With the release of Ambulance on Netflix, it’s time to look back at the work of the infamous Michael Bay, ranked from worst to best. For many film fans, Michael Bay is one of the worst directors on the planet. Michael Bay’s filmography is generally considered to be the exemplification of everything that is wrong with Hollywood and blockbuster cinema. Paradoxically, he is also one of the most profitable and influential directors of the past two decades. He’s the fifth highest-grossing director of all time, ahead of James Cameron and Tim Burton. His work is oh-so-easy to hate and typically mauled by critics, yet time and time again, audiences turn out to see Michael Bay movies. He must be doing something right. This is especially apparent with 2022’s Ambulance. 2021 and 2020 may have been quiet years for the director, but Ambulance‘s 2022 Rotten Tomatoes rating indicates that the hitmaker is back.
Every Michael Bay movie comes with the director’s easily identifiable visual signature. His style is so distinct that it’s referred to as Bayhem: fluid and visually dynamic cinematography; rapid-fire editing; lots of slow-motion and camera-spinning; overloaded mise-en-scene; themes of gung-ho American patriotism; casual misogyny and racism; and, of course, helicopters at sunset. No filmmaker since Spielberg has so rapidly changed the basic vocabulary of blockbuster cinema as Bay.
Michael Bay’s fingerprints are all over modern cinema, from Zack Snyder to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe model to the growing market of Chinese blockbusters. He even has his fair share of critical defenders, with video essayist Lindsay Ellis famously using his work as the foundations for a series of works on film studies. With Michael Bay’s Ambulance streaming on Netflix, it’s time to take a look back at his filmography and decide once and for all what his best and worst movies are.
15. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN
Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the second of his five Transformers movies, stands as his most repugnant piece of work. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is the full house bingo card of Bay at his worst as a director: The ceaseless sound and fury; the near-indecipherable mise-en-scene; the screenplay which is simultaneously overstuffed and pathetically simplistic; all the screaming actors; the questionable politics, and much more. Everything that makes Revenge of the Fallen so unforgivably bad can be found in two now-infamous characters: The cringe-inducing racist stereotype robots, complete with crooked gold teeth, limpid attempts at “jive talk” performed by white actors, their illiteracy being a punchline, and a hefty dose of homophobia. Poor Megan Fox, who wasn’t exactly treated respectfully in the first movie, is reduced to a pure object of men’s drooling lust in a way that is often deeply uncomfortable to watch. Unlike in other action movies featuring Shia Labeouf, he looks exhausted and bored with everything going on, and by the end of the movie’s excruciating 150-minute running time, audiences are bound to feel exactly the same.
14. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
With the fourth installment of the Transformers series, Shia Labeouf was out and in his place came Mark Wahlberg. Transformers: Age of Extinction was the highest-grossing movie of 2014, in large part because of its appeal to Chinese audiences. In this one, China’s government and businesses are the true heroes and Chinese product placement, including one cringe-inducing shot of Stanley Tucci drinking a brand of milk, are shot almost pornographically. Ironically, this is truly what makes Age of Extinction at least a tad more interesting on an industry level than Revenge of the Fallen, but it remains overstuffed and incoherent in the same manner this franchise has made its name on. Wahlberg isn’t a gripping protagonist but he seems more attuned to Bay’s wavelengths than Labeouf, and Stanley Tucci is giving it his all as the Steve Jobs-esque tech guru. However, this movie may contain the franchise’s most astoundingly sexist moment, as Wahlberg’s character’s 17-year-old daughter, forever clad in tiny shorts that Bay begs viewers to gawk at, has an older boyfriend who conveniently produces a laminated card explaining how Texas’s Romeo and Juliet laws mean he is legally able to have sex with a minor. Even by Bay’s standards of tastelessness, this is a jaw-dropping moment.
13. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT
After the record box office of Age of Extinction, the fifth Transformers film stumbled at the box office, grossing around $400 million less than its predecessor and putting the Bay-age of Transformers to bed, at least for now. The film reportedly lost over $100 million for both Paramount and Hasbro. Transformers: The Last Knight may be the most knowingly bonkers of the franchise, although it still possesses all of the faults and deafness-inducing exhaustion of its cinematic siblings. There is method to the incomprehensible madness, if only because this is the point where the franchise became self-aware enough to add King Arthur alongside Transformers. Other highlights include Anthony Hopkins and his sassy steampunk Transformer butler and the seductively evil villainess Quintessa, voiced by Gemma Chan.
12. 6 UNDERGROUND
There are moments during 6 Underground where viewers can’t help but wonder if Bay is deliberately trying to make a “so bad it’s good” movie. Bay has never been a filmmaker to adhere to realism but 6 Underground, the story of a billionaire (played by Ryan Reynolds) who fakes his own death to form a vigilante group to take down terrorists, strains even the most flexible understanding of Bay’s verisimilitude. All the typical Bay tropes are here but the end result is oddly hollow and joyless. This is clearly the work of a director just going through the motions. To call these unnamed characters two-dimensional would be an insult to the concept of flatness. For a film-maker who frequently denies that his work is political, it’s tough to ignore the jingoism of 6 Underground and the weird “yay capitalism” tone of its concept (surely any true philanthropic billionaire would think of more effective ways to help the planet than to fake their death and become a real-world Batman?) It’s not Bay’s worst but this film certainly feels like his most unnecessary.
11. THE ISLAND
Despite using the same compelling themes in dystopian sci-fi classics like Aeon Flux, Gattaca, The Hunger Games, and Battle Royale, The Island is probably the Michael Bay blockbuster that audiences are most likely to forget exists. It’s a 2005 dystopian action-sci fi with themes of cloning, corporate overreach, and human autonomy, but one still that’s chock full of car chases and explosions. The whole narrative feels like a YA novel written to capture the hype of The Hunger Games, complete with thematic simplicity and painfully obvious influences. What sinks the movie more than its mundane approach to the material is the glaring product placement (why would a seemingly idyllic dystopian facility full of cloned residents with no control over their own lives need to be surrounded by ads for X-Box?).
10. BAD BOYS II
Apart from being much more bloated than its predecessor, Bad Boys II is also way more violent, and far bleaker a viewing experience, but there’s a reason Hot Fuzz references it as an all-time action movie great. It is, to put it bluntly, an utterly deranged viewing experience. This is the movie where it feels like Bay was fully given permission to go off the rails and make the kind of movie he always wanted to. The sheer insanity of some of these action scenes display some of the best technical craft of Bay’s career. In-between all that carnage, however, is a ceaseless barrage of racial stereotypes, gay panic, vile misogyny, and an overwhelming sense that Bay thinks of humanity as a waste of time. It makes for a tough watch that not even the thrill of Bay at his most Bay-esque can alleviate. That said, it’s definitely still worth a watch for any fans of Will Smith’s movies.
9. TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
The movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a notable step up from Revenge of the Fallen but it’s still a clunky mess with some truly nasty moments. The decision to hastily replace Megan Fox with Rosie Huntington-Whiteley didn’t do much to combat claims of Michael Bay’s misogyny (especially since her character arc was clearly supposed to be Fox’s and they just didn’t bother to change it). That said, there are several legitimate reasons why this movie still deserves to be seen, even by Michael Bay haters. What saves the film is a more interesting plot, better use of the Transformers themselves, and actors like Frances McDormand doing all that they can to bring some much-needed charisma to the table. This is also the only Transformers movie that was worth watching in 3D.
8. 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI
When it was announced, the idea of Michael Bay of all people making a movie about Benghazi, one of the most politically contentious issues of modern-day politics, felt like the worst possible movie premise. 13 Hours isn’t great, but it’s way more restrained than one would expect from Bay. This is a sleek film meant for an adult audience and not teenage boys, to whom Bay’s work is typically marketed. There’s real grit to this war drama, as is befitting the story, and Still, even though it’s easily Bay’s most mature work, 13 Hours is still pretty juvenile, especially when it comes to its politics. Bay may claim he’s trying to avoid jingoistic revisionism with this movie but it’s hard to overlook how often 13 Hours relies on typical movie tropes. Separated from its socio-political context, 13 Hours is enjoyable enough, but that’s hard to do when Bay really doesn’t want the viewer to ignore very recent history.
7. PEARL HARBOR
Pearl Harbor was supposed to signal the birth of a new kind of Michael Bay. This was the beginning of the prestigious Bay, the film-maker of Spielbergian levels of blockbuster worthiness, the kind of director who could blend high-octane action with serious drama and historical heft. Essentially, this was Bay’s attempt at Oscar glory. That obviously didn’t happen. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is, ironically, how utterly un-Bay it all is. Granted, this is definitely not the story for him to unleash Bayhem. All things considered, this is about as respectful as Bay gets, and audiences really don’t want a respectful Bay more focused on romantic subplots than blowing stuff up. The misguided nature of Pearl Harbor is such a joke that Team America: World Police dedicated an entire love song to it (“I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark // When he made Pearl Harbor // I miss you more than that movie missed the point // And that’s an awful lot girl.“) Still, Pearl Harbor may be the Bay film that deserves a second glance the most. Sure, the Bayhem is restrained but viewers also see some of the director’s most stunning work, especially in one brilliant scene where the camera follows a bomb as it drops towards its target. The human stuff doesn’t work and it really needs to for the movie to succeed in its aims, but as an experiment in Spielbergian intent, Pearl Harbor has more to recommend than it often receives.
He may have made five of these movies but Bay never topped the first Transformers, the movie that set up the foundations of Michael Bay’s Transformers universe. It’s perfect popcorn fodder for that mindless summer day when all audiences want to do is watch things blow up. This may be the only Transformers film on the list where the lack of a coherent plot doesn’t feel like that big of an issue, and it’s easily the sole one in the franchise that takes a minute to develop its characters, including the oft-maligned Megan Fox who easily has the most compelling arc of anyone in this oddly vast ensemble. What makes Transformers maybe the only film in the franchise worth re-watching is the genuine sense of wonder if it creates with these robots. The scale and sense of detail still manages to thrill audiences twelve years after it debuted and long after the rest of Hollywood started copying its aesthetic. Indeed, even after five more Transformers movies, Bay never managed to outdo the one that started it all, although this could change with Michael Bay’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts on the horizon. It certainly won’t be easy. Transformers is goofy and silly but light enough to get away with its strange politics and offers enough stunning set-pieces to justify its existence as a movie based on a toy line. Sadly, it was all downhill from here with the franchise.
5. BAD BOYS
Michael Bay made his feature directorial debut with Bad Boys following a career in commercials and music videos (the video for Meatloaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love” is one of his better pieces of work), and the viewer gets the sense that this is a film where he’s still finding his feet and his style. As a result, it’s still pretty mellow by what we now consider a typical Bay film but Bad Boys has two real aces up its sleeve in the form of the leading duo of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. Their off-the-charts chemistry is what prevented Bad Boys from being just another buddy cop action-comedy.
Ambulance is Michael Bay’s highly successful attempt at bridging the gap between Bayhem and the sensibilities of modern Gen Z audiences. Ambulance‘s 2022 Rotten Tomatoes score of 69% on the Tomatometer is more than enough proof that Bay’s cinematic style is alive and well in contemporary cinema, even after two years of not directing any action blockbusters. In Ambulance, Bay tackles family drama, the plight of U.S. Army veterans, and even dips into the ethics of justice – wrapped up in the familiar elements of Bayhem, which unapologetically includes references to Bay’s previous films in the dialog. However, unlike Pearl Harbor or 13 Hours, Ambulance never feels like Bay is out of his element, a sign that the director is learning from previous mistakes. Indeed, Ambulance might be Bay’s best movie in years, much of which can be attributed to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Eiza González’s onscreen chemistry. All this being said, Ambulance is essentially Michael Bay 101 for the 21st century – Bayhem calibrated for the next generation of film viewers. As Bay’s skills and years of experience are in full display, Ambulance is definitely a close contender for the Bayhem top three.
3. PAIN AND GAIN
The autobiographical movie Pain and Gain is perhaps the strongest case in favor of giving Michael Bay the label of auteur. Made on a $24 million budget – paltry by Bay’s standards – this black comedy is based on the true story of a group of bodybuilders who became involved in a kidnapping and extortion scheme that went horribly wrong. Notably, Pain and Gain is also the first collaboration between Bay and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Like any Bay movie, Pain and Gain is brash, tasteless, over-the-top and rooted in macho chauvinism. The difference here is how Bay enters the realm of satire. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie play the over-muscled lug-headed bodybuilders who plot to kidnap a slimy businessman who frequents their gym, but are ultimately too stupid to pull it off. Bay typically glorifies a specific kind of retro masculinity, but here, he exposes it for the pathetic facade it truly is. The film is deeply nihilistic and hateful but with a cohesive agenda that Bay’s work so often lacks. It’s not exactly Michael Bay’s arthouse movie, but if he ever feels like taking a break from nine-figure blockbusters to scale things back for a while, Pain and Gain’s reviews are solid proof that he has what it takes.
Roger Ebert may have famously hated Armageddon, but it still represents Bay at the height of his powers, kicking down Hollywood’s doors and leading the way for a new brand of blockbuster. This is Bay in full-on gung-ho patriotism mode – but in a way that feels relatable rather than jingoistic. With Armageddon, which came out in the same year as the similarly plotted Deep Impact, there’s get the cathartic thrill of big-screen carnage alongside an ensemble of humans audiences actually care about, which includes Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Michael Clarke Duncan. Today, Armageddon‘s influence is still apparent in movies like Don’t Look Up and series like Space Force. It’s a film with personality and a strong underdog appeal that, while not without obvious problems, can keep all types of viewers entertained from start to finish, which is why it’s streaming now on Amazon Prime. Crucially, Armageddon is fun and owns its silliness to ensure it achieves maximum levels of joy.
1. THE ROCK
Is it silly? Yes. Is it loud and occasionally incoherent? Of course. Is it Michael Bay’s peak as a director of film? Hell yeah. The Rock is the Rosetta Stone of Bayhem at its most enjoyable and viscerally thrilling (it’s also the only film Bay has ever directed to retain a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes). Helped along by a sparky screenplay that featured uncredited rewrites from everyone, including Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, The Rock is a never-ending barrage of action, jokes, thrills, and endlessly quotable one-liners. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery make for a surprisingly excellent double team, with the latter clearly having the time of his life on-screen. They, along with reliable character actors like Ed Harris, make the viewer believe this wholly ludicrous material. As Roger Ebert said, “Watching The Rock, you care about what happens. You may feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that’s part of the ride.” There’s a reason The Rock is in the Criterion Collection, despite the grumblings of many a critic. Long live Bayhem.
Next: Every Transformers Movie Ranked From Worst To Best (Including Bumblebee)
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