Eight years after Bay scored a box-office hit by teaming Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami cops in a frenetic mashup of slam-bang action-comedy hijinks, he returned to the scene of the crime for a sequel. Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait: Despite a considerable amping of every element (including the body count) that defined the previous episode, the follow-up is more exhausting than exciting. Even the jokey banter between Smith and Lawrence — a major selling point for “Bad Boys” — seems strained and repetitive.
12. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2012)
Another sequel that proved not to be the equal of its forerunner. Mind you, it wasn’t like Bay had set the bar impossibly high with his first “Transformers” flick. But that movie at least had novelty value going for it: It was hard to deny the sheer gee-whiz thrill of seeing extended brawls between GCI-magnified shape-shifting robots. The second chapter of the ongoing franchise is recommended only to those hearty souls who might enjoy multiple back-to-back spins on a vertiginous theme park ride, or two hours at a dance club where the techno-pop is turned up to somewhere past 11, maybe even 12.
11. Armageddon (1998)
Punishingly loud and dizzyingly frenetic, Bay’s 1998 disaster melodrama is aimed squarely at audiences who firmly believe that if your ears aren’t ringing and your pulse isn’t pounding, you can’t be having a good time. Even if you like this sort of thing, this isn’t necessarily the sort of thing you’ll like. Bruce Willis is undeniably engaging as a deep-core oil-driller who leads a motley crew of roughnecks on a beat-the-clock space mission to destroy a massive asteroid on a collision course with earth. But the movie as a whole is way too bloated and bombastic for its own good. To say it hasn’t aged well would be a charitable understatement.
10. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
After demolishing a huge swath of Chicago during the climax of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” Optimus Prime and his fellow Autobots have worn out their welcome on earth, and are rounded up like undocumented immigrants — until, of course, they’re needed again. That’s the serviceable premise of Bay’s fourth “Transformers” movie, and it gives the director a good excuse to refresh the franchise by casting a game Mark Wahlberg in the lead role of a financially challenged amateur inventor who does triple duty as protector, repairman and encourager for the ‘Bots in their battles with Decepticons.
9. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
First off, forget all the loose talk about this fifth installment’s being the grand finale of the franchise. (The final scene practically screams: “Don’t miss our next exciting episode!”) And don’t be turned off by the idea of tracing the Transformers mythos all the way back to the era of King Arthur. There’s something positively giddy about the anything-goes audacity of this shark-jumping, everything-including-the-kitchen sink installment of the Robots Gone Wild series, which features everything from a proudly slumming Sir Anthony Hopkins praising his robot-car as a bitchin’ set of wheels to a teasingly brief flashback look at how Transformers aided the Allies during World War II. Mark Wahlberg returns as the working-class human hero, and that’s also an asset.
8. The Island (2005)
Bay’s turbo-charged mix of sci-fi thriller and chase-movie melodrama borrows freely from earlier films (“THX-1138,” “Logan’s Run,” etc.), but so what? In their own time, many of those movies also were described as derivative. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson strike the perfect balance between ingenuousness and resilience as two “products” who escape from a high-tech compound after discovering they have been cloned from customers who want to harvest them for replacement parts. The movie could have used a bit more of the comic relief provided by the couple’s quizzical reactions to the outside world. But, as usual, there’s no stinting on the rapid-fire action and demolition-derby wreckage.
7. Transformers (2007)
The year was 2007. It was a different time, a simpler time. The skies were bluer, friends were truer — and the whole concept of a live-action movie about giant robots engaged in grudge matches was newer, if not quite unprecedented. (See: Stuart Gordon’s 1990 “Robot Jox.”) Bay’s first “Transformers” film was widely razzed (as its sequels continue to be) for being “inspired” by a popular line children’s toys. At the time of its initial release, however, its special effects seemed, well, genuinely special, and the quick-cut, razzle-dazzling interplay between vulnerable humans and metal behemoths more than lived up to its advance hype.
6. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
After years of viewing Bay’s appreciative fetishization of all things military in his “Transformer” movies, few moviegoers (and even fewer critics) were surprised when the director tried his hand at a straight-up, testosterone-fueled, ripped-from-recent-headlines war story. To give him fair credit, he delivered the goods with an enthrallingly visceral and purposefully chaotic drama that, after a somewhat ponderous and cliché-ridden build-up, thrillingly depicts the exploits of the real-life heroes who fought the good fight while trying to defend the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi during a deadly 2012 assault. It’s worth noting that, aside from some predictable jabs at clueless bureaucrats, the movie is mostly apolitical. Indeed, one could argue the original “Transformers” (2007) made more of a political statement by indicating then-President George W. Bush was a clueless goof fond of red socks and Ding Dongs.
5. Pearl Harbor (2001)
Arguably the most under-rated feature in the Michael Bay oeuvre, this uneven but largely entertaining drama is an unabashedly old-fashioned and irony-free wartime romance infused with CGI pyrotechnics and rah-rah patriotism. Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale do their best to provide Old Hollywood style star power for Bay’s retro epic, which often has the mood and manner of something that could have rolled off the assembly line at MGM or Warner Bros. in the 1940s. Yes, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is every bit as overbearingly spectacular as you would expect in a movie by the man who gave us “Armageddon.” And the self-conscious visual flourishes remind us that the director cut his teeth on music videos. Still, the movie qualifies as, if not classic cinema, then an easily forgivable guilty pleasure. (One can only wonder what the critical and audience response might have been had “Pearl Harbor,” a Summer 2001 release, been released a few months later. Say, after Sept. 11.)
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Lead player Shia LaBeouf publicly apologized for the wretched excess of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” — a.k.a. “Transformers 2” — and Bay himself reportedly wasn’t very happy about it, either. This third chapter in the franchise might be viewed as a kinda-sorta mea culpa. But it’s probably safer to simply accept it as the best in the series, thanks in large measure to a relatively clever script (by Ehren Kruger) that cheekily links the Autobot/Decepticon conflict to the U.S. space program of the 1960s and ‘70s. (A nifty touch: Real-life moonwalker Buzz Aldrin makes a cameo appearance as himself.) Even the inevitable climactic smackdown, which has Team Optimus Prime and Team Megatron laying waste to much of downtown Chicago, is more thrilling than usual.
3. Bad Boys (1995)
Bay’s debut feature pretty much sums up his m.o. as a feature filmmaker: Lots of shattered glass, smashed vehicles, orange sunsets, foulmouthed jocularity, rapid-fire editing, deafening music, and heaping helpings of collateral damage to lives and property. And yet, somehow, this formulaic recycling of buddy-cop movie clichés fires on all cylinders as fast and furious escapism. Much of the credit must go to the cocky young Will Smith (one year away from “Independence Day,” two before “Men in Black”) and the slow-burning Martin Lawrence, perfectly cast as an odd couple of Miami cops who trade quips and dodge bullets with appealing exuberance.
2. The Rock (1996)
Speaking of odd couples: Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery are an improbably perfect match in Bay’s second feature, an irresistibly rousing action-adventure that has something to do with a plot to launch poison gas-armed rockets from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, and something else to do with the transformation of an office-bound FBI chemical weapons expert (Cage) into a gung-ho hero. Connery savors every morsel of his sardonic dialogue as a former British Intelligence agent (and legendary escapee from Alcatraz) who’s pressed into service to guide the good guys to the bad guys, and winds up serving as the demanding life coach who hectors Cage’s character into being all he can be.
1. Pain & Gain (2013)
Bay’s best movie to date is an atypically subdued (by Bay standards) and savagely funny dramedy, based loosely (very loosely) on real-life events, about a dim-bulb Miami gym rat (Mark Wahlberg) whose unbridled sense of entitlement and ludicrously misguided confidence drive him to enlist two buddies (Anthony Mackie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in a crackpot scheme to relieve a blowhard businessman of his worldly possessions and social status. The tone of stylized exaggeration is such that even scenes of violent brutality are more hilarious than horrifying. And there’s something at once amusing and unsettling about Bay’s underlying suggestion that his three criminal co-conspirators are simply demanding their just desserts: An American Dream fulfilment promised by the sort of empowering pop-culture fantasies that many moviegoers — including many who go to see Michael Bay movies — accept as gospel.