Don't Drop That!
It can be fun to deride the works of Michael Bay. The director comes off as (more than) a bit of a bro, and he makes moves that every bro loves: big, loud, and stupid. When you see a Michael Bay movie you know exactly what you're in for, and that's lots of explosions. If Michael Bay has any specific signature he puts into all his works, it's big fireballs. The term "Baysplosions" exists for a reason. Thanks to Michael Bay the entire form of action cinema was changed in the mid 1990s. There was action before Michael Bay, but his indelible mark was left for years after once he came on the scene.
You can understand why when you watch his films. As big and loud and stupid as they may be, his films are crowd pleasing. Hollywood is always changing that mythical "four quadrant production", a film that appeals to men, women, young, and old, and Michael Bay makes those exact kind of films. Good guys win, bad guys lose, explosions happen, there's a love story tucked somewhere in the middle ("for the ladies"), and then everyone walks away as fireballs bloom in the background. And then his films make stupid amounts of money at the Box Office. The man has only released three flops during his entire career, and even those were praised for Bay's direction and action scenes. This man knows his way around action.
That isn't hyperbole, either. While I think many of his films are too stupid to watch with the volume on (I swear, the Transformers movies make my brains leak out of my ears), there is no denying that the action itself is amazing. Every time. People will complain about the story in Pearl Harbor, for example, but no one ever complains about the action in that film. Hell, one of Bay's movies is even in the Criterion Collection a distribution company that focuses on licensing, restoring and distributing "important classic and contemporary films". That film is The Rock and it was considered important enough to be preserved.
That does sound like a joke, for sure. But when you go in and watch The Rock there is no denying that the action in this film is absolutely spot on. Michael Bay exhibits a steady hand with the direction, coordinating camera and action and movement together to create long, but certainly never boring, action sequences. He doesn't do one-ers, no long, single takes, instead using the editing of the scene to add to the movement and the flow. It doesn't feel choppy, though, because the camera and movement and editing is all coordinated together. It's impressive that a film with such a frenetic pace can feel so smooth and cohesive, and that's the mastery Michael Bay has over action sequences.
Take the chase sequence through downtown San Francisco. In the wrong hands this sequence would have been an absolute mess and cars are smashed, multiple angles are filmed, stuns are performed, and actors say their lines, all for ten minutes of unbroken action. But Bay coordinates it perfectly. The cuts aren't there to cover for an actor that can't perform a stunt, trying to cut around their obvious inability. Instead, wide shots are used for the action, cuts are integrated to keep the frenetic pace up, actors (who are clearly in the vehicles) spout of lines at an adrenaline-addled pace, and all the cars go smash-smash. A different director would have tried to use "clever" cuts to obscure actors that couldn't drive, or fight, or to save money on smashed up cars. Bay just goes to town, though, and films it all in a ballet of stupidly over-the-top explosions. It's great.
Every action sequence is like this: loud, focused, and frenetic. There are plenty of solid sequences we could use as examples, from multiple gun fights on the Rock, fist fights, chases, and more. The film doesn't go long without another bout of action, easily putting the story-to-explosion ratio on the side of explosions. But the film sucks you it. Yes, it's dopey and silly but it has so much of what you want (that's well-crafted action) that you really can't complain.
Hell, even in the quieter moments the director understand the construction of his scenes. Take an early caper that kicks off the film. There isn't a lot of true action (no one dies until right near the end), but it's directed and filmed with such assurance it works. It's smooth, again using movement and cuts to increase the energy of what is, in effect, a long sequence of people walking through a military base, but it doesn't feel long or slow. The movie is crafted to keep the energy flowing the whole time, start to finish.
It is a dumb movie, of course. A bunch of soldiers steal military bio weapons to use on the U.S. unless the country agrees to pay out millions of dollars to the family's of soldiers, soldiers that were disavowed after their missions went south. It's a little bit of patriotism mixed with just a dash of Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head., just with far less intelligence. Characters spout of details about the plan, the bio weapons, the people handling the mission, but it's all just techno-babble and noise. None of it is really smart, even as the actors act smart while spouting their lines. It's just a bunch of silliness used to connect the action together.
Of course, the film was successful, and it helped to make Alcatraz (the titular "Rock", which acts as the setting for the film) into an interesting tourist spot again for a while (not that it was ever not an interesting place to visit, in its own way). This film helped to not just kick start Bay's career (who only had one other movie under his belt, Bad Boys) at the time, but it also gave Nick Cage action hero cred (even as he plays the most nebbish, least hero-y character he could at the time). Hell, it even acts as a back door, unofficial James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time. film, a factoid people love to mention Online. It has a great mix of everything, despite it's silliness. Sometimes a movie doesn't need to be smart to be special.
It is easy to lament what Michael Bay did to action cinema. While his films are very watchable they did also prove to Hollywood that intelligent movies were overrated. Plus, The Rock did, without a doubt, change action cinema. Do we get the over the top, explosion-littered action of Con Air without it? Do we get the overly edited action sequences of Taken without Michael Bay showing how its done? Those movies are drastically inferior to Bay's output as it takes more than explosions and quick editing to make watchable action movies. Somehow, even when we're talking about Michael Bay's films, it takes heart to direct properly, and for action sequences Bay absolutely has heart.
Ridicule his movies all you like (I will continue to do so) but you can't deny there's artistry to the way Bay directs his films. They're loud and dumb and filled with explosions... but they're also so stupidly watchable. It makes me angry how good the action in The Rock is because, with anyone else at the helm, this film would have been a disaster. Just another generic mid-1990s action film that would have come and gone with little fanfare. But Bay directed the shit out of it and made a stupid movie into a $335 Mil blockbuster. Hate him all you want but he gave audiences exactly what they wanted before they even knew they wanted it.