Credit: Jaimie Trueblood
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Michael Bay has a certain reputation. He makes big movies about digital robots and robotlike humans; he flips cars and explodes cars, and sometimes he flips a car and explodes it in mid-air. You might think Bay doesn’t really care about his actors — that he’s too busy focusing on the special effects to care about the talking meatbags who occasionally drive the cars that explode. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Bay might care a little too much about his actors. While filming his first movie, Bad Boys, Bay gave stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence license to improvise endlessly and exhaustively. Together, Smith and Lawrence established the Michael Bay Acting Template: Loud, Wacky, and Never Shutting Up.

This is why, perversely, some of the worst performances in Bay’s films come from good actors and talented comedians: The former get to indulge their absolute worst scenery-chewing instincts (see: John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich), while the latter get pushed miles over the top (see: Ken Jeong, Bernie Mac, Rebel Wilson). Some actors never recover: The Rock basically invented the Purposefully Terrible Nicolas Cage Performance. And it doesn’t help that, post-Pearl Harbor, Bay has embraced an aesthetic of ridiculously oversaturation that makes everyone look like a sweaty sunburnt anthropomorphic skirt steak.

But some brave actors in Michael Bay’s filmography have triumphed over directorial adversity, and actually managed to deliver a performance that stands out. With this weekend’s Pain & Gain, a new performer joins the noble and miserable pantheon – read on for the ten best performances in Michael Bay’s history.

10. David Morse in The Rock

As Major Baxter, the kind-eyed sidekick to Ed Harris’ weirdly sanctified psycho commander, Morse suggests a wry amusement and a quietly bruised nobility. “Wry” and “Quietly” are not words that will appear on this list ever again — this is, by a longshot, the most low-key performance in any Michael Bay movie ever.

9. Ewan McGregor in The Island

This is about as close as McGregor ever came to playing a typical Hollywood action hero, and he makes a surprisingly endearing boring protagonist. But McGregor gets to really show off when his surprise-clone meets Tom Lincoln, the man he’s cloned from. Clone-Lincoln is a naive and wide-eyed innocent with an American accent; Original-Lincoln is a vain womanizer with a Scottish accent. It’s one of the funniest dual roles since Schwarzenegger met Schwarzenegger in The Sixth Day.

8. Michael Clarke Duncan in Armageddon

There are a lot of good actors in Armageddon, and they are almost uniformly doing the worst work of their careers. But the movie has a heart, and that heart is the late Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays the badass with a heart of gold you wish could’ve saved you from bullies just once in grade school. RIP MCD.

7. Kevin Dunn and Julie White in the Transformerses

As the parents of Shia LaBeouf’s relentlessly overcaffeinated Human Male, Dunn and White have a flighty old-married-couple chemistry — they appear to be starring in in a decent ABC family sitcom from the mid-’90s, the kind of thing that would’ve been paired with Home Improvement and would’ve been better than Home Improvement.

6. Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II

There’s overacting, and then there’s over-overacting, and then there’s a nuclear bomb going off in a china shop, and then there’s Al Pacino in everything after Scarface, and then there’s a supernova exploding in slow motion while Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” plays on the biggest car stereo in the galaxy, and then there’s Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys II.

5. Yellow 1977 Chevy Camaro in Transformers

In the grand tradition of Holly Hunter in The Piano and Rosebud the sled in Citizen Kane, the Yellow 1977 Chevy Camaro took on a wordless role as Bumblebee in the first Transformers film. But who needs words, when the Yellow 1977 Chevy Camaro can express a whole range of emotions just by well-timed door-openings and trunk-poppings? Ultimately, Michael Bay chose to replace the Chevy Camaro with a new model, the 2006 Chevy Camaro Concept.

4. Dwayne Johnson in Pain & Gain

Johnson looks like a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, but the big secret is that he’s actually a Russell. As in Kurt Russell, who in his prime excelled at two very specific character types: Super-badasses who were so cool that it was kind of funny (see: Escape From New York) and characters who thought they were super-badass but were actually so lunkheaded that it was very funny (see: Big Trouble In Little China). In Pain & Gain, Johnson gives a fully-committed Lunkhead role, playing an endearing born-again Jesus Freak who becomes a born-again Coke Fiend. Johnson has never been more likable.

3. Megan Fox in Transformers

Women in Michael Bay movies trend in two directions: Ridiculously hot eye candy or “hilariously” non-hot comic relief. You might think that Megan Fox falls firmly in the former camp. And you’d be right…kind of. But give credit where credit’s due: MeganFox owned the first Transformers movie, and became a brief-but-pivotal zeitgeist superstar just by leisurely laying her toned tummy over America’s metaphorical car engine. Fox seems weirdly aware of the intrinsic silliness of the first two Transformers movies, even as she’s pushing that silliness past its breaking point by fitting herself into ever-more-elaborate automotive yoga positions. Ultimately, Michael Bay chose to replace Megan Fox with a new model, the 2011 Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

2. Sean Connery in The Rock

Connery’s last great performance and, as a result, the single-most-quoteable character in Bay’s oeuvre. Bay’s protagonists tend to be wisecracking frat guys who talk a big game; Connery is the rare protagonist who can also walk the walk. Also, just try not to marvel at how Connery pronounces the name “Goodspeed.”

1. Sean Whalen in Got Milk?

The ecstasy of triumph! The Sisyphean agony of defeat! The explicitly Freudian desperate thirst for milk! In the best single minute of Bay’s resume, Whalen — better known as Frogurt on Lost — seems to inhabit the whole sweep of modern humanity. “Who shot Alexander Hamilton,” you ask? “Who didn’t shoot Alexander Hamilton?” answers Michael Bay. Deep.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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Pain & Gain
  • Movie
  • 129 minutes
  • Michael Bay