Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why does the Fast & Furious series get respect and Michael Bay doesn't?

 Brendan asked me on Twitter:

As the foremost Bayesian of our time, your thoughts on this Ben Kuchera piece?

For the uninitiated, Ben's reference to my expertise is a nod to my book MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, which is currently available on Amazon. Go here to read the announcement if your memory needs refreshing. A brief primer on my view on Michael Bay can also be obtained by reading my review of TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, a film I called "the most brilliant and subversively political film you'll see all year."

Mr. Kuchera puts forth a very interesting opinion piece and while I will be quoting some relevant bits here just to give my stance some context, I encourage you to read it in full. A key statement comes at the start:

"Many of the same people who heap scorn on Michael Bay are unapologetic Furious 7 fans. The entire Fast series has earned the sort of open fandom that is only matched by superstar franchises like The Avengers. Why do people seem to hate the Transformers series but the equally dumb car racing films get a "free" pass?"

I want to highlight how this is less Kuchera's own statement than it is a summation of "conventional wisdom." However, it's critical as far as establishing the goal posts for any discussion that follows as the question takes as a given that Transformers films are "dumb" and the Fast series is "equally dumb." If you've read my book (available for only $4.99 on Kindle) you might understand the fallacy of the blanket statement, at least in its simplicity.

As I discussed in my Age of Extinction review, this final Transformers sequel is a subversive deconstruction of the entire event blockbuster genre. Indeed, my discussion of the second and third films in the series draws greatly on the idea that Bay himself is frustrated by that sort of product, and has essentially become a prisoner of that genre. After the frustrating failure of some of his original ideas, it often feels like Bay returns to this series in repeated efforts to blow it up once and for all. There is an intelligence at work in those films, but it's put in service of the message that the characters presented as heroes are actually the true villains. It's the cinematic equivalent of Bay catching our underage selves sneaking a smoke and punishing us by demanding we polish off the entire carton.

The Fast films have no such pretensions, and until Tokyo Drift's writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin returned for a second go-round in the film's fourth entry, there was very little narrative or creative continuity. They began as a series of mostly disconnected one-offs until the fifth film tied threads from all the disparate movies together into one glorious Ocean's Eleven-like gift. The Fast films embrace their history, warts and all, when it probably would have been just as easy to ignore the second and third films, sticking to the movies that feature only most of the original cast.

With that comes the sense that everyone involved WANTS to be there. Everyone in front of and behind the scenes is having a ball making it. The stunts are insanely ridiculous at times, often in complete defiance of even the loosest concept of physics. But they look cool, and even in the midst of a chase, the characters usually let us see the adrenaline rush on their faces. It's a roller coaster ride you can't stop laughing at. It owns its implausibility, as if to say "We know this would never happen, but do you care?"

That's a sharp contrast to the Transformers series, where the actors play the peril as terrifying, not something getting their blood racing in all the right ways. Though Bay's metatexual criticism tends not to be perceived by most viewers, on some level they must recognize the films' direct disappointment in its audience. Both films are chocolate brownies, but the Fast brownie is the one saying, "Have another bite. Don't I taste great?" The Transformers brownie pipes up as you draw it closer to your lips and says, "Excuse me, do you have any idea what I'm doing to your hips?"

To paint either series as "dumb" is to miss the point. Both of them often struggle with plotting. Furious 7 has a lot of weakly-motivated plot developments, but it also had to deal with their production being completely upended by Paul Walker's death mid-shoot, so most audiences are inclined to treat those lightly. But once you take plot off of the table, it becomes more noticeable that Fast films earn a lot of good will from their characters. Most of the main players in the series are criminals to one extent or another, but they also have their own sense of honor and loyalty. They do bad things, but they're not bad people. This is why the finale of the latest film is so affecting - it's purely about these friends saying goodbye to Paul Walker's character in their own way. Yes, a lot of the audience's emotional reaction is a result of transference of Walker's death onto the exit of his character. Even if our mourning for Walker isn't profound, we can perceive the actors working through their grief on-screen and their sorrow surely strikes a chord in the hearts of anyone who has lost someone.

It's an emotional depth never really attempted by Transformers, and one that probably could not be matched even if one of the leads perished mid-installment. The robots are ostensibly good people, but they bring nothing but pain and destruction to Earth. It's the inverse of how we perceive Fast's Dom Torretto and his crew. Instead, Bay takes figures whom popular culture tells us should be heroes and inflates them so the scale makes their failings impossible to miss. Do you really want to root for Optimus Prime, or do you want to shout at him and Megatron to take their bar brawl somewhere else?

The humans in Transformers find their lives only made worse by contact with the Autobots. Unless you count Sam landing two ultra-sexy girlfriends in a row, there's really nothing aspirational in any of the movies. There's no moment to make the audience go, "Damn, I wish that was me!"

Certainly Kuchera's article is onto something when it highlights the multicultural nature of the Fast films. That cannot be ignored as a factor in the Fast series success. However... that works because the movie already is pitched at a tone that makes it easy to love. Swap Shia LaBeouf out for Michael B. Jordan and trade Rachael Taylor for Naya Rivera and you would still have a movie that keeps harrumphs at the audience for showing up for it.

So yes, the article grazes a bullseye when it says, "Michael Bay movies tend to be cynical; they feel like the creative team and interchangeable stars are taking the audience for granted at best, and at worst exploiting our worst impulses. The Fast and Furious franchise, on the other hand, are made by creative teams that are clearly invested in the franchise and care about showing the audience a good time. They're not cynical, they're hopeful, which is a great thing in a huge-budget action film."

Where we go wrong is in assuming Bay doesn't know what he's doing. He knows EXACTLY what he's doing - it's the audience who often misses his point.


  1. Reddit went pretty deep about it here the last few days.

  2. I am of the opinion you might be giving Michael Bay too much credit, creatively. But even must digress on that notion before I sound condescending.

    If it's truly Bay's cynicism we are see that is seeping through the cracks via Transformers, would it be too much to ask, then, that he remove himself from the franchise and pass the torch to someone more passionate for the IP?

    I am under the impression that most filmmakers that cite a frustration of being trapped or stuck being forced to make films in any given genre tend to be victims of self-infliction, vis-a-vis George Lucas. Granted, I can't deny that jumping genres is in any way easy or could end up successful by any definition; we can look at Michael Bay's own filmography to prove that point. I guess what irks me, and others, more than it should, is that he can't be bothered to address that he doesn't care about the IP he is adapting; which from my view does little to nothing to help his case and only provides more leverage to his critics that deem him a hack.

    I don't care much for the Fast & Furious series, however, as stupid or mindless as I may find it, its hard to deny the passion behind the parties involved with the franchise. The recent surge of success for this franchise ought to be proof enough that Bay isn't pigeon-holed and that there's a market for "mindless stuff" in the vein of Pain & Gain, Bad Boys, or Armegeddon. Hell, give Bay the keys to the Call of Duty kingdom, and you have a project feels tailor-made to cater to his sensibilities. Michael Bay should leave cynicism behind . It does not suit him like it might Mike Millar and Matthew Vaughn.