Michael Bay isn’t commonly thought of as an “actor’s director” — and for good reason: acting generally takes a backseat to action in his high-octane sensory-overloading spectacles. Nevertheless, a handful of performers have managed to rise above the effects-heavy cacophony to deliver funny, moving and all-together human performances. Here are the five Bay-directed performances that could almost qualify as Oscar-worthy.
Movie: The Rock (1996)
Role: Disillusioned Marine general Frank Hummel, who puts his masterful tactical mind to use by capturing Alcatraz Island with a private army and 15 missiles in a last-ditch move to convince the U.S. Army to do right by the families of deceased soldiers.
Why He’s Great: Rather than play Hummel as the villain, Harris portrays him as the movie’s hero — a guy who’s righteously committed to what he views as a legitimate cause, and, as a result, is more adept at accomplishing his goals than the actual protagonists, played by Nic Cage and Sean Connery. Still, the actor at times had a hard time keeping a straight face:"There were some speeches I had to make that I found close to ludicrous," he told Vanity Fair in 2010. “There was this phone on the set; in one scene I got a little frustrated and pounded the receiver down. So, Bay would have that phone with him and, whenever I had to do something, he would just give it to me to smash around a bit, to get me fired up.”
Best Moment: It’s a testament to how good Harris is throughout the movie that Hummel’s big death scene — at the hands of his own mutinous, mercenary crew — feels tragic rather than satisfying.
Movie: Pain & Gain (2013)
Role: Recently sprung born-again drug addict, body builder and ex-con Paul Doyle knows deep down that he really shouldn’t get involved with fellow musclehead Daniel Lugo’s crazy kidnapping scheme — but does, anyway. Chaos and a cocaine relapse promptly ensue.
Why He’s Great: Though he initially embarked on a career path that led towards playing monosyllabic action heroes, Johnson found his lane by taking on roles that allowed him to cut loose and crack wise. Collaborating with Bay on Pain & Gain challenged him to venture into dark and previously unexplored comic terrain — and the results are a hoot to watch. “[Michael] sat down and wrote this letter to me, [which] was so incredibly articulate and empathetic and forward and direct,” he told the Miami New Times last year. “It was a letter from a brother to another brother. The fear went away. The insecurity went away. OK, I’m going to jump off this cliff. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
Best Moment: Spoofing his old “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?” catchphrase from his WWE days, Johnson fires up a grill to roast the severed hands of two victims who were collateral damage in Paul and Daniel’s increasingly out-of-control scheme.
Movie: Transformers (2007)
Role: Sam Witwicky, an ordinary teenage boy interested in all the ordinary-teenage-boy things: cars, girls…and giant transforming robots.
Why He’s Great: Before the press conference walk-outs, the plagiarism charges, the performance art stunts and the paper-bag-over-the-head red carpet walk, LaBeouf was a talented and absurdly likable young actor. The Transformers may be the main attraction in Transformers, but it’s his grounded star turn — and his strangely loving relationship with car/robot pal Bumblebee — that gives Bay’s franchise-starter an emotional hook that the sequels have lacked. As he told The A.V. Club in 2007: “You show up and you see Mike for breakfast, and it’s like, ‘You ready to go? You ready to go all day? You better be.’ He’s walking adrenaline. And he goes forever, Mike never sits down. He knows everyone’s job, no megaphone, screaming at the top of his lungs, he’s a one-man crew.”
Best Moment: In Sam’s monumental first meeting with Autobots head honcho Optimus Prime, LaBeouf displays just the right amount of shock and awe.
Movie: Armageddon (1998)
Role: Deep-sea oil driller–turned–unlikely world saver (and overprotective papa), Harry Stamper.
Why He’s Great: Willis has a reputation for baldly phoning it in when not feeling the material (see: Mercury Rising, Cop Out and G.I. Joe 2.) But in Armageddon, he actually tries to make some sense out of the nonsense, playing the role as straight and true as an old-school matinee idol. “When I was doing this film, I learned I don’t always have to try so hard to be interesting as an actor. In some movies, you just have to be a good guy. Stand there and be a good guy,” he told The Morning Call in 1998. (Willis didn’t give any credit to Bay: he famously slammed the director in a post on one of Ain’t It Cool's talkback message boards and has never shown interest in mending that rift.)
Best Moment: After catching Ben Affleck making time with his on-screen daughter, Liv Tyler, Willis proceeds to chase the callow kid all over the oil rig with a shotgun. Sounds extreme, but, to be honest, ’90s-era Affleck was kind of a mega-tool.
Movie: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Role: A Steve Jobs-like tech guru named Joshua Joyce, who has big plans for a new metal called “Transformium.” Someone’s clearly been cribbing from the James Cameron periodic table of elements.
Why He’s Great: With Mark Wahlberg in straight-laced action hero mode and youngsters Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor mainly running and jumping away from explosions, it’s up to Tucci to bring the funny, which he does early and often. But he also evolves over the course of the movie, going from smarmy bad guy to…well, smarmy not-so-bad guy.
Best Moment: No shrinking violet, Joyce gets right up in Optimus Prime’s face, informing the Autobot leader that he and his robot pals are outdated models. He’s the rare human who actually causes Prime’s famous resolve to waver just a little.
Photos: Willis, Touchstone Pictures; Bay, Jamie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures