In the lead-up to Transformers: The Last Knight, Craig J. Clark is mapping the road that led Michael Bay — and the rest of us — here. There’s just one catch: Craig had never seen a Michael Bay movie before now. Things are about to get real.
Part II: Sneak Attacks (2001-2005)
It would be a stretch to say Michael Bay ever caught the acting bug, but after appearing unbilled as a NASA scientist in Armageddon, he showed up in the superhero comedy Mystery Men (as a “Frat Boy” whose primary concern is his access to “brewskies”) and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Coyote Ugly (as a photographer for The Village Voice, of all publications). Both cameos are of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety, which is understandable considering he was gearing up for a project on the same scale as Armageddon, albeit one with potentially more prestige value.
Written by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace — and representing the first Bay film with a single credited screenwriter — 2001’s Pearl Harbor is an epic in the sense that it’s three hours long (which explains why cutting it required the services of four editors), but using the sneak attack that propelled the U.S. into World War II as the backdrop for a limp love triangle between a Navy nurse and two hotshot pilots only serves to diminish both. (This wasn’t the first time Bay could be accused of trivializing a national tragedy. See also: Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler’s father/daughter heart-to-heart at the Apollo 1 memorial in Armageddon.)
While Bay’s first three films were predicated upon the countdown to a calamity that needed to be averted — a major drug deal, a deadly chemical weapons attack, a world-killing meteor strike — Pearl Harbor was the first time his protagonists could do nothing to prevent one because none of them saw it coming. Bay and Wallace make sure the audience is aware of how close they’re getting to it, though, moving Ben Affleck’s Rafe, Josh Hartnett’s Danny, and Kate Beckinsale’s Evelyn (along with their various hangers-on) like chess pieces from Long Island (where Rafe strikes up a chaste romance with Evelyn at the start of 1941) to England (where Rafe volunteers to help fight the Battle of Britain until he’s shot down) and Pearl Harbor (where Danny and Evelyn eventually hook up, not realizing Rafe is still alive). This is all done so that when December rolls around, Rafe can miraculously reappear and feel the double sting of betrayal, but not have too much time to brood over it thanks to the intervention of the Japanese.
In a sense, Pearl Harbor’s true model isn’t war movies like From Here to Eternity or Tora! Tora! Tora!, but rather James Cameron’s Titanic, substituting the Japanese strike force for the iceberg. (Imagine if Cameron had had the Titanic’s survivors regroup and launch an attack on the iceberg that sank them.) However, as spectacularly as Bay stages the December 7 attack — a sequence that takes up half an hour of screen time — it wasn’t enough to entice viewers to return to the multiplex a second or third (or fourth or fifth) time. As a result, Pearl Harbor didn’t do Titanic business, and it even struggled to match Armageddon’s domestic take. In response, Bay returned to the scene of his first cinematic success, bringing detectives Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey into the 21st century with 2003’s Bad Boys II, the bigger, badder, and marginally better sequel to their maiden adventure.
Overstuffed plot-wise and teeming with blatant product placement (including a chase scene that doubles as a car commercial), Bad Boys II raises the stakes for its perpetually bickering protagonists to match the expansive budget — $130 million, more than six times what the original Bad Boys cost to make. It’s fortunate, then, that Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s easy rapport allows them to overcome a plot that forces them to keep secrets from each other while attempting to stop a gang of Cuban drug dealers from bringing a shipment of Ecstasy into Miami. Marcus’s secret is that he’s transferring out of the department, which threatens to break up their partnership, while Mike’s is that he’s dating Marcus’s younger sister Sydney (Gabrielle Union), a DEA agent in Miami on an undercover job (which means she’s keeping secrets from both of them). The film features jokes galore about Marcus being in therapy, his general queasiness, and — revisiting a theme from the first film—his inability to get an erection after Mike shoots him during the bust that opens the film. “My ass still hurts from what you did to it the other night,” Marcus confesses to Mike in an intimate scene that is misunderstood by those who overhear it.
Along with the returning Joe Pantoliano as their apoplectic captain, whose attempts to keep his cool are about as successful as Marcus’s, Bay cast Armageddon alumnus Peter Stormare as a Russian club owner and Michael Shannon (who played an airplane mechanic in Pearl Harbor) as a hick Klansman who gets caught in the opening raid on one of their meetings, which Bay needlessly flashes back to when Marcus and Mike spring him from jail later on. Shannon is also an unwilling party to one of the car chases that punctuate the film, which introduces what would become a Bay signature: the street chase during which things are spilled out onto the road, causing untold collateral damage and multiple pileups. He saves the most wanton destruction for the climax in Cuba (which Puerto Rico stands in for), where Marcus and Mike go with some backup to rescue Sydney from the bad guys (because as capable and self-reliant as she is, she still needs to be turned into a damsel in distress to give the marquee stars something to bond over).
Thanks to its exorbitant price tag, Bad Boys II wasn’t as profitable as the original, and it also marked the end of Bay’s association with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who took the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie (released by Disney the same year) and ran with it. Bay, meanwhile, set up shop at DreamWorks Pictures, which partnered with Warner Bros. to release the conceptually daring but ultimately muddled and unsatisfying The Island in 2005. A science fiction parable set in the far-off future of 2019, the film takes care to establish a slightly higher-tech reality where desktop computers are literally embedded into desktops and cloning technology has advanced to the point where the obscenely wealthy can “sponsor” genetic duplicates of themselves that are housed in the Merrick Institute, a hermetically sealed facility, and kept in shape until the time comes when they need an organ transplant (or, in the case of some women, a surrogate to carry a baby to term for them). It’s at that point that the clones win “The Lottery” and get to go to “The Island,” supposedly the only place on Earth that hasn’t been affected by “The Contamination.”
If some of that sounds suspiciously like the premise of the late-’70s low-budgeter Parts: The Clonus Horror (spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the late ’90s), its writer/director Robert S. Fiveson thought so, too, and sued The Island’s distributors, winning an undisclosed settlement. That was still a drop in the bucket compared to its hefty $126 million price tag, though, a sizable portion of which was added to the bottom line by the action set-pieces Bay had inserted into the plot, including the obligatory highway chase.
On the acting front, The Island is reasonably well-served by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as Lincoln and Jordan, the two main clones who uncover the Merrick Institute’s sinister inner workings and escape to the real world, where they seek the help of Mac, a Merrick technician played by Steve Buscemi. They get off on the wrong foot, though, when Lincoln threatens Mac in the men’s room of a dive bar he frequents, leading to another one of Bay’s patented gay jokes when a patron overhears Mac say, “Let me pull my pants up and I’ll take you back to my place so we can be alone.” It’s there that Mac gives Lincoln and Jordan the lowdown — that they’re just a few years old, they’ve only been allowed to mentally advance to the age of 15, and they have no working knowledge of sex, which pretty much makes them Michael Bay’s target audience. (Zing!)
From there, Lincoln and Jordan set out to expose the conspiracy and save their fellow clones from being incinerated (yes, the movie goes there) while Bay figures out how to blow up as much stuff and squeeze in as much product placement as possible. One scene even pauses for a shot so perfectly composed, it could have been lifted straight out of a beer commercial.
Bay may have gone into The Island with the intention of trying something different, but he wound up far outside his comfort zone and it shows in the schizophrenic final product. He also wound up with the first bomb of his career, opening in fourth place and slinking out of U.S. theaters with less than $36 million in its coffers. Even taking the rest of the world into account, where it made back the equivalent of its budget, once the cost of prints and advertising is factored in, The Island was a money-loser, and it didn’t do too great critically, either, as its 40% rating on Rotten Tomatoes attests. (For the record, the only film Bay has directed that is certified “Fresh” is The Rock with 66%.) To change his fortunes and win back the audience that had temporarily deserted him, Bay needed something that smacked of familiarity. What he picked out of the toy chest altered his career trajectory for good (or bad, depending on who you ask).
CRAIG’S CURRENT RANKINGS:
1. The Rock
2. Bad Boys II
3. Bad Boys
5. The Island
6. Pearl Harbor
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., where he is a body-parts clone but doesn’t know it yet.