Say what you will about Michael Bay’s love of bright and shiny explosions, his standards for dialogue have come a long way since his early days directing Vanilla Ice videos- and all snark and sarcasm aside, there’s a lot filmmakers can learn from this.
Bay’s Bad Boys (1995) holds a tepid 43 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but we’re not knocking it as a comedy or action film. If you’re a fan of buddy cops making quips and poor decisions, and you rather enjoy suspending disbelief, you’ll probably find this ranks somewhere between Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987).
But there’s really no defending the film’s low standard of dialogue—and high reliance on exposition—where comedy or action aren’t present. You see, normally when filmmakers want to convey something to the audience, they show it. This isn’t something new, and it’s not something that’s excepted from action films.
In Die Hard (1988), for example, director John McTiernan needed to establish the character of John McClane as an “everyman” people could relate to—not some cartoonish superhero. To do this, he chose to show the following in the first few minutes of the film:
•McClane’s separation with his wife (including her changing her last name to “Gennaro” in the company directory), which shows he doesn’t have a perfect life and doesn’t have all the answers.
An easier—but far less effective—approach would have been to just have him say something like, “Thanks for the plane ride, stewardess. I was a little nervous because I’m not a hero who flies often. I’m only flying now to try and save my failing marriage.”
That’s pretty much the exact method Michael Bay used to establish the character of Mike Lowrey in Bad Boys. You see, Bay and his team of just four writers (!) had to ensure the audience knew Lowrey was trustworthy. They could have pulled a page from McTiernan and showed him petting a dog or obeying a traffic signal, but instead decided to just tell the audience without any sort of finesse or filter:
“Oh, right. The cop who I think you may be a little bit in love with.”
WOMAN WHO TRUSTS MIKE LOWREY
“Maybe I am, but we’re just friends.
And if I were ever in trouble, he’s the only person I would call.”
If expository dialogue went up to eleven, this is what it would sound like. Not only do audiences learn that Mike Lowrey is the person to call in the event this woman is conveniently murdered in the very next scene, but they learn he’s a cop and a love interest too.
The only way Bay could have insulted the intelligence of audiences more would have been to hold their hands in figuring out which character is Lowrey:
“Maybe I am, but we’re just friends. And if I were ever in trouble, he’s the only person I would call—and he looks exactly like Will Smith, the Hollywood actor.”
But wait, there’s more! The audience still needs to know who this “friend” character is: that she’s an out-of-work photographer who can’t cook. Again, Bay could have devised a way to show this, like maybe showing her with a camera and then struggling in the kitchen, but no—here’s the actual, verbatim, we-swear-this-is-in-the-movie dialogue:
“I’m an out-of-work photographer who doesn’t know how to cook.”
Seriously. Someone said that in a feature film with a $19 million budget.
Remember that the next time you think about knocking Transformers(2007), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen(2009), Transformers: Dark of the Moon(2011), or Transformers: Age of Extinction(2014), and give credit where credit is due.
[Photo: Sony Pictures]
Guide to 1990s Exposition Featuring Mike Lowrey