John Krasinski in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.

I have liked exactly three Michael Bay films in the past: Bad Boys 2, The Island and the goofy Pain and Gain. That’s it. No Transformers. No The Rock. Keep that spastic shit far away from me.

Today, I like exactly four Michael Bay films: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is Bay’s best film yet. Is it the great film this true story deserves? No, it isn’t. It is, however, a strong, competent effort from a guy whose action films are usually incomprehensible and schmaltzy.

Why is it his best film? Because the cast totally rocks from start to finish, and, to put it bluntly, Bay keeps himself … uh, at bay with this one. He actually tells a story—a harrowing one—and keeps over-baked action-film trickery to something resembling a minimum. There’s real, palpable tension in this movie, something I’ve never felt during a Bay film before (unless frustrated, confused nausea counts as tension).

Bay’s tricks are still there: We have rapid-paced editing, gratuitous shots of a buff John Krasinski glistening in the moonlight (Lucky girl, Emily Blunt!) and unnecessary slow-motion shots that make everything look like a car commercial. However, these tricks aren’t as distracting as they were in previous Bay action films; this one seems properly modulated. It also has an appropriately gritty feel, as opposed to the shimmering sheen of most of his previous efforts.

The film is based on the book 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, written by Mitchell Zuckoff with the cooperation of the CIA contractors who fought during the attacks. Some of the characters in the film retain the actual names of those contractors, while others have aliases.

The movie gets right to it: A CIA security force in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, must try to protect an American ambassador during a terrorist attack on U.S. compounds. The security force finds itself dealing with a bunch of red tape that prohibits it from flying into action—and possibly preventing it from receiving assistance from the U.S. military.

Krasinski plays Jack Silva (an alias for one of the contractors), a former Navy SEAL stationed in Benghazi who deeply misses his family back in the U.S. Amid reports of possible terrorist attacks on U.S. compounds, Silva remains on security detail, walking through the streets of Libya posing as an American agent’s husband.

Other CIA contractors depicted in the film include Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris “Tanto” Paronto (Pablo Schreiber, half-brother of Liev), Dave “Boon” Benton (David Denman), John “Tig” Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Mark “Oz” Geist (Max Martini).

When a Libyan gang busts through a security gate and attacks the compound where ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) is staying, the contractors, after unfortunate delays, try in vain to rescue him. The action then goes to another outpost, where the contractors battle hordes of attackers all night—a night that culminates in fatal mortar attacks.

There’s going to be a lot of back and forth on what’s fact, embellished fact and pure fiction in this film. Bob (David Costabile), the CIA chief portrayed in the movie, is already crying foul about the depiction of his actions, so it would be a stretch to call 13 Hours a definitive portrayal of the Benghazi events.

It isn’t a stretch, however, to say the actors are all quite good, especially Krasinski and Schreiber. The attacks are terrifying, with the soldiers often not knowing whether the people approaching them are friends or enemies. Bay does a nice job of keeping things off-balance and scary.

In the end, Bay delivers a fine action film. While there’s a certain lack of depth to this movie—it lacks the heft of Zero Dark Thirty, for example—there’s no denying it’s a fairly strong piece of action entertainment.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is playing at theaters across the valley.