sex. The latter comes into play when FBI biochemical specialist Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) is called up for service while in the throes of passion with his girlfriend, who’s naturally put out when he doesn’t come back to finish the job. (The fact that she’s already pregnant clearly means sex can happen in the Michael Bayverse, it just has to be put on hold while his heroes rush off to engage in gunplay and car chases.)
Just like Bad Boys opened with the evidence-room heist, The Rock kicks into gear with the theft of a deadly biochemical weapon from a naval weapons depot masterminded by disgruntled Brigadier General Hummel (Ed Harris), whose strike force subsequently sets up shop on Alcatraz, taking 81 hostages and leaving the authorities (whose ranks include Cage’s Raising Arizona co-star William Forsythe and an uncredited Philip Baker Hall) in the unenviable position of having to broker a deal with the one man who successfully broke out of the island prison years before. This is the mysterious John Mason (Sean Connery), the only other survivor when the SEAL team he and Stanley tag along with is wasted by Hummel’s men with an hour left to go in the film. Will an aging British secret agent and an FBI specialist with no field experience figure out how to work together and save the lives of countless civilians? If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie before, you already know the answer to that.
Thanks to Cage’s idiosyncratic performance and Connery’s engagement with the material (in addition to starring, he’s also one of the executive producers), The Rock manages to be an above-average action flick, with Harris’s complicated villain helping to elevate the proceedings. As an extension of Bay’s filmmaking brand, it’s stocked with conspicuous destruction and scenes fetishizing the military and its hardware — not to mention fast cars. It also includes a sequel of sorts to one of the more inexplicable moments in Bad Boys: when a group of paraplegics in wheelchairs gets caught up in a foot chase. This time, they happen to be rolling across the street during a high-speed car chase that ends with the totaling of an expensive sports car, a motif Bay would return to time and again. For all we know he may have wanted to insert them into his next movie, too, but having men in wheelchairs pop up on the planet-killing asteroid hurtling toward Earth may have been too implausible, even for Bay.
One of the cornerstones of what Peter Bart dubbed “The Summer That Ate Hollywood” in his book The Gross, which details the ups and downs of the 1998 summer-movie season, Armageddon found Jerry Bruckheimer flying solo after the death of Don Simpson (The Rock is dedicated “in loving memory” to him) and Bay commanding an astronomical $140 million budget. Highly appropriate considering it takes the now-standard ticking clock and, with the aid of five credited writers including Tony Gilroy and J.J. Abrams, shoots it into outer space along with a crew of rough-and-tumble oil drillers tasked with blowing up a Texas-sized asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
The danger this poses is established in the opening sequence, in which downtown New York City gets hammered by meteors, much like the institution of marriage takes a beating from the grizzled astronomer who wants to name the big one after his shrewish wife. At the opposite end of the age spectrum are young lovers A.J. and Grace (Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler), who are surprised in bed by her father Harry (Bruce Willis), who just so happens to be A.J.’s boss and expresses his feelings by going after him with a shotgun. That this happens on the oil rig that Harry (the “world’s best deep-core driller”) runs is part and parcel of the film’s sophomoric sense of humor, which is partially offset by the reunion of Fargo lowlifes Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as, respectively, a sex-obsessed driller nicknamed “Rockhound” and a cosmonaut who’s gone stir crazy after being cooped up on the Russian Space Station for 18 months. Bay even cast Udo Kier as the NASA psychologist who balks at approving Harry’s crew for the mission, which counts as perhaps the best joke in the whole film. In the case of one of them, though, his diagnosis turns out to be spot on, as Rockhound spends much of his time on the rock acting erratically and dropping references to Dr. Strangelove, a comparison that only makes Armageddon look the poorer.
That clearly wasn’t an issue at the box office, however, as audiences ate it up to the tune of just over $200 million domestically. Tacking on an additional $350 million overseas, that makes Armageddon Bay’s highest-grossing film that doesn’t have the word “Transformers” in the title. In fact, the only film that bested it that year was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, so it’s no surprise that next on the horizon for Bay was a World War II film of his very own. That’s a story for next time, though.
CRAIG’S CURRENT RANKINGS:
1. The Rock
2. Bad Boys
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., a fortress from which few have escaped.