Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Michael Bay Should've Stayed in the 90s

"Look upon my works, ye Mighty..."
Allow me to confess first and foremost that I honestly enjoy nearly all of Michael Bay's films to one degree or another, but this is not going to be a rundown of his entire filmography, nor is it going to be a pre-review of Pain & Gain.  It's just that when I first found out that his new film would be set in the 90s, it clicked with me as something that made sense for Bay now that he's taking a break from the giant robots.

The 1990s belonged to directors like Michael Bay.  Sure, there's an article making the rounds about him apologizing for Armageddon (of course, that article is misleading in that Bay is really just saying that the film was rushed and could've been more fine-tuned), but Bay really knew what he was doing during that decade.  Looking back, I realize that I miss (most) of Bay's pre-Transformers films.  I'm just not sure what happened to change things.  Is it the modern audience?  Is it because of the center stage terrorism has taken since films like The Rock?  Is it just that Bay has always been a weak director, and it took a few movies to realize it?  Is it simply the internet's fault?  Whatever it is, it appears that Bay has realized that the 90s were a better a time for him as his latest film, Pain & Gain, takes place during that decade and appears to be more in the vein of a film like Bad Boys than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

If Bay is trying to capture the feeling of the 90s again, then I hope he succeeds.  As a child of the 90s, I am very nostalgic for films like The Rock and Bad Boys that seem to have this 90s-vibe.  That feeling that things were great and would only get better.  Of course, this could just be the feeling I attribute to the 90s because it was the time of my youth when anything was still possible.  Either way, films by guys like Michael Bay always make me reminisce about better, simpler times.  This was the time when the action movie had reached it's apex of fun.  Today, action movies have to be either completely serious, or over-the-top goofy (The Expendables series attempts to recapture this essence, but really just ends up beign another modern serious action movie with random moments of humor tossed in).  Movies like Bad Boys could feature serious action along with ridiculous banter between the stars, and it somehow made sense.  The 90s action movies were great because there was no nitpicking.  They were just good, innocent fun. 

I suppose every generation can say the same thing about their youthful decade, but the 90s deserves attention now because so few films have tried to capture that essence.  Look at the plethora of 70s and 80s movies that have come out (and are still coming out).  What 90s films are there?  Domino?  That hardly counts because even though Tony Scott was a 90s director, that film definitely did not feel like a 90s movie.  I suppose Alpha Dog was slightly successful in that regard.  And Lord of War had some segments that got it right.  But aside from that, not many films have even attempted to be a "90s movie."  Perhaps that's a good thing.  Does anyone really want to see their beloved decade given the stereotype treatment that the 70s and 80s have received? 

More to the point, can Michael Bay recapture that spirit with his new movie?  I hope so.  Movies like Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon will always trigger certain memories in me.  Are they great films that hold up well?  Not really.  I don't even own any of them (and I buy almost anything I even slightly like).  But there's still something I love about them.  Criterion apparently has the same nostalgia problem that I have, as they have, believe it or not, released versions of Armageddon and The Rock.  Yup, Michael Bay has two films in the Criterion collection.  Although I have noticed that they haven't upgraded them to blu ray yet.  Maybe they're embarrassed by what they liked in the 90s, I know I am sometimes (hey, Ace of Base, what's up?).

But all good things must end.  Bay's first film of the new millennium was Pearl Harbor, but I that film doesn't matter all that much as far as I'm concerned.  First, I didn't care for it (it is my least favorite of his movies) because I found it to be a sugar coated, bland version of history.  Second, it's a period piece, and Bay is not meant to direct a film set that far in the past.  This minor misstep was confirmed as just that when Bad Boys II came out. 


"Hey guys, I'm going to ride this thing right
back to the 90s!  Anyone want me to pick
them up a Zima?"
The 90s truly ended for me with 9/11, but they ended much later for Michael Bay.  Bad Boys II, released in 2003, is essentially a 90s movie.  It's a fun buddy cop movie with over-the-top action.  Martin Lawrence and Will Smith exchange jokes during shootouts almost non-stop.  It actually gets awkward at times because the banter goes on too long, which is kind of the joke.  But it seems natural, even in a post-9/11 movie world.  In fact, 9/11 does get mentioned in the film, but only as the reason why the cops have updated technology.  Aside from that mention, the tone of this filmis decidedly 90s.  I enjoyed this film immensely, although it helped usher in two issues I have with action films now: it was twenty minutes too long and it felt the need to send the protagonists to Latin America, which seems to happen in at least one action movie each year now (nothing against Latin America, but having the bad guy's fortress there in so many action movies is getting old).  

The 90s continued for Michael Bay as he made The Island. This was Bay's first borderline bomb (it ended up making more than its budget with worldwide box office included).  This sci-fi film wasn't marketed all that well, wasn't based on any toy-line or easily identifiable high concept (like blowing up an asteroid), and it featured two stars who weren't (and still aren't) capable of carrying a big summer movie on their own.  It's still a very decent and fun movie if you give it a chance.  And even though it takes place in the future, it still feels like the 90s.

Then the Transformers showed up.  I have actually enjoyed all of the Transformers movies, though I had grown very tired of them by the third film (the first is still by far my favorite).  Bay has still not lost his 90s sensibilities, it's just that this series downplayed them to near nonexistence.  Bay's previous films focused on the characters.  Sure, they weren't terribly realistic, but they were usually likable and funny, at least.  When the robots showed up and started destroying everything in sight, the humans took a backseat.  And why shouldn't they?  Aren't the most pointless parts of that trilogy the moments when the group of soldiers run around with their guns thinking they can actually do something?  So why give any traits to the characters.  I honestly think Optimus Prime is a more fleshed out character than Sam Witwicky, the guy whose only character trait is to run around and complain about getting/keeping/losing his mannequin girlfriend.  Stuff blows up all nice and pretty in those films, but I want to see some likable funny humans again.

So the 90s ended for Michael Bay with the release of The Island.  His filmmaking style hadn't changed all that much, but the response to his films had.  These films all make money, so the audience is still there, it's just that they have become more and more vocally negative towards them.  This is a combination of the internet and changing values in cinema.  If someone hate The Rock back in the 90s, you only knew about it from talking to them personally.  If someone hates Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you can find a few thousand negative comments/reviews in a matter of seconds.  It has become fashionable to hate Michael Bay (which must mean that soon, if not already, it will become fashionable to like him again). 

Despite the new hatred and technology, Bay has been making essentially the same films, just with a focus on giant toy robots.  That series truly ended the 90s for Bay.  So yeah, Transformers was the 9/11 of Bay's career, but only in the sense that it ended the 90s for him. 

"Hey Mike, I'm real excited about doing another Bad Boys, but I am not physically capable of
morphing into a semi.  What are you talking about?  Jerry, will you please rein him in?"
I think Bay has finally realized this, at least for a moment.  He did make Pain & Gain, which certainly seems to be a much more grounded film.  I'm sure it contains some ridiculous elements, but I imagine they are more along the lines of Bad Boys than Transformers.  I am extremely excited for this movie.  I honestly think it's going to be the first true Michael Bay movie since Bad Boys II.  I still think the guy is capable of a good 90s movie.  I don't necessarily mind the new Bay with his robots, but I want to feel some nostalgia when I watch his movies. 

Maybe I'm giving Bay too much credit for what his films are like, though.  This article could also be called "Bring Back Bruckheimer!"  Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was along for most of Bay's better movies.  Alas, he is not involved with Pain & Gain, so that one's looking a little less interesting.  Here's hoping that rumored third Bad Boys movie actually happens.

Unfortunately, Pain & Gain is going to be the only taste of 90s I get from Bay for some time.  He's already going to back to Transformers for his next movie.  Who knows, maybe some time spent back in the 90s will revive him a bit, and we'll get the best Transformers yet.  Or maybe it's like reality, and the 90s are gone for good.  If that's so, I guess I can always buy the Criterion copies of a couple "classic" Michael Bay movies.

 

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