Critics say he represents everything wrong with Hollywood, but when it comes to playing with fire, the hotshot director of "Armageddon" is damned good.

It makes perfect sense that Michael Bay would own a dog like Mason. The colossal English mastiff, easily 200 pounds, galumphs around the 34-year-old filmmaker’s Brentwood bachelor pad with all the reserve of a Clydesdale on Viagra. Everything about Mason is gigantic: his branch of a tail, his Pavarotti-esque woof, his Jacuzzi-size doggy dish. There is no escaping it: This dog is bigger than your dog. This is the biggest dog in Los Angeles. Let’s get real, this is the biggest dog on the planet!

Bay, whose new $135 million Armageddon—Disney’s most expensive movie ever—has a chance of being the biggest hit (or biggest dog) of the summer, would have it no other way. Since his feature debut with 1995’s Bad Boys, and with 1996’s The Rock, the longhaired, 6′ 2” director has been all about size: big stars, big spending, big explosions, big box office; nearly a half-billion dollars grossed worldwide so far. “At a test screening last week,” Bay says as Mason pins a visiting journalist against the couch, “the movie got interrupted nine times by cheers. Nine times! What it’s all about for me is seeing a packed house and feeling if they like it or not.”

Call it big-dog moviemaking. It’s what sets Bay apart from virtually every other young filmmaker working today. He’s a rising director who doesn’t do any of the things rising directors are supposed to do to gain credibility. He doesn’t have some pet independent film project, and he doesn’t talk about pushing the envelope with daring script choices. He doesn’t even seem to mind catering to other people’s artistic visions, particularly that of his three-time boss, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, even if it means Bruckheimer gets the credit. Case in point: Touchstone is insisting that the way to refer to Bay’s latest is, in fact, either Armageddon: A Jerry Bruckheimer Film or Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon. Ouch.

Bay is that rare breed of director who seems proud to flaunt his keen commercial instincts. “I don’t see anything wrong with spending a lot of money to make big action movies to entertain people,” he says. “Yet somehow, I come under special scrutiny. I mean, why don’t people get upset if Dow spends $300 million to invent some new chemical? Audiences like popcorn movies. What’s wrong with that?”

As far as the studios are concerned, nothing. “Michael gives people what they want and we like that,” says Walt Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth. “He’s straight down the middle of the highway. That’s not to say he’s always safe, but his main objective is to please audiences, and yes, I guess that makes him somewhat unusual these days.”

Tom Gorai, a producer who’s collaborated with Bay, puts it this way: “Michael’s interests line up perfectly with what the American public wants. I think a lot of directors would be like that if they could put away their artistic guilt.”

Still, making movies by applause meter and then turning them into two-hour commercials for testosterone doesn’t exactly improve Hollywood’s image as a culture-clotting, intelligence- sapping behemoth. And the critics have not been generous. Bad Boys, The New York Times said, was “stitched together, like some cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, from the body parts of other movies.” And the Los Angeles Times said The Rock “epitomizes trends in Hollywood filmmaking that have made many people very rich while impoverishing audiences around the world.”

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