There has been a recent change within the discourse of film criticism: perhaps it is a symptom of the internet generation that allows everyone to have a voice, to be a critic; perhaps it is an attempt to push back against po-faced snobbery which has sometimes overburdened art analysis of late – either way, something has changed. The broader effects of these changes may (and should) be discussed elsewhere, but for the purpose of this article I will dwell upon one important change relevant to this piece: the emergence of a collective defence for a particular mode of big-budget filmmaking that overlooks any shortcomings for the fact that it is, to quote the masses, “just a bit of fun.” I am generally opposed to this type of defence; not for any self-imposed snobbery, but for the fact that films can aspire to be ‘fun’ while remaining intelligently-made, innovative pieces of filmmaking – a film such as Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this.
This ‘fun’ scapegoat has been regularly levelled at the films of Michael Bay, certainly in light of his multi-billion dollar fireworks display, the Transformers franchise. Long before MB was responsible for some of this decade’s most lucrative critical disasters – Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I’m looking at you – he produced a trilogy of slick, silly, and downright fun action movies in Bad Boys, The Rock, and, ahem, Armageddon (stick with me here). So this is a love letter to 1990s MB, to a time when ‘fun’ was not a dirty word in film criticism and Bayhem had not yet received entry into the dictionary of film terminology.
Before Bad Boys MB had enjoyed success in the commercial and music video industries directing national Coca-Cola ads and ice-cool music video classics such as Meat Loaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’; you need only watch fifteen seconds of the latter to find MB’s now infamous macho-aesthetic dripping from every beautiful, sunset-soaked frame. Despite a lukewarm critical reception, when Bad Boys finally hit the film proved to be considerably more than just the sum of its constituent parts. Bad Boys is loud, dumb fun and makes virtue of its stars’ considerable wit and chemistry. The film playfully resurrects the 1980s buddy cop genre that was made famous by the likes of the Lethal Weapon series and Eddie Murphy while he was still funny (48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop); besides that, Bad Boys made A-listers of Will Smith and MB himself while laying down the template for the director’s lucrative career and action movies in general from that point onwards.
The following year brought with it MB’s masterpiece – yes, you read that correctly, now let it sink in, slowly: The Rock is an action masterpiece. For a long time I always maintained that Ed Harris was the secret to the film’s success, but now I’m not so sure. Brilliant as Harris is in a surprisingly nuanced role, to argue that he is the film’s sole trump card would be to undermine the fact that this is evidently an ensemble piece. Nic Cage is as wired as ever in the film that made him an action star; both Con Air and Face/Off arrived the following year and, with The Rock, formed a further trilogy of kick-ass ’90s Nic Cage action movies. Then, of course, there is Sean Connery in what may sadly be his last great film; Connery obviously had a blast as the grizzled ex-con John Mason, delivering action licks and one-liners aplenty opposite Cage’s nerdy biochemist – by the finale the pair’s chemistry arguably even tops Smith and Lawrence in Bad Boys. There is also a eclectic supporting cast who all add to the macho texture of this adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride. The Rock is far from flawless but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in a series of masterclass action set-pieces and the characterisation of its three central leads. It is among my favourite American action films of the 1990s; this is pure, fun-filled filmmaking, only to be matched that decade by the likes of Con Air and Face/Off. Oh, Nic Cage you badass, you.
Let me start by stating this clearly: Armageddon is ridiculous. If, however, you can stomach its (considerable) ludicrousness then it still makes for a highly rewarding ’90s space actioner. The premise is as insane as you’d expect: the world is ending, here’s an idea, let’s send an entire team of psychotic drilling engineers into space to bicker on an asteroid as it hurtles towards Earth. Despite all this, Armageddon has aged surprisingly well (certainly better than the xenophobic dialogue that’s littered throughout Bad Boys II), and it was clearly great fun to make – it’s certainly great fun to watch if you remember to check your brain at the door. MB does away with sense and directs the hell out of every epic inch of J.J. Abrams & co.’s one-liner spewing, action-heavy script, providing thrills, laughs, tears, and, yes, fun, fun, fun galore in what would prove to be a mammoth hit.
Critically speaking, the ’00s may have been unkind to MB, but what does he care? Michael Bay action movies are now a brand in their own right. However, take a trip back through time and you’ll still find pleasure, thrills, and a good degree of dumb fun to be had with this trio of ’90s action delights.