As the world teeters on the brink of Transformers: The Last Knight, Craig J. Clark has finally reached the end of the road that led Michael Bay — and the rest of us — here. Craig called the tune. It’s time to pay the piper.
Part IV: Gains and Losses (2013-2016)
After directing three retina-searing Transformers movies in a row, Michael Bay was in need of a change of pace, but not the kind that would backfire the way The Island did. The time was ripe for another return to the vice-prone city of Miami, only this time he had a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction ripped-from-the-headlines story to work with. In fact, the events dramatized in 2013’s Pain & Gain took place not long after Bay shot the first Bad Boys, and they’re so outlandish he needed to start the film with a caption that reads “Unfortunately, this is a true story” and pointedly remind audiences of this fact later on.
Said story concerns three lunkheaded personal trainers who decide to take the shortcut to success by kidnapping one of their gym’s rich clients, a moderately shady businessman, and coercing him into signing over all of his bank accounts, businesses, and property to them. Sounds easy enough, right? And in the mind of the lunkhead who dreams it up, it will be that easy, especially with his handpicked partners on board. The trouble is the client is no pushover, resulting in a drawn-out hostage situation that nobody outside of the four of them knows is going on until after it’s over a month later. And even then it’s not really over since their mark turns out to be as hard to kill as he was reluctant to sign his life away to a trio of steroid cases.
“My name is Daniel Lugo, and I believe in fitness,” says the ringleader by way of introducing himself — and as played by Mark Wahlberg, it’s easy to see why the real Daniel thought that belief alone would take him further in life than it did. It’s even possible to see the precise moment the lightbulb switches on and he hatches his get-rich-quick-while-making-someone-else-poor scheme. As for his accomplices, the wiry Adrian (Anthony Mackie) is obsessed with being bigger and willing to take steroids if that will get him there faster, so he’s an easy sell, but Paul (Dwayne Johnson, the film’s MVP), a would-be-gentle giant who found religion in prison, takes more convincing to go along with them. Of course, it helps that their victim-to-be (played by Tony Shalhoub in full raging-asshole mode) is such a prick that it would almost be a crime not to rob him blind.
Also in the mix are Bay stalwarts Ken Jeong (as a “Multi-Millionaire Accredited Life-Changer” whose “Get Rich Now” seminar gives Daniel some ideas), Peter Stormare (as the dodgy doctor who diagnoses Adrian’s steroid-induced impotence, placing Mackie squarely in the Martin Lawrence can’t-get-it-up zone), and The Rock’s Ed Harris (as a retired cop-turned-private detective who enters the picture an hour in and seems to be the only person capable of untangling the whole messy affair).
And Pain & Gain wouldn’t be a proper Michael Bay film if there wasn’t a lot of American flag imagery, culminating in the one Daniel sees through a barbed-wire fence after he’s been sent to prison. Before that happens, though, Bay documents Paul’s descent into cocaine-fueled madness, which Johnson plays to the hilt. Wahlberg’s right there with him, too, particularly in the scene where, having accidentally killed the second sleaze they try to extort, Daniel pauses to “get some pumps” while Paul eggs him on. He is, after all, a man who believes in fitness. As for Bay, he’s not a director who believes in subtlety or good taste, but Pain & Gain is the lone entry in his filmography that unabashedly benefits from his lack of restraint.
It was back to business as usual, however, with his hasty follow-up, a soft reboot of the Transformers franchise with an all-new cast of humans being upstaged by expensive special effects.
Set five years after the events of Dark of the Moon — which means it takes place even further into the future (2018 by my calculations) — 2014’s Age of Extinction announces that it intends to break new ground by being the first in the series not to open with portentous narration by Optimus Prime, who tends to sound like he’s channeling Charlton Heston at the top of Armageddon. (There’s not a lot of daylight between “This is the Earth at a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet” and “We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings, but then came the war.”) Returning screenwriter Ehren Kruger even has the main human baddie (Kelsey Grammer, filling the “outspoken Hollywood conservative” square previously occupied by Jon Voight in Transformers) come right out and say, “A new era has begun in the age of the Transformers,” just in case anyone missed the shift.
Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg settles into his role as Bay’s late-period cinematic alter ego by playing down-on-his-luck inventor Cade Yeager, whose name is meant to evoke the aviation pioneer, but whose unreliable inventions recall those of Rand Peltzer in Gremlins, a touchstone Bay wittingly or unwittingly keeps returning to with this series. A single father who makes the discovery of a lifetime when he finds a beat-up semi parked inside a crumbling movie palace, Cade is absurdly overprotective when it comes to his teenage daughter, and that’s even before he finds out about her secret 20-year-old boyfriend.
They have plenty of time to get acquainted, though, when they’re forced to go on the run after Optimus Prime is revived (thanks to Cade removing the missile lodged in his engine, a move akin to a dead werewolf coming back to life when the silver bullet is removed from his heart) and the CIA’s Autobot-hunting team, working in concert with a Decepticon bounty hunter, shows up to claim him. (Lost in the fracas: T.J. Miller as Cade’s sole employee and short-lived source of comic relief. Also wasted, but in a different way, is Thomas Lennon as the White House’s easily cowed chief of staff.)
It’s after Cade and company hook up with the Autobot resistance, which includes the cigar-chomping Vietnam vet-inspired Hound (voiced by John Goodman in Walter Sobchak mode) and samurai warrior Drift (Ken Watanabe), that the true nature of the plot is revealed, roughly an hour the punishing 165-minute running time. Happily, this coincides with the introduction of Stanley Tucci as Joshua Joyce, the head of a Chicago-based company using alien technology to construct man-made Transformers, a concept that could in no way, shape, or form backfire against humanity. Like John Turturro before him, Tucci knows precisely what kind of film he’s in and pitches his performance accordingly.
“I may have started the apocalypse,” Joyce says to Cade, “but you brought your family, and that’s, you know, terrible parenting.” In addition to starting the apocalypse, his company’s innovations make it possible for the new generation of Decepticons to ditch the clunky mechanical transformations. Instead, when they want to change form they break down into tiny blocks that fly through the air and join back up, which throws the whole “based on a toy line where you can change robots into cars and planes and back again in a matter of seconds” concept out the window. Age of Extinction even squanders the Dinobots, which are brought into the fold in time for the final battle and dispersed as soon as it’s over. But hey, at least a certain beer company gets the most ludicrous product placement this side of the time a certain soda manufacturer thought it would be a grand idea to have one of their vending machines get turned into an evil rampaging robot. Age of Extinction may represent a step up from Dark of the Moon, but it’s like comparing a rotting apple with a slightly less rotten apple. You don’t want to take a bite of either.
Continuing the series’ downward slide domestically, Age of Extinction made $107 million less in the U.S. than its predecessor, but again the overseas market came to Paramount’s rescue, resulting in another $1 billion gross and vindicating the decision to set a significant portion of the film in China and have Kruger write in roles for Chinese actress Bingbing Li and boxer Shiming Zou. It remains to be seen whether the relocation to the UK for The Last Knight will have a similar effect on the box office. (Is it too late to work in a cameo by Lord Buckethead?)
In the meantime, there’s one final Bay film to consider and that is 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, his first to be based on a book. Coupled with the fact that the events it depicts happened less than four years before it was released (on January 15, 2016, making 13 Hours his only film to come out in the dead of winter), this meant he had an extra incentive to take this directing gig more seriously than certain others.
If there’s one thing Bay respects, it is professionalism. If the professionals are good at shooting guns, all the better. Based on the film he made about them, there can be no doubt that he respects the hell out of the six CIA contractors who were stationed in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012, when the U.S. diplomatic outpost and its CIA annex were attacked by well-armed locals. Bay respects them so much, in fact, that he wanted Mark Wahlberg to play one of them, but alas, Marky Mark had other commitments. Instead, the lead roles went to James Badge Dale and John Krasinski, with the latter getting the conventional character arc of the family man who keeps putting himself in harm’s way (over his wife’s objections, naturally) because the pay is too good to pass up.
In lieu of questioning why civilian contractors were in Libya at all, Bay is content to hang back and observe them in action (and inaction) in the days and hours leading up to the attack, ratcheting up the tension throughout the last day until its release feels inevitable. As they roll out, one of the men quips that it’s “just another Tuesday night in Benghazi,” but once they reach the diplomatic outpost and assess the situation they realize they’re in for the fight of their lives. It’s a fight Bay stages for maximum visceral impact, although he and screenwriter Chuck Hogan fall into the trap of making the enemy as anonymous and interchangeable as possible. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that their model for the siege portion of the film was John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, a masterclass in making a taut action film on a budget.
Not that 13 Hours was made on an especially low budget, but it did come in for less than a quarter of the cost of the last Transformers movie and almost a third of what went toward Pearl Harbor. And that’s before inflation is taken into account, which is why the $26 million he spent on Pain & Gain was actually less than the $19 million with which he made his debut 18 years earlier — and it’s by far his best film because he had to come up with creative solutions instead of simply throwing more money at whatever came up.
The lesson here is clear: Don’t give Bay too much money and he may turn out a film with some personality. Give him the right script and game actors and it may even approach greatness. Give him anything more than $100 million, though, and the blockbuster lizard-brain mentality takes over, which bodes ill for Transformers: The Last Knight and anybody who’s braving it this week. May the Creator have mercy on us all.
CRAIG’S FINAL RANKINGS:
1. Pain & Gain
2. The Rock
3. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
4. Bad Boys II
5. Bad Boys
7. The Island
9. Transformers: Age of Extinction
10. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
11. Pearl Harbor
12. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., and also should not be trusted with more than $100 million.