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Michael Bay may have found the door to cinematic respectability

Has there ever been a blockbuster filmmaker whose search for a serious reputation has been sadder and more fruitless than Michael Bay’s? I don’t think so.

He has come as close as he’ll ever get, though, with “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” a loud but exciting two and a half hour exercise in blizzarding bulletry based on the book Mitchell Zuckoff wrote with the “Annex Security Team” at the CIA annex that tried to protect the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in the nearby Special Compound.

Bay always has been able to make big, loud entertainments that amass amazing amounts of box office and also amazingly contemptuous reviews. So that’s never been enough for him. He knows that his general reputation is that of a proficient but flamboyantly crude lunkhead who never met a Playboy Playmate he couldn’t like.

It’s what he’s done to prove otherwise that has gotten him into trouble. For a while, Bay – who was adopted at birth – publicly searched for his biological parents and settled upon revered and legendary filmmaker John Frankenheimer (“The Manchurian Candidate”) as his biological father. No way, Jose said Frankenheimer (in different words). He admitted to a relationship with Bay’s biological mother but said tests proved otherwise. Bay countered that DNA wasn’t in flower then, in a spectacle that none of us ever had any business knowing.

Then came Bay’s magnum opus “Pearl Harbor” with some truly astounding visuals attached to some of the dumbest and most idiot fiction ever flung at American military history for fun and profit. Then, Bay’s “Pain and Gain” had a dark-humored script by Buffalo-raised Chris Markus and his writing partner Stephen McFeely that was ruined by Bay’s hammering heavy-handedness.

But give Bay credit. He’s always had skills – very large ones. And they’re the ones he brought to the fore in “13 Hours.” As a producer, he knows what to film and what actors to hire, even if he can’t really direct them with unusual panache. As a director, he can make great and huge combat action scenes, even if the action is even more incoherent than it is loud half the time. When you’re making a sci-fi thundermug of a movie like those “Transformers” monsters, it’s a problem if you’re over 14 and you can’t tell one giant-sized toy from another.

In “13 Hours,” that works in his favor because his major point about Libya in the film is the old Vietnam problem – that trying to figure out the good guys from the bad guys in a foreign population is close to impossible for unilingual American soldiers.

The soldiers in “13 Hours” are mercenaries, a bunch of battle-hardened ex-Navy SEALs, Marines and Rangers hired to maintain security for the CIA stationed in Benghazi.

Macho war movie cliches climb as high as an elephant’s eye in “13 Hours” – tough guy wiseacre dialogue from actors rather brilliantly cast to look like ex-SEALs, Marines and Rangers, even if they’re only actors. And as well, there’s one who looks like the sort of guy who does things by the book at everyone else’s expense.

But there was a real original book of real first-person stories reining Bay in here, and News Reviewer Lee Coppola found it powerful and credible when it was first published.

The villain in the movie is the same as in the book and it’s no one who can be exploited for obvious political gain by the presidential combatants of 2016.

It’s the CIA chief who keeps telling the best U.S. warriors in his neighborhood that no, they are not to go to the rescue of the besieged compound even if the ambassador’s life was endangered. They are there to protect the CIA first and foremost. They are not “first responders,” they are “the last resort” the CIA chief says.

The result of the delays, it’s implied, was the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens (they don’t find that out until later, but they know it’s a possibility). That’s why the civilian security “contractors” hearing about the horrendous marauding nearby finally just say “the hell with this” and travel to the aid of the ambassador and his besieged compound.

When it comes to emotions and sentiments, Bay only deals with broad strokes – wall-to-wall macho posturings. (The only woman we see is introduced as a Sorbonne graduate and a prissy nag until set straight by the tough guys.) But Bay the producer managed to hammer together a first-rate cast of believable elite warriors led by John Krasinski, who hereby proves that those of us guessing he’d be his generation’s Jimmy Stewart/Tom Hanks figure may have been on to something.

Bay isn’t so attached to WWII movie heroism that he won’t show Krasinski vomiting copiously in the middle of battle. And when he shows his warriors on their tablets before battle scenes skyping with their families back home, you’d have to be made of granite to feel nothing.

But it’s that book that keeps Bay’s worst instincts at bay and allows him to make the best movie he’s yet made.

Delivering the macho mordancies of this dialogue are a tough-looking bunch of character actors – James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini. You won’t know their names, but you’re seen their faces before. And after this you surely will again.

Despite all of his mammoth ingrained flaws, Michael Bay conveys what the book was renowned for – the outrageous and tragic nature of what happened in Benghazi without getting mired in empty political noise-making.

That, after all, would probably be more appropriate in a “Transformers” movie.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

3 stars

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