The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Michael Bay | Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016
If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Michael Bay | Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi | Length 153 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015
Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of throwing out disparaging comments about Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, based on his favoured genre, the special effects-laden science-fiction tentpole Summer blockbuster; I did it just the other day in a review of Jurassic Park. The thing is, though, he does have a distinctively meretricious style, which probably makes it perfectly suited for an action comedy heist film set in the permanent dayglo of Florida in the 1990s. I’ve seen quite a few films this year set in that pendulous part of the world — it’s a popular film setting after all — and all of them have gone out of their way to impress upon me what a strange and warped corner of society it is.
So we find ourselves in a world where obscene displays are the norm — whether of wealth or of bodies. Our protagonists are bodybuilders who meet through Sun Gym. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers, the former very much the ringleader. Daniel fancies himself a smart self-made man, who has helped to build up the gym to be a flourishing business with little personal return to himself. Inspired by the self-help motivational speaking of Johnny Wu (another memorable small turn from the dependably maniacal Ken Jeong), he gets the idea to take what he deserves in that time-honoured fashioned of stealing it, and for this he enlists the help of born again Christian, the impressively built Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Their mark is Jewish-Colombian businessman Victor (Tony Shalhoub) and this, as is also the time-honoured fashion, is where things start to go awry.
It’s not just the men’s impressively-defined pectorals that are on display. There’s the wealth of Victor — with his flashy cars, boats and large airy mansion by the sea — and Frank, the porn baron who becomes the gang’s second victim. And of course there are the women, most of whom seem to be (or have been) strippers; the movies are starting to convince me this is the only profession down in Florida, and it’s wearying to be honest. Therefore, Rebel Wilson is refreshing as Robin, a nurse at an erectile dysfunction clinic who marries Adrian without being aware of his source of income. She’s only on screen for a few scenes, long enough though to convince us that when this film isn’t obsessing over pecs and breasts, penises are a matter of abiding interest. The only ones we see on screen are rubber (one of Victor’s sidelines is in sex toys), though they are much discussed — apparently Adrian has suffered some adverse effects from his heightened steroid usage — and we even get one teasingly brief shot of Daniel in his Calvin Kleins, a cute little nod to Wahlberg’s pre-acting days.
For aside from its plentiful action setpieces — chases and shootings — the film is also a comedy, and I cannot deny there are laughs. Mostly these are had at the expense of the three central protagonists, who get up to some very silly (and very morbid) stuff. It’s a difficult blend to pull off, but this much I think the film succeeds at, and reveals Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have a deft touch as the dimmest but most personable of the three, a man somewhat misguided by the power of Christ, but still hopeful for redemption; for me, his character is the strongest in the film and remains compulsively watchable. The difficulty is in finding these men funny while also needing to judge them for the horrific crimes they commit — the film seems to be in several minds as to whether they are murderous aggressors or victims (of class and circumstance) or heroes (low angle shots against the sky, heroic slow-motion striding into combat), and ends up trying to advocate rather uncomfortably for all three.
After all, the other thing on display is Michael Bay’s directorial style, and it’s not a style that feels comfortable being subservient to characters or a story. There’s not a scene that goes by where the action doesn’t move briefly into slow-motion, or feature some other eye-catching visual effect (a freeze-frame with witty text superimposed is another favourite). By now, he’s able to make it seem the most natural thing in the world — possibly thanks to having in part created the grammar of visual expression in modern blockbuster movies — but it’s still diverting, and doesn’t always mesh with the emotions on screen.
That all said, I wanted to like what feels like Michael Bay’s first recognisably human film, though the location and the story can at times make that difficult. It’s based on real events, as the film likes to constantly remind us, but as ever such claims must be taken advisedly (the Wikipedia entry details all the changes made to characters and storylines) and there’s not always a lot to grasp onto in terms of recognisable character motivation. It’s a look at a seedy underbelly of society filmed as if it’s the most glamorous thing in the world and if it’s not entirely hateful, that at least marks it as a small step for one of the titans of violently dehumanised spectacle.
PREVIEW SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Michael Bay | Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on articles by Pete Collins) | Cinematographer Ben Seresin | Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 25 August 2013