There are directors whose work precedes them. Names of value top posters or proudly are displayed on screens during trailers to let everyone know: This is a filmmaker with whom you are familiar. When movie goers see “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino,” they’ll feel anticipation build for what they’re about to see. Previews for “A Film by Martin Scorsese” lets them know they’re about to watch something engaging and symphonic. “A Woody Allen Film” in white text on a plain black background sets the stage for a quirky character study about to be embarked upon. But what about “A Michael Bay Film”? Most people would think “explosions.”
I can’t think of another director with as much baggage as Bay. He’s a populist filmmaker who has turned the “Transformers” films into a multi-billion dollar money-making machine. To critics and film journalists, he’s something of a punchline. He’s the guy who stages amazing action sequences and crams moments in between them with awkward humor. His direction is a mix of cool kinetics and baffling choices. I can’t think of another consistently working director who is so bad at crafting believable, nuanced characters. He’s a guy who can compose amazing battle scenes but struggles with two people talking to one another.
His latest film “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is a fascinating experiment in the bifurcated filmmaker’s ongoing struggle to find harmony between action and acting. “13 Hours” tells the true story of the 2012 American embassy attack in Benghazi. Jack (John Krasinski, “The Office”’) is a security contractor who has come to Benghazi for a two-month protection detail. Their job is to keep an off-the-books CIA compound and its staff protected from a growing number of insurgents in the area. These are former soldiers. Hired hands brought in to do the dirty work. The heroes of the movie are all giant, muscular monstrosities with thick beards uttering each line with a thick layer of grit. The film’s first half felt like “Vince McMahon presents Hulk Hogan and the Rock and Roll Wrestlers vs. ISIS.” The lead security contractor seemed to be doing a Macho Man Randy Savage impression for 85 percent of the movie.
There’s a wild disconnect between the movie’s first and second halves. Bay may be the worst director ever at developing actual characters. He’s like a little kid drawing in the margins of a textbook. His characters are enormous cartoons, and every line seems perfectly suited for a word balloon feverishly inserted above the sketch of his muscle-bound hero. I laughed a lot in the first 45 minutes of “13 Hours.” More than once for subject matter, and none for any of the hackneyed comedy on display. The terribly presented one-dimensional characters made up a roster of gun-toting superhumans and a diverse supporting cast that includes “perpetually angry Islamic militants” and “uptight CIA operatives who think they know better.” “13 Hours” tries to present contractors as the real heroes. Everyone else is either a liability or target waiting to have their head blown off.
The film gets going once Bay abandons conversation and characters for a solid hour of brutal violence. Once the militants began their siege, it becomes crazy watchable. It’s a great blend of tension, action and consternation. Most of the time our heroes can barely distinguish who is there to help or harm them; there are few people they can truly trust on the outside. Every passing car, every random pedestrian, all of them are potential threats. At one point someone utters, “It’s like a horror movie.” That it is.
The final siege on the CIA compound felt as intense as a movie like “World War Z” or “The Walking Dead.” Bay is so good at staging these dynamic, massive battles, but when everything slows down and characters are forced to talk, the whole thing turns back into a chuckle-filled mess. The dialogue sounds like it was written by a fourth grader playing with GI Joes.
“13 Hours” tells an interesting and somewhat tragic story. But it’s lost in the hands of someone like Bay, who lacks the ability to convey seriousness. Anyone who saw Bay’s terrible “Pearl Harbor” movie knows what’s in store: A solid hour of great action sandwiched between an hour-and-a-half of absolute garbage.