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Every Michael Bay movie ranked worst to best

Michael Bay is a director who knows what he's doing. A popular filmmaker who's all about explosions, fast cars, and beautiful women, you can find the most accurate self-assessment of his filmmaking style, fittingly, in a commercial. His work has grossed billions of dollars, but with his movies consistently plagued with casual misogyny, gay panic, and lowest common denominator humor—not to mention bad reviews—he's also a director whose work is all too easy to hate. He remains very successful, so he's clearly doing something right… right? It's more contentious than you'd think. Follow along as we break down Michael Bay's movies from the worst to best. 

Pearl Harbor

Most Michael Bay movies are devoid of quiet moments exploring essential human experiences like love, loss, and longing, and Pearl Harbor might well be the strongest possible case for why the director shouldn't even try. An attempt to match the emotional resonance and epic sweep of James Cameron's Titanic with a story of a romance in the midst of crisis, Bay's Pearl Harbor is a three-hour viewing experience that can only be described as punishing. At least with the Transformers movies, you're encouraged to turn off your mind and let the explosions and crunching metal steamroll over you. Pearl Harbor, to its eternal detriment, wants to be taken seriously.

The movie's runtime is dominated by a tone-deaf love triangle between characters as magnetic as a kitchen sponge, making the actual invasion sequence a relative afterthought. There are no character arcs in this movie. No one grows, no one learns—our heroes simply flail around until the bombs fall. Bay's other movies may have lower lows, but the sheer audacity of this movie borders on violence against the viewer. Both historically inaccurate and fictionally inert, there is no value to Pearl Harbor. It does not deserve to live in infamy. It doesn't deserve anything at all.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Sam Witwicky goes to college in the first Transformers sequel, which might be one of the worst movies ever released by a major studio. It's almost impressive how Bay takes everything that didn't work about the first one and doubles down on it, adding enough offensive content into the mix that the movie isn't just bad, it actively disgusts.

How? Let us count the ways. Motorcycle Transformers with hot girl holograms riding them. An egregious amount of footage of dogs (or robots) humping. Women who exist exclusively to be told how sexy and/or dumb they are. And we couldn't forget the jaw-dropping black stereotypes that are Skids and Mudflap, characters so obviously offensive that everyone involved in their creation refused to take credit for them.

The movie also indulges in one of the sillier aspects of the Transformers series' mythology, introducing a malevolent robot that disguises itself as the hottest girl on campus, revealing its robotic identity mid-makeout sesh by shooting metallic tentacles out of its mouth and other end. In short, this film is not the product of a sound mind—but it is a product. The first Transformers at least tried to be a movie—this is nothing but two and a half hours of noise and nonsense packed with more product placement than a commercial break at the Super Bowl.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

The first Texas-style Transformers movie introduces Mark Wahlberg in the lead role and loosely continues the storyline set up by the Sam Witwicky trilogy, with Wahlberg as a scrappy inventor who comes across Optimus Prime during a time when the government is working to expel all Transformers from the planet. It's a weirdly more grown-up version of the story, with Wahlberg's performance playing a put-upon dad serving as a positive contrast to Shia "Optimus!!!" LeBeouf.

The human element in general is much stronger here than in previous films. Watching Mark Wahlberg and company try to survive in the midst of battle is fun, even if it's still impossible to tell what's going on, what the stakes are, where people are within the conflict—you know, all the essential elements that give an action scene its power. There's a cool sequence of the Autobots attacking a government science lab in a heel turn, and a neat self-regenerating robot for an enemy. If it ended after 90 minutes, it'd be the best one in the series. But it just…keeps…going.

Extra aggravating for viewers are the obvious ways Age of Extinction went all-in on pandering to Chinese audiences, sacrificing story and plot logic for the sake of some fat stacks of yuan. Additionally, the much-ballyhooed dinosaur Transformers are a major league nonentity—unexciting and unintelligent robots who apparently don't bother with disguise at all.

Transformers: The Last Knight

The fifth Transformers movie reaches greater heights by embracing an essential weirdness in its concept that's been otherwise absent in the series since the start. Tying the fate of the Transformers' planet Cybertron into a magical staff of Arthurian legend, this bonkers thrill ride follows Mark Wahlberg after he's morphed into a long-haired rebel defender of the Autobots' cause, hiding from the government while he tries to save the world. 

Longtime fans of the overarching story get treated to such lovely grace notes as Bumblebee speaking for the first time, as well as the emergence of Evil Optimus Prime and Wahlberg fighting a Transformer with a sword. That's not good, of course—but it is awesome. What makes the fifth Transformers work on any level is that it's so bizarre it's easy to make fun of, the first one in the franchise that could effectively qualify for a Rifftrax-worthy bad movie night. You make your own entertainment with these Transformers movies, and The Last Knight is so wall-to-wall bonkers that having a good time gawking at it feels like crushing a baseball right off the tee.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The third Transformers movie is elevated by an inspired opening sequence on the moon, a charismatic voiceover performance by the late Leonard Nimoy that adds a little gravitas to the whole thing, and action sequences that incorporate the human characters in exciting ways. Where the other movies have tended to sideline their human heroes as helpless bystanders once the action starts, this one gets them thoroughly in the mix in a way that works, with perhaps the best example being a legitimately cool wingsuit rescue sequence in a collapsing building during the final battle in Chicago. 

While this movie is still far too long, clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, the sting is lessened by the fact that everything is a step up from its horrid predecessor. Amazingly, some of the jokes even work! Perhaps most surprising of all, instead of making the robot characters either completely indistinguishable from each other or offensive caricatures, they finally have personality.

Transformers

And here we are—finally, the least-bad Transformers movie. The fact that this is considered the good one is depressing—once again, it's nearly two and a half hours of eardrum damage and curdled humor, the sort of movie that makes you really appreciate how good other movies can be. The one racist caricature of a Transformer—the jive-talking robot named Jazz—is still enough to drop your jaw the first time you hear him open his mechanized mouth, and the plot is seemingly designed to be forgotten during the walk from your seat back to the theater lobby. 

At the time, though, the novelty of seeing Transformers onscreen was still fresh—we didn't know we were in for another ten years of this. It helps that as a movie, it mostly works. There's a real plot, with Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky as the archetypal "chosen one," and all his insecurities and fears are easy to relate to, if played a little heavy-handedly. It's a movie that's playing to the very back seats of the theater, but dammit, at least it's trying. It would probably be recalled more fondly if Bay had just stopped here.

13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

It's hard to extract this movie from the political quarrel that surrounded it. Bay certainly doesn't try to: he makes his stance clear, and uses the movie as a cudgel with which to criticize the U.S. government in some far-from-subtle ways. Which is all fair—it just would've been a lot better if the actual movie had been better. Bay paints his "secret soldier" heroes with the broadest possible brush, giving viewers little to latch onto for dramatic purposes. It gets to the point where it's hard to tell how this movie is supposed to entertain.

Even without what some may find to be irksome messaging, this is just not a great action movie, with thin characters, confusing nocturnal shootout sequences where it's hard to tell who is where, a poorly-defined enemy, and—in classic Bay fashion—an interminable runtime. Word of advice: if you want to see a great movie about a makeshift group of heroes defending their base against an overwhelming siege, watch the lean, mean Assault on Precinct 13.

Bad Boys

This movie didn't get much love from critics, but it played well enough with audiences to earn itself a worse-reviewed (but secretly much better) sequel. It's not hard to see why—every interaction between Martin Lawrence and Will Smith is great, and it's very easy to believe the two of them are buddy cops even when the high-octane work they're doing is about as far from a logical police beat as you can get. 

What hurts the movie most is that the majority of the movie is hobbled by an odd, unnecessary mistaken identity plot which leaves each actor playing each other's character, and it stops being interesting almost the moment it's introduced. Once again, shoddy material is elevated by game performers, and the camp value of this 1990s blockbuster nonsense only gets sweeter with age. We just wish the actual plot were a little more inspired.

The Island

The Island is a story of corporate exploitation and wealthy privilege taken to its most extreme, with human clones of the wealthy created to serve as medical insurance policies for the ultra-rich. It's not a subtle metaphor by any means, but you've got to give it credit for being smarter in its first half-hour than all six thousand hours of the Transformers movies combined.

Solid performances by Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johannson, and the always-reliable Steve Buscemi keep you invested even when the plot begins to flag. It's fun in the beginning, with a rousing score and decent sense of mystery, but once the plot twist is revealed and the heroes escape their prison to be pursued across a slightly-futuristic California by the corporation's paramilitary goons, the movie gets a lot less interesting. 

But even in the more by-the-numbers second act there are high points, such as when McGregor's character meets his sponsor and gets to play off of his identical human self during a seamless CGI-enhanced getting-to-know-you sequence. While the murder spree the corporation embarks on to retrieve the clones never really makes sense, the movie as a whole is really not bad at all.

Bad Boys II

Armed with a better plot and a thousand percent more swagger than its predecessor, Bad Boys II is almost the Platonic ideal of a shoot-'em-up action blockbuster (though once again, Bay can't stop himself from indulging in a fat dose of gay panic—it isn't funny). The perfect summary of the movie's mission statement is right there in the opening scene, in which we witness the arrival of the bad boys at a white supremacist rally, popping out in full police gear with guns akimbo from underneath some KKK robes to bring the absolute pain to an unlucky group of outlaw racists. 

From the beginning to the end, Bad Boys II is about the two most badass police officers in the world in the most insane situations that have ever existed—nothing more, nothing less. Despite its abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score, this movie works because Bay is at his absolute best when he truly embraces the stupid—and it doesn't get much stupider (in a good way) than Will Smith sending a car into a drift spin while firing a machine gun into a crowd of enemies. And how could we not mention the insane ending sequence when the bad boys invade Cuba? Because they do that. They literally invade Cuba, and it's the best thing ever. Sorry, critics. We don't know what you were watching, but this movie rules.

Armageddon

Famously the only one of Michael Bay's movies to be included in the carefully-curated Criterion Collection, Armageddon is by no means a classic work of cinema in the traditional sense, but as a big dumb '90s action blockbuster, it's still pretty damn good. It is dumb—that's just about a given on this list—but it's also fun as hell. Following a group of oil drillers who are tapped by NASA to become astronauts and destroy an incoming asteroid, this is a movie that requires you to leave your brain at home to fully enjoy it. (Why did they bring a Gatling gun to outer space? Did they say he has "space dementia"? Why is there so much Aerosmith in this movie?) 

The lesson Armageddon teaches us is that it's completely fine for a movie to be dumb as long as it's also fun. It even has a little bit of heart, with the central romance of Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler concluding in a way that's honestly both surprising and emotionally affecting. Criterion's got it right—you could call this one a classic, and we wouldn't roll our eyes. It's a rather specific sort of classic, but a classic nonetheless. 

Pain & Gain

Based on an insane true story about a group of 'roided-out Miami knuckleheads who murdered and defrauded their way to temporary fortune, Pain & Gain is a madcap, dark examination of the American dream corrupted—and if you have an appropriately dark sense of humor, it's pretty funny, too. (One highlight, while Dwayne Johnson's character is disposing of human limbs by cooking them on a barbecue grill, is the message "THIS IS STILL A TRUE STORY" sliding cheekily across the screen.) 

While a lot of the jokes don't quite land, this is still Bay's funniest movie, if only for the way its tragic central characters doom themselves by flying bullheadedly straight into the sun. In its look at American capitalistic excess, it's like a Michael Bay take on Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street—the mania of the story is infectious to the audience, even as the characters become more and more unforgivable. 

Underrated and under-appreciated, Pain & Gain is Bay on a small scale, making a movie that feels somehow personal. It has more heart and inspiration in its relatively brief runtime—only two hours!—than the Transformers movies have in their entirety. Is it for everybody? No. But for a filmmaker who always seems to be spread himself thin trying to please everybody, that's a good thing. 

The Rock

A top-to-bottom entertaining time, The Rock is the best movie Michael Bay has ever made, full stop. However implausible its plot of a rogue military takeover of Alcatraz may be, the stakes are clear—Alcatraz Island has been taken over, and if our heroes don't win, the population of San Francisco will be decimated by nerve gas. Starring Sean Connery as the only man who's ever broken out of Alcatraz and Nicolas Cage as the FBI agent who has to break him back in, all to stop a squad of elite Marines turned domestic terrorists led by Ed Harris, it's an action flick concept so perfect that it makes you want to kiss your fingers like an Italian chef. Mwah! Bellissimo. 

It's shocking how much Bay gets right here—even the stuff he usually doesn't. Everyone's motivations are clear, characters are distinct, the villain is interesting and sympathetic, the action scenes are well-shot and easy to understand—even the music and cinematography are a step above his usual mode. The performances from the leads elevate what could've easily been schlock material into something exciting, quotable, and fun. It's just so good, and if you want to believe Connery is secretly reprising his role as James Bond, as many have theorized, then all the better. Not only is The Rock the best Michael Bay movie, it's one of the better action movies of the 1990s. Why couldn't we have five of these?