Why Michael Bay is a misunderstood genius

Transformers director is master of mainstream movie making… and doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

Director... Michael Bay at Transformers premiere (Credit: Rex)

Michael Bay knows what most people think of his movies. He doesn’t care. "I make movies for teenage boys," he says. "Oh dear, what a crime." It’s this attitude that makes the 48-year-old Californian so endearing: while other filmmakers spend a lifetime learning how to perfectly season a well-cooked steak, Bay is happy serving cheeseburgers. And in Hollywood, where fast food is often dolled up as haute cuisine, Bay is one of the few directors who isn’t ashamed to admit it.

Even while studying at film school, Michael Bay wasn’t interested in stretching the boundaries of cinema; while his fellow students made angsty black and white shorts, Bay’s final film was a man driving a Porsche. He’s not matured an awful lot since. Michael Bay has his own recognisable visual style, known as ‘Bayhem’ - fast cars, slow-motion, hot girls and a loud, brash shooting style that’s resulted in some of the most memorable action movies of the last 20 years.

[Optimus Prime redesigned for Transformers 4]

Sure, for every ‘The Rock’, there’s a ‘Pearl Harbour’; for every ‘Bad Boys’ there’s a ‘Bad Boys II’. But when it comes to separating young teenage boys from their pocket money, Michael Bay is in a league of his own. His 10 movies to date have reaped almost $2 billion at the US box office alone. What a crime indeed.

There are no signs of Bay mellowing with age: his new movie, crime comedy ‘Pain & Gain’ (watch the trailer below), doesn’t feature any giant robots, but it does feature the closest human equivalents - Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson - as well as the usual complement of guns, girls and bad behaviour. Bay’s trademark visual style - he calls it "f**king the frame" - is less evident (it’s more a light fondling of the frame these days), but the director’s sense of humour is front and centre, mining sick laughs out of a strange case of kidnapping and extortion. This is as close as Bay comes to a change of pace; he’s never really stretched himself, but when his comfort zone is this much fun, why leave?

Bay’s influence over action cinema cannot be overestimated. By casting Will Smith in ‘Bad Boys’, he was responsible for the career of the most profitable actor of the new millennium; he made Ben Affleck a megastar in ‘Armageddon’, a decade or so before he deserved it; he made a toy line into a billion-dollar franchise with ‘Transformers’ when naysayers scoffed at the idea. Imitators like Zack Snyder and Peter Berg ape his quick cuts and large scale explosive action, but Bay is still the one to beat when it comes to blowing stuff up.

(Flipside: he is also responsible for the action career of Nicolas Cage. But hey, not everything he touches can turn to gold.)

[New robots set for Transformers 4?]

Yes, Bay’s legacy might seem like a blight on the cinematic landscape if you’re a film snob, but as the man will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with making movies for a broad audience. He knows he’s not creating art - he’s giving people what they want. Not every movie can be a groundbreaking work of genius. Sometimes people just want to be entertained. Bay distills his movies down to their component parts until they’re basically a series of set-pieces: chase, explosion, quip, repeat. His films are action in its purest form.

Michael Bay’s movies speak for themselves - or rather they get up in your face, Ed Harris style, and SHOUT for themselves - but Bay himself is as entertaining a character as any you’ll see in his films. Remember his beef with McG over ‘Terminator Salvation’s brazen robo-thievery from ‘Transformers’? It ended with a suggestion of a "dick-measuring contest". Have you seen Bay’s hilarious commercial for Verizon? It paints a picture of a man who lives a high-octane lifestyle and knows precisely how ridiculous that makes him. His relationship with Megan Fox made for great headlines: it started with him making Fox wash his Ferrari for her ‘Transformers’ audition and ended with her calling Bay "Hitler". Frankly, you just don’t get that sort of entertainment on the set of a Steven Spielberg movie.

So here’s to you, Mike: master of mayhem, blaster of Bayhem and one of the most shamelessly entertaining directors in Hollywood. Keep churning out those cheeseburgers.

'Pain & Gain' is in cinemas now.