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Ranking Michael Bay’s movies by how well they blow s**t up

Bayhem, baby! Let's look at how the Ambulance director makes his brand of eye candy. 

By Brian Silliman
Michael Bay Copyright Paramount Pictures Photo Credit Andrew Cooper

If you like movies that have things blowing up, then Michael Bay is the director for you. His movies traffic in popcorn blockbuster explosions and spectacle, it's his thing. And he and his signature visual vocabulary are back with the movie Ambulance, which arrives in theaters today.

Bay once told Empire that there was a “special sauce” to his explosions on film. “It’s like a recipe. I see some directors do it, and they look cheesy, or it won’t have a shockwave. There are certain ways with explosions where you’re mixing different things…” he said, before going on to sum the process up with, “It’s like making a Caesar salad.” 

We love a good Caesar, so we’re going to rank all of Michael Bay’s movies based solely on how good his explode-y salads are.

14. Pain & Gain (2013)

We like this movie just fine. It’s a story of bodybuilders and ex-cons, and it has Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Rebel Wilson in the cast. It’s entertaining, but it has only one real explosion in it. It’s a good one to be sure, but this is the only case where the Bayhem ends as soon as it begins. The bad guy blows up and Wahlberg, Mackie, and Johnson do a slow walk away. It fits the movie, but… just one? This salad only has one crouton on it. It’s a good crouton, but a singular crouton it remains. 

13. Bad Boys (1995)

Bay’s debut film as a director (featuring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence) established his explosive tendencies pretty well. The explosion at the airport goes on, and on, and on, and every time you think there’s nothing left to blow, you’re wrong. It’s mostly isolated booms cut together, and they are mostly fire with little debris. It’s not a symphony yet, but this is the foundation on which Caesar Bayhem built his empire.  

12. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

The Transformers franchise is definitely 90% explosions. That's the case with all five Transformers movies that Bay directed, at least. All of the explosions are well done and look great, but by the time this fifth entry came, it was too much. There was too much f**king Caesar salad. Everything explosive about the previous four movies in the franchise got compounded, and though you never really know what is happening in a Transformers action sequence, we truly have no clue who or what anything is amidst the explosions here. We don’t know who or what is exploding. A Transformer goes flying, was he friend or foe? Too late, because another five explosions just went off and Anthony Hopkins is in there somewhere. It all adds up to something that disorients us to the point that we forget what our current address is. 

11. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Things are proceeding to where they end up in the fifth movie, though we aren’t as disoriented as we could be. The first five minutes of this movie, featuring dinosaurs and “creators” exploding to Earth, is the most satisfying and well-done sequence, and the Bayhem is interesting in a prehistoric setting. How does he make everything explode when buildings don’t exist yet? Life finds a way. The best scene in the movie involves Stanley Tucci and a juicebox, but neither Tucci or the juicebox explode. 

10. The Island (2005)

The explosion of the dystopian facility at the end is satisfying, mostly because we’re waiting for Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson to blow that place up the entire time. The real Bayhem happens earlier, when McGregor and Johnasson proceed with their elongated escape. A huge car chase is involved, and we’ve got cars blowing up, helicopters blowing up, and buildings blowing up. Pieces of those exploding buildings rain down. It’s an explosive set piece of cars going boom, but it’s not as good as similar scenes in other Bay movies.

9. Transformers (2007)

A military base explodes early on, Autobots crash to Earth in destructive fireballs, and there are plenty of chases full of boom boom boom. Something is seemingly blowing up every other minute in the first Transformers movie, and like the rest of the five movies here, you never really know what's happening. You have much better bearings here than you do in the fourth and fifth entries, though, and the most important thing that Bay adds to his explosions here is often having them propel a Transformer into the air. 

8. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Everything from the first movie dialed way up and then some, this movie adds to the propulsive energy of the explosions and has the Transformers use them to their advantage. Many of them transform during an explosion, and that’s always fun to watch. Will you know what Transformer they are, or what side they are on? No, but you’ll feel the power. It’s a hilarious power, and that makes us enjoy it more than the later two Bay Transformers movies. Practically the entire last hour of this movie is one giant explosion, with the Bayhem laying waste to the Giza plateau in Egypt. Heroes run away from the explosions in slo-mo (a Bay staple) and these moments let us somewhat reorient ourselves. Everything is so ridiculous here that we can’t help but enjoy it. Julie White is in this movie too, and this time she is involved in a few of the action scenes!

7. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Bay didn’t go as utterly bonkers with this installment. It is still Transformers by Bay, so it is still bonkers, but it chooses it’s moments to go FULL bonkers. The destruction of Chicago, thanks to “drillers,” is a fantastically explosive set piece. (This isn't the last time a TF movie laid waste to the Windy City, btw.) Bay didn’t invent the drillers, but they are perfect additions to his blockbuster chaos. 

6. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Per the movie’s marketing: “When everything went wrong, six men had the courage to do what was right.” It is based on the true story of the terrorist attacks on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and it features John Krasinski and Pablo Schreiber. Was Michael Bay the right person to direct this story? Maybe not.

In some ways, it makes sense. Ish. In other ways, it feels quite disrespectful. Though the movie is loosely based on real (and recent) events, Bay doesn’t really change his style. There are still explosions aplenty, and there are still slo-mo helicopters. So “Somewhat tasteful Bayhem” might be the way to describe this.  

5. 6 Underground (2019)

In this overstuffed and convoluted Netflix movie, audiences can understand most (if not all) of the Bayhem, which only makes it better. A car gets blown in half and you fully see the whole thing.

A bit later, an explosion causes a set of metal pipes to fly through the air, and they go right through the windshield (and driver) of another car.

We thought this might've been a smaller Bay affair, but then there’s a giant explosion at the end complete with a slo-mo helicopter flying overhead. At this point Team Bay knows what they're doing and it shows. This is a damn fine streaming salad of boom. 

4. The Rock (1996)

It’s likely our favorite Bay movie on this list, and not just because it teams Bay with Nicolas Cage. It’s got Sean Connery and Ed Harris too, and it's fun for days. If we’re going by explosions alone (and we are, have we made that clear? I hope so.) then it can’t take the top spot. It can take this one, though, only partially thanks to the explosive finale involving napalm and fighter jets and green smoke. This is early Bay, so, naturally, the booms are not as finessed as they are in his later work. But we love the raw, practical effects. Especially during the "why-the-hell-is-this-here?" car chase involving a Humvee, Ferrari, motorbike, and San Francisco trolly. The latter of which is propelled several feet skyward (because of course) by a mini-mushroom cloud, then lingers mid-air before crashing back to the city street below. Ten out of ten, Michael. No notes.  

3. Bad Boys II (2003)

S**t just got real. Big booms causing cars to go rolling during chase scenes is important, and this movie has that, no question. None of this is realistic, but that’s not why we’re here. This is, as Vin Diesel once told us, “the mooovies.” Even so, the exploding and rolling vehicles look more real here than in other Bay movies, so they have us clutching our legs more than a rolling Transformer would. This is before we get to the never-ending explosion of Drug Dealer Mansion (™) which goes up bit by bit. Praise be to Bad Boys II's flawless ratio of fire and debris.

2. Pearl Harbor (2001)

Once again, Bay tackles history. Historical accuracy doesn’t exist here, and people surely have very strong opinions about how this movie deals with its WWII subject matter. That said, this a movie directed by Michael Bay, and there are explosions in it. There are so many explosions in it. You name it, and it explodes. Ships, bases, planes, all of it. Bay adapts his visual style slightly so the ILM-powered Bayhem on display definitely looks like it’s in period. Looking at this from an action standpoint, explosions alone, it is seriously impressive. Bay talks about the movie in the same Empire interview we quoted earlier, sharing that director Ridley Scott’s reaction to it was, “F**k me.” In the same interview, Bay talks about having “so much big stuff out there.” As he says, “Real boats, 20 real planes. We had 350 events going off.” Not surprising or hyperbolic, the chaos on display set a new standard in 2001. Bay also took umbrage with Guinness Records placing the destruction of Blofeld’s base in the James Bond movie Spectre as the record holder for biggest explosion. His response: “Bulls**t. Ours is.”

I mean, who are we to disagree?

1. Armageddon (1998)

The Bay movie that arguably gave birth to the concept known as Bayhem, and likely the movie that Bay will be remembered for the most. It was 1998 and Team Bay's explosions got more impressive on a technical level, but the action and pyrotechnics transcend anything he has done. It’s Armageddon's story, and how it is all about avoiding explosions (while they happen all over the place) that makes it a true statement. There’s the early asteroid rain in NYC, which includes Grand Central Station going boom while a guy in an “I Love NY” shirt goes flying. There’s a lot of explosions in space. There’s the Paris impact, which is a seriously impressive boom unto itself.

All of this is capped by Bay’s most laughable attempt at investing a fireball with an emotional shockwave of sorts: The world-killing asteroid being blown up by a sacrificial Bruce Willis. Come for the tearful goodbye to his daughter before detonation, stay for the swooning score and Aerosmith end titles track. It's quintessential Bayhem.  

Ambulance is now in theaters. There’s an ambulance in it.