Alamo Drafthouse is doing a big Bad Boys trilogy screening this week that you don't want to miss. Get tickets here!
While familiar enough with both Martin Lawrence and Will Smith from their television work, I wouldn't say I was a big enough fan of either man to rush out to see Bad Boys in 1995 - especially when those pre-license, pre-job days (I was only 15) meant getting a ride from my mom and using up my entire week's worth of allowance to buy a ticket. And yet I was there, on opening night, because I had to know what a Michael Bay movie would be like. But wait, you might think, wasn't that his first movie? How'd you even know who he was in the first place? Two words, often misspelled as one: Meat Loaf.
In 1993, Meat - those days better known as an actor - had a gigantic comeback with his sequel album Bat out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, which scored huge sales thanks to the success of its first single, "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)", a song many will criticize for being too long without even realizing that the version they've heard on the radio was actually cut down from the epic album incarnation, which runs twelve minutes. Bay's accompanying music video fell somewhere between, running about seven and a half minutes and jam-packing every one of them with memorable images: motorcycle chases! Sexy ladies! A camera that never, ever, EVER stops moving and seemingly can only film in two colors: orange or blue!
By now these things are synonymous with what you expect out of a Michael Bay movie, but in 1993, he was just another commercial/video guy whose name you might recognize if you paid attention to the credit block on MTV (or if you knew who directed the same year's famous "Aaron Burr" Got Milk? ad). Bay returned to direct the videos for the next two singles from the album: "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through" (which featured a very young Angelina Jolie) and "Objects In The Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are", a slower tune that nevertheless gave Bay an excuse to stage a plane crash (with accompanying 'splosion) and a sex scene inside a vehicle. Bay proved to be a perfect fit for the songs, as like their songwriter Jim Steinman, he shares a true passion for excess, fast moving vehicles, sex, and lowbrow humor - it's actually a bit of a shame that Bay was only a child when the first Bat out of Hell hit; I assume that if he made a video for "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" it would be his magnum opus.
So yes, Bay's name is what got me into that seat for Bad Boys a year and a half later, and I wasn't disappointed when I left it. In retrospect it is of course one of his smallest films (it's not even 2.35:1!), but having read in Entertainment Weekly or Premiere that the budget was only around $20-25m, I remember being quite impressed with how much action he managed to get in 119 minutes (yep, it's also his only movie that comes in under two hours, if only by a minute). It's mostly of the (cheaper) shootout variety, yes, but they were distinct from one another and coherent, and didn't fall into the trap so many other action movies do, where you have characters repeatedly firing bullets at each other and seemingly hitting nothing. Glass, mail, barrels, more glass... whatever happens to be near our heroes, you can bet Bay will show those things being destroyed.
As for the explosions, there's a few, but only one really big one - and it's the stuff of legend that only gets funnier with each subsequent Bay film. As the story goes, Sony didn't want to pay for the planned shot of an airplane hangar exploding, which would be the button to the climactic shootout that was set there. Knowing how unfulfilling the sequence would come off without it, Bay decided to pay for the shot himself, and if you watch the bonus features on the DVD or Blu-ray you can see him showing the check to the camera after action had been called. Can you even imagine a time when a studio would tell Michael Bay he couldn't have an explosion? It'd be like telling Scorsese they wouldn't pay to license the Rolling Stones, or telling Spielberg that there would be absolutely no shots of people looking in awe at something off-screen.
And despite being his first film, you can see so many of his trademarks already in place. There's fast cars, beautiful women, and a team of guys in tactical gear working under the pressure of a ticking clock to pull off a job - all in the film's first five minutes! Later on we get the rest of it: ordinary situations being shot as if they're the most exciting thing in the world, dated humor, dogs, and - yes - a slow-motion 360 shot of someone as they stand back up after a car chase. It's even got some of the mean streak he'd fully embrace in his later work - who else but Bay would take the time to stage a group of guys in wheelchairs being toppled by the bad guys as they are being chased by the heroes? But it's also one of his more human films (perhaps a necessity due to the low budget); he takes the time to let the death of one of Smith's friends actually register, and the relationship between Lawrence and his wife (Theresa Randle) is actually fairly believable, unlike what passes for couples in the majority of the films to come.
Bay's next two films were even better (few would disagree with me on The Rock, at least), and while Pearl Harbor may have its problems, I was incredibly charmed to see Bay "return to his roots" as it were, as the film's setup of two best friends/honorary brothers who dream of flying planes together was taken directly from his "Objects..." video seven years earlier. Outside of Pain & Gain I can't say I love too many of his films since (with all due respect to Danny Butterman, I prefer the original Bad Boys to its 2003 sequel), but I still eagerly see everything he does. I even went out of my way to see 6 Underground theatrically instead of watching it for free at home, feeling Bayhem can only be experienced for the first time on the big screen. And that's due to two things: the strength of his first few movies, and the fact that I have been a fan of his before those films even existed.