The 15 Best Michael Bay Action Scenes, Ranked

Every Michael Bay scene is an action scene. In the auteur director's subtlety-free universe, you-know-what is always getting real. No one pauses to reflect. Self-discovery is a kinetic choice. Bay became one of Hollywood's hottest action directors by staging everything from car chases to casual conversations like steroidal ballets. That made some viewers hate him. I'd argue it's a reason to adore him.

Why? In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Bay's movies are described by Joshua Rothkopf as "pageants to American knowhow." Bay then acknowledges his love of this country's can-do spirit (and those who risk their lives for it) but adds this chilling aside: "The American Dream has been twisted and is disappearing." That's a wild statement coming from the guy who integrated the Transformers and the Underground Railroad, but it's also the skeleton key to Bay's action scenes.

The Constitution and country are living documents of who and what the United States is, and, in his own delirious, problematic, and game-changing way, Bay is a would-be documentarian. His best action scenes tease this country's hyper-masculine id to the surface, then give it cars, bombs, and rocket launchers to play with. They, to paraphrase Walt Whitman and Sting, sing the body of the U.S.A. electric.

Here are the 15 best Michael Bay action scenes, ranked.

15. Saving all God's creatures — Pain & Gain

"Pain & Gain" has a reputation for being Michael Bay's "least Michael Bay" movie. It's unearned. Yes, the story of three juice-headed goons (Mark Whalberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) who extort then abduct a businessman (Tony Shaloub) is closer in its plot to a Coen Brothers movie than "Bad Boys," but the Coens would never intercut a stirring and expository monologue with footage of a weight plate getting tossed into a bulked-up prison guard's throat. That's exactly what happens when Whalberg and Mackie recruit The Rock for their scheme, and he responds by describing how prison saved his soul. Bay shows us The Rock's fall from grace and redemption in under two minutes, capping it off with a beatdown of prisoners and police alike. "Saving all of God's creatures was my special mission," he beams. Salvation looks like destruction.

This fight is a seemingly minor entry in Michael Bay's canon, but it extols his virtues in microcosm. The Rock has never felt larger or more hard-hitting than he does here. When he slams one convict into a rec yard wall, you can practically feel the bones shattering. What's more, the scene is spare and economical. It's easy to forget that Bay, stripped of fireworks, can still stage something that feels explosive. This "Pain & Gain" scene is proof. In that sense, the crime dramedy has more in common with the Bay we know than "13 Hours" or even certain "Transformers" entries. That makes it worthy of this list. 

14. Mortar storm — 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

The mortar storm scene shouldn't exist.  There are seemingly zero reasons for Michael Bay to shoot the infamous domestic compound attack from "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" the way he does. The explosions look awesome. Though film announces itself as a biographical-action-drama, it takes impossible-to-miss creative liberties, too. One of the most egregious comes in the mortar storm scene, during which a fire-singed photograph floats across the screen precluding a pictured character's death. It's simultaneously heavy-handed and silly. It shouldn't work.

And yet, the mortar storm scene makes our 15 best list and deservedly so. For two horrifying minutes, it documents how quickly ballistic shells can decimate a battlefield. Bay cuts between the rooftops where the mortars land and the offices that suffer their devastating explosions. All is chaos with fire and bodies strewn everywhere. Then Bay slows the action down and cuts the sound for a shot that borders on tasteless. The camera follows a mortar from its launch, through the air, and straight down onto its target. A smash cut to a soldier running in slow motion follows, the mortar just behind him like a monster giving pursuit. Then the promised detonation follows. After all that hyper-realistic and dread-inducing violence, the melancholy floating photo feels earned. Bay is thought of as a stylist, but the mortar storm of "13 Hours" reminds us that he's a storyteller first and foremost.

13. Staples Center chase — Ambulance

Michael Bay loves toys. He describes NASA as "the land of big toys" and willingly made four movies based on Hasbro action figures. Bay plays with steel vehicles as children do Hot Wheels, and if those vehicles careen off ramps or into walls, so much the better.

Drones can be toys too. In "Ambulance," Michael Bay uses FPV drones with "presents-on-Christmas-morning" level enthusiasm. He hired Alex Vanover, a 2019 DRL Championship winner, to pilot the latest and greatest drone models in service of the Los Angeles-set heist thriller. The results are frequently head-spinning. Literally. An early shot in "Ambulance" sees the camera zooming up a bank building only to 180 and drop on an erstwhile robber's face.

The creme de la creme of Vanover and Bay's efforts is a brief but gripping chase through LA's Staples Center. As the titular ambulance and a host of cop cars careen across and through narrow lanes, the drone anticipates their action, whisking away from crashes at the last possible second. Inside the vehicles, everything is tense. Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) cracks as the SIS Division goads him. He hangs Cammie (Eiza González) out the ambulence's rear door. Violence seems nigh. But then another Bay staple rears its head: a burst of sophomoric humor. The SIS mastiff, Nacho, pops his head out of a cop car's back seat. He's been there the whole time. The cops fall back to ensure Nacho's safety, a decision that, like drone work, would feel insane coming from any other director. Not Michael Bay, though. He loves toys and toying with audiences.

12. High rise mayhem — 6 Underground

Michael Bay's "6 Underground" advertised its excesses from the jump. The trailer for Netflix's critically-reviled tentpole picture featured Ryan Reynolds doing parkour on the world-famous Duomo and death by magnetized silverware. It looked like a lot. That was the sell. "6 Underground" does have gleefully gratuitous action, but it's also rife with bloated story points and deeply cringe gay-panic jokes. It's the worst of Bay and best of Bay, all in one extravagant package.

No, "6 Underground" is not worth seeing unless you're a Bay devotee. It's possible, though, to plug into it. The opening car chase yields incredible vehicular carnage, and it's possible to watch what I would affectionally dub the "high-rise mayhem" section without knowing the film's sagging plot. For eight-plus minutes, all of Bay's action movie interests converge on one location. There are explosive firefights. There are stupid but wonderful punchlines (a glass-encased swimming pool gets shattered by the THX sound cue — a top-five Bay joke). And the director piles on a dizzying parkour chase for good measure that finds Four (Ben Hardy) dodging bad guys and lobbed grenades by sprinting across cranes, scaffolding, and vertigo-inducing ledges. The scene keeps cutting to tiring exposition. It almost doesn't matter. The "high rise mayhem" sequence is so much that it brains one's critical faculties to mush. For Michael Bay, sometimes more is more.

11. Florence car chase — 6 Underground

The opening of "6 Underground" convinces you that it will be brilliant. It isn't. That's one of many reasons audiences are generally sour on Michael Bay's Netflix venture, but the Florence car chase is almost as great as anything he's ever done. The set-piece feels like Bay perfecting his brand. He has more money to spend than ever. He has a cadre of movie stars at his disposal who understand Bay's banter and anger. They're all set loose upon the streets of a gorgeous Italian city with the goal of causing cinematic chaos. 

Goodness, do they ever! Careening through Florence in a Day-Glo green sports car, One, Two, Five, and Six (Ryan Reynolds, Mélanie Laurent, Adria Arjona, and Dave Franco) escape assassins on motorcycles while blood-squirting surgery goes down in the backseat. The scene veers from juvenile to chaotic to awesome then back again. More than anything, it's efficient. Bay uses this cavalcade of automotive destruction to introduce his off-the-grid mercenaries and the entire scene shows (not tells) us who they are. It's a quality that departs the movie as a whole too soon. 

10. Car chase surgery — Ambulance

The surgery scene from "Ambulance" isn't most audience's idea of "action." There are no guns or explosions. There isn't even a body count. For a few gut-churning minutes, the film places all its manic energy on keeping Officer Zach (Jackson White) alive. That means the movie's feature-length chase slows down for something even more insane: an EMT FaceTiming her ex and the surgeons he knows for help with impromptu bullet removal in the back of a speeding vehicle.

That's why the surgery scene in "Ambulance" is action through and through. It ups the stakes of an already heightened story and delivers payoffs that land as viscerally as a compound raid or fistfight. When Zach wakes up halfway through the procedure to find Cam (Eiza González) holding his spleen, the scream he utters and his subsequent knockout is straight out of the beat 'em down playbook. When that spleen ruptures, it is giggle and shriek-inducing. If what's happening in the back of the ambulance weren't enough, Michael Bay intercuts the procedure with Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his manic driving, deftly avoiding pursuing cop cars in the hopes of keeping Zach (and a successful robbery) alive.

It's not clear if any other director could pull this sequence off. Few would have the gall and even less, the gumption. "Ambulance" imagines action movies as a funhouse where any scenario is a worthy reason to munch popcorn with abandon.

9. Hangar shootout — Bad Boys

There are scenes throughout cinema history in which directors level up in real-time. Steven Spielberg becomes the architect of childhood imagination when Elliott's bike starts flying in "E.T." Jordan Peele becomes horror royalty halfway through "Us," when a plea for police action yields the playing of an NWA song. These moments are more than thrilling; They're life-changing. Audiences see them and understand a filmmaker will shape their lives for years to come.

In the hangar shootout from "Bad Boys," Michael Bay puts it all together. All his hallmarks are present. There are low and severe angles, interjections of extremely sophomoric humor, and bad guys are dispatched with stupidly awesome catchphrases ("You forgot your boarding pass"). The explosions don't just kill people. They all but send them flying to Valhalla. If you showed the hangar shootout scene to someone who had never seen a Michael Bay movie, they would know there's something special about it. Even to the most seasoned action cinephile, it seems familiar and visceral on each go-around.

Bay would make tighter and cleaner variations on this confrontation throughout his career (the excellent end of "The Rock" recycles many beats struck here), but none would carry the charge of discovery that courses through the hangar shootout. After all, there's nothing like the first time you display mastery.

8. Attack on Pearl Harbor — Pearl Harbor

Anyone who loves Michael Bay should be required to read his interview with Whalebone Magazine. Like many of the director's films, it is an overlong, testosterone-soaked thrill ride. Bay is candid about his grueling artistic process. He admits he also set a Guinness World Record for "blowing stuff up" (his words) while filming the derided "Pearl Harbor" at the actual Pearl Harbor. To be clear, this would not be unlike shooting the most bullets ever while filming "Saving Private Ryan" on the actual beaches of Normandy or making a Boston Marathon bombing movie during a real Boston Marathon. It's a thought so ridiculous and borderline tasteless that no one but Bay would have it. That he did is a radical testament to his gall and gifts.

Parts of the "Pearl Harbor" bombing sequence took "three-and-a-half months to engineer," and "required 12 cameras for what amounted to about 30 seconds of film." That's three and half times as long as it took for Bay to make all of "Ambulance." I won't argue that the choice was worth it. What I will say is that, for one brief moment, Bay simultaneously reminds you why he is a master action conductor and could never have made "Titanic." The movie surrounding this scene is one of Bay's worst. The bombing sequence itself is a hyper-real war fantasy that shocks, awes, and stirs the heart. It takes too long to get there. It took too long to film. Too much is the Michael Bay way.

7. Highway and jet-bike chase — The Island

Let's get something straight. We could publish a separate Michael Bay car chase article. Bay is the car chase master and the modern author of their aesthetic. "The Fast & the Furious" movies don't get greenlit without his signature touch existing, nor do the incredible vehicular cat and mouse pursuits of "Mission Impossible: Fallout" and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" achieve liftoff if Bay isn't a guiding influence. Even George Miller, action movie god, incorporated Bay's signature smash cuts into the glory of "Mad Max: Fury Road." If car chases are an art, Bay's Piccasso.

"The Island" takes a long time to let the painter paint. The highway and hoverbike chases are when he does. Bay's rip-off of "Logan's Run" builds to Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewen McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta's (Scarlett Johansson) extended escape from Dr. Merrick's island-based lottery system, beginning with a confrontation on dystopian highways and finishing on jet bikes careening through cityscapes. It's a thrill to watch Bay play with near-future tech. It's even more thrilling that his near-future remains grimy and gut-punchy. The highway sequence builds to Lincoln unleashing construction pipes upon Merrick's mercenaries, the heavy objects smashing into their vehicles like bowling balls into pins. Steve Jablonsky's queasy score accents every moment a vehicle's ripped in half, a stirring reminder that Bay's chase scenes bring out the best in all his collaborators. That's the mark of a true master.

6. Transformers throw down in Chicago — Transformers: Dark Of The Moon

It pains me to include any sequences from Michael Bay's "Transformers" films on this list. They're mediocre at best and reprehensible at worst. I'm also from Chicago. This is worth mentioning because the Transformers' throw down in Chicago is objectively one of the 15 best sequences Bay has ever directed and one that makes my Second City-born heart swell with joy

The reason? Bay's frequently underrated sense of geography. The third act of "Dark of the Moon" primarily takes place in Chicago's downtown area, beginning with the extended collapse of a massive skyscraper and concluding on Wacker Drive, overlooking the city's infamous (and occasionally green) river. Though the skyscraper's destruction is reliably unrealistic, it also honors Chicago's tightly packed architecture, landing half of the fallen building between two other towers. That wouldn't be possible in much of Manhattan, let alone Boston or Los Angeles. The specificity continues when Optimus Prime cuts his way through a set of Decepticons at street level. Bay's camera zooms alongside Prime as he navigates Wacker's narrow and winding way, sliding in and out of his opponents while wrecking them with heavy-metal tech. It's gnarly. It's specific. It has weight and the gleeful chaos of toys in a sandbox. 

Even if the film surrounding this scene is hardly worth your time, the Transformers throwdown in Chicago is a scene to be savored. Alexa, play "Sweet Home Chicago." 

5. Haitian house shootout — Bad Boys II

Michael Bay wrecking a mansion feels inevitable like Thanos acquiring infinity stones. There was no world in which the man who blew up Alcatraz in "The Rock" and New York City in "Armageddon" wouldn't turn his focus to destroying lavish civic property. Michael Bay destroying a mansion on celluloid isn't insane. What's insane is that much of the destruction Bay filmed was real.

No, really. The "Haitian house" sequence was filmed in a Delray Beach, Florida mansion once owned by a Coca-Cola heir. Mark Pulte purchased the property and then put out an ad to see if someone wanted to destroy the home for a music video, show, or movie. Destiny answered in the form of Michael Bay. Accordingly, the Haitian house shootout feels genuinely reckless. Bay is working with less of a safety net than ever, and he renders the mansion a sort of Michael Bay movie funhouse. In any given room, Bay leaves a new murder weapon or comedic foil to contend with. Hallways give way to shootouts that give way to close-quarter fistfights. When the scene ends with the mansion's front facade exploding into flames and a yellow humvee bursting through the garage, it's as close to jumping the shark as Bay ever gets. It is almost too perfect.

The emphasis is on "perfect." Love it or hate it, the Haitian house shootout is everything Michael Bay has built his aesthetic, appeal, and skillset on, presented unapologetically and with cash to burn. It is grimy action Nirvana.

4. Meteor showers in New York — Armageddon

"Armageddon" is in the Criterion Collection. The meteor shower sequence is why.

I'm aware that's a tall order. Equating the chaotic destruction of New York's Midtown East to the chess match in "The Seventh Seal" or the ghastly discovery of "Rashomon" is 2.48 million Scovilles hot. It's also accurate. Few explosions in cinema are more glorious than the ones that define this sequence. The image of fiery cabs sent careening over 55th Street lives rent-free in an entire generation's mind as does the top of the Chrysler Building plummeting to the ground below. Both are top-tier popcorn cinema cornerstones. It's impossible to overstate how much.

When the Chrysler Building shatters on Madison Avenue, we briefly glimpse bodies falling alongside it. That image has chilling resonance for New York, the United States, and the world. "Armageddon" was released three years before the tragic events of September 11th, and it's hard to imagine some of its plot points getting greenlit now. What's remarkable, though, is that the scene's accidental 9/11 echoes barely resonate mid-viewing. Somehow, the scene is escapist. Maybe it's the sheer ludicrousness of meteors striking Manhattan or the way it's a time capsule-worthy showcase for two of the 1990s' most underrated comedians (Eddie Griffin! Mark Curry!). Maybe it's the impeccable craft that informs every fireball and image of chaos. It's probably all of the above.

If "Armageddon" rewrote the blockbuster playbook forever, one that Roland Emmerich and superhero movies alike would follow, the meteor shower is chapter one. That's Criterion worthy. 

3. San Francisco car chase — The Rock

The San Francisco car chase in "The Rock" is to Michael Bay what "With The Beatles" is to The Beatles. You can argue about whether or not it is his best work. You cannot say that it isn't all hits. Every single second of this five-minute-plus sequence slaps. The haircut and Humvee hijacking is side A. Nicholas Cage driving a Ferrari through a warehouse window? The start of side B. And a trolly careening out of control while its operator screams, "Run folks! Save yourselves!" and "Oh, my baby!" is the glorious closing track. The San Francisco car chase is a triumph of "triumph through the assembly." The sum is truly greater than the parts.

To be clear, the parts are also excellent. Nicholas Cage has never been a more convincing action hero than he is here, landing the sequence's ice-cold one-liner with maximum cool. Sean Connery's performance meets Bay's maximalism halfway. The chase is also a rare instance when Bay's penchant for juvenile grace notes is more effective than not, manifesting as a set of impromptu cell phone calls and one particularly stoned chase observer. "The Rock" is arguably Bay's best movie, and this sequence's hit to miss ratio is the largest part of why. If it isn't clear already, that ratio's 100 to zero.

2. Freeway chase — Bad Boys II

A low-key highlight of Michael Bay's best action scenes is ineptitude. In almost every Michael Bay action scene that matters, someone screws up. Nicholas Cage keeps shooting himself in the foot (metaphorically) in the San Francisco car chase. Some of Ewen McGregor's life-saving decisions in "The Island" are happy twists of fate. Tomfoolery is the counterbalance to Bay's near-constant cinematic muscle-flexing. It's hard to take anything too seriously when there are clown-worthy interludes.

To wit: the freeway chase in "Bad Boys II." It is an absolute masterwork of twisted steel and breathtaking cinematography. As Marcus (Martian Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) take to a souped-up sports car to pursue bad guys in a car hauler on a Miami freeway, the tension builds ecstatically. The 18-wheeler smashes vehicles left and right. Mike's driving ducks and dodges all of them. Bay's camera frequently cuts to the sports car's POV, giving audiences a breathtaking set of near misses (it's easy to imagine the pile of wrecked cameras Bay accrued getting this awesome footage). In the midst of all this, Martin Lawrence manages to shoot up the car he's riding in. Will Smith screams, and classic banter ensues. 

That's why the highway chase receives such a high ranking on this list. It's Bay's ultimate car chase, marrying his skill for insane action beats with the humor he loves so dearly. Sometimes ineptitude rocks. 

1. Destroying the Rock — The Rock

The '90s were an oddly strong era for shoving large needs into one's heart. John Travolta does it to Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction." Nicholas Cage does it to himself in the final moments of "The Rock." The latter is a sequence that doubles as a metaphor for what watching a Michael Bay movie is like — an encapsulation of the director's go-for-broke style and ephemeral artery charging artistry. It's what the conclusion of "The Rock" is too.

Here are some of the things that happen in the final setpiece of Michael Bay's second movie: The actor who played Candyman is killed via an Elton John pun. The man who would later play Jesus drops a bomb on Alcatraz. William Sadler and Nicholas Cage engage in a knock-down, drag-out fist fight which ends when Cage shoves a neon green poison ball between Sadler's gritted teeth. The fact that this list still feels like pop-culture euphoria 27 years after "The Rock" was released speaks to the creative vein Bay tapped. The end of "The Rock" is genuinely gripping. It features the most iconic Michael Bay shot ever (Nicholas Cage wielding green smoke flares) and is quoted by cinephiles and casual viewers alike. More than anything, it does what any good action film scene should — make an audience's heartbeat fuller and faster.