Michael Bay is, undeniably, one of the most discussed directors of our time; whether it’s because people think he is a hack or how his movies are usually considered trash by critics, but still manage to be multi-million-dollar box-office hits, Bay is a subject of heated discussion amongst film fans. For me, Michael Bay is a true visionary, just not in the way people expect most film visionaries to be; he has a distinct style that is rarely ripped off, because when it is attempted, it’s a laughable catastrophe; he creates action scenes and stakes that are (in theory) destined to be disasters, yet work just as well (if not better) than most blockbusters out there; even in his unquestionable errors (like racist jokes and nihilistic treatment of people and paper-thin characters) that normally make me hate movies of similar ilk, I just can’t help but enjoy most of his work as a “guilty-pleasure”. By far the one I enjoyed the most was Bad Boys 2; it’s his most flawed movie to date, because all of his errors are jacked to 11, yet all of his undeniable mastery is the most effective in that movie as well. So, when Bad Boys for life – the long awaited sequel to the first two – finally released a trailer and realized it was not going to be directed by Bay himself, I was conflicted; do I really want a movie in a franchise whose sole appeal was its director, when the director was not going to be directing? Turns out, that’s a more complicated question to answer than I initially thought and here’s why.
This is a list of the things Bad Boys for Life does better than any of the first two movies in the franchise: It has actual, well-written characters; it’s not 3 decades long for no apparent reason; it has a good villain; it has a mediocre story with genuine drama and a very good twist at the end of it (not so much in that its unexpected, but it forces the viewer to look back at one character with a new perspective that allows for reflection); it has gory and thrilling action scenes that don’t confuse and overwhelm you; it uses more colors, more effectively; the actors are given more than “look cool and say these cheesy one-liners” so they do a better job. Despite all of these points, this is still a Bad Boys movie; if you like the franchise, you will like this movie. However, as much as I enjoyed a genuinely good Bad Boys movie, I know I won’t think about it or watch it again once in a while like I do with Bad Boys 2. Honestly, watching Bad Boys for life I had the same reaction to when I was watching El Camino; I wanted to watch the thing it was “spinning off” from – for El Camino it was Breaking Bad, and for Bad Boys for life it was Bad Boys 2. So, I did! I went back and watched Bad Boys 2 and the biggest difference between the two movies is the most obvious one: Michael Bay.
Here’s a list of things that happen in Bad Boys 2: tons of horrific shit and the characters laugh over them or use it as a chance to dish out another one-liner, yet I laughed at it and enjoyed it; paper-thin characters with an astonishing disregard for public safety (which is what their jobs are supposed to be protecting), yet I love them; treating feelings and caring for others like contagious disease for comedic purposes, which made me laugh; almost half of the movie being over-the-top shots of actors doing cool shit, pointless action scenes with incoherent mapping of the action and nauseating editing and cutting that make for exciting and thrilling set pieces. There’s so much more, but you get my point; Bad Boys 2 should not work as well as it does, but because Bay creates an experience he wants and has become a master in creating efficiently, it works better than a movie which does every single point better. In reality, what Bad Boys for life made me realize is that the concept of Bad Boys is a generic action-comedy, buddy-cop movie we’ve seen a million times before, but the thing that made them distinct and worthwhile was Michael Bay. Bad Boys 2 is filled to the brim with over-the-top, chaotic, spatially confusing action scenes that work better in delivering the emotions of someone who wants to overwhelm you and force you to give in on the moment, than the action scenes of Bad Boys for life which are consistent and adequately shot, but lack any differentiating factors. Again, this is not to say that Bad Boys for life is disrespectful of the franchise or a bad sequel; Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have done a great job helming a Bad Boys sequel that is more mature and dramatic, yet remains a good Bad Boys movie for series fans to enjoy. This is just to say that, despite Bad Boys for life being the best movie of the trilogy, this is why I won’t go back to it or remember it as fondly as the previous entries.
As for Michael Bay, I’ve heard a lot of people comparing him to the Call of Duty franchise or generic pop stars as someone who found incredible success by creating mediocre and derivative art, which is plainly wrong, not only for Michael Bay, but also for the Call of Duty franchise and any generic pop star. I compare Michael Bay to a viral video of someone comically injuring themselves when they’re trying to do something cool; it’s usually a ten second video, yet everything is ramped up to 11 from a film-making standpoint. Within this limited time, we know a lot about the “characters”; they are usually drunk or are caught up in the moment, they are filming because they are usually responding to a challenge or are about to do something incredibly difficult and want proof of their impending success, and there’s always a look of smug assurance in their faces – like they know they are going to succeed and nothing can go wrong – which is why it’s so funny when they comically fail and suffer a humiliating failure. In most cases, laughing at someone who was humiliated and probably is suffering from physical pain, is a good sign you are a terrible person, but here because of the relatively low stakes and subversion of expectations, it is always hilarious. Bay’s movies are not the same in a one-on-one metaphor, but they are the same in spirit; most directors would kill to have 10 seconds of their movie convey so much narrative, while remaining entertaining, yet most directors are not able to do that. That is why legendary visionaries are so highly regarded, but Bay (who absolutely is one) does not use his talents for stories and poignant messages – he uses them to create his version of cool, exciting movies. He gave us his iconic shot of two people standing up in slow motion, while the camera pans around them and then they say something cool like “shit just got real”; Bayhem is absolutely a thing and no one seems able to replicate it. While most visionaries use their talents to contemplate ideas and philosophies, hold a mirror up to society, or present us with a hidden truth, Michael Bay shows us things blowing up in stunning style and helps us forget our reality for two hours (okay more like 3) and take a break, so we can relax and recharge our batteries. In entertainment, being serious and scathing is just as important as being frivolous and fun. When it comes to recognition and awards, Bay will not be as successful as his visionary counterparts, but he’s certainly as valid and important.