Monday, June 30, 2014

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" (2014)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Peter Cullen and Stanley Tucci
Written by Ehren Kruger
Directed by Michael Bay
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 165 Minutes

Five years have passed since the Autobots defended Earth from Sentinel Prime and Megatron's attempt to transform Earth into a new Cybertron and enslave its human population. But despite their victory and heroic defense of Earth, the Autobots have been branded dangerous by the United States government.

Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) leads a CIA operation to hunt down and destroy remaining Decepticons on Earth. But what Attinger hasn't told his superiors is that with the help of a non-alligned transformer named Lockdown (Mark Ryan), his CIA team is also hunting down and killing the Autobots.

In Texas, struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) purchases a beat-up old truck and tows it back to his workshop where he discovers it's actually a gravely wounded Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Prime tells Yeager that he's hiding from humans out to kill him, barely having survived an ambush in Mexico. Cade is willing to help Prime, but his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) is afraid and begs Cade to call the government. Instead, his friend Lucas (TJ Miller) does it for them. A CIA team led by James Savoy (Titus Welliver) arrives and threatens to kill Cade and his daughter if they don't give up Optimus Prime.

Cade and Tessa are rescued by Shane (Jack Reynor), Tessa's boyfriend, and the three go on the run with Prime. The group meets up with surviving Autobots Hound (John Goodman!), Bumblebee, Drift (Ken Watanabe), and Leadfoot and Crosshairs (both voiced by John DiMaggio). They soon discover that the transformers killed by Lockdown are taken to facilities owned by Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) who has unlocked the secret of the transformers shape-shifting abilities.

Joyce has constructed his own transformers, and while Cade struggles to learn the truth and figure out a way to protect his daughter, Optimus Prime wonders whether he should even bother protecting humans anymore.

It was, at one time, fashionable to write lengthy, angry diatribes about the quality of movies directed by Michael Bay. Those rants get longer and angrier as Bay releases movie after movie that continue to rake in more and more dollars. Now we seem to be at the point where critics attack not just the movies, but Bay himself and his own audience.

Meh. To complain about it at this point is like buying a car that you know is a lemon, then getting pissed at the car, the guys who made it and everyone who watched you drive it off the lot. Grow up.

Yeah, Michael Bay could probably be an amazing filmmaker if he was interested in taking a step back for a few moments and hiring a screenwriter who he actually listens to, one who will help him really knock it out of the park. On a technical level, the man knows how to shoot a movie - even if it just ends up looking a lot like a commercial or a music video. In fact, thanks to his increasing use of 3D and IMAX cameras, he's actually getting better at it. But his storytelling skills languish far behind his zeal for effects wizardry.

And so we come to the fourth iteration of Bay's massively expensive and massively lucrative "Transformers" franchise. The fourth time around, you know what to expect. The screenplay is perfunctory, at best. Character development is minor, taking a back seat to comedic dialogue (there's still a lot of buffoonery in this film, but it's actually somewhat scaled back) and Bay's penchant for blowing things up... big time. It's pretty much the same as it's always been. No more, no less.

Despite its title, the movie actually feels smaller-scale than its predecessor, "Dark of the Moon" in which the final act consisted mostly of a lengthy siege of Chicago. Here, the action is transplanted to Hong Kong, but with far fewer robots crashing and smashing each other. This time, it doesn't feel like the entire world is in quite as much danger - as with the first film, the characters are actually battling over an artifact of great power, rather than with either sequel that had the Autobots and their human allies facing more immediate doom.

The movie also falls prey to the current Hollywood sequel-baiting trend. "Age of Extinction" shifts gears for much of its third act and then kind of drops it and says, "Until next time!" It's fine that the movie wants us to be eager for a sequel, but I would have felt that way without all this aggravating "teasing." All it really accomplishes is deflating one of the movie's central action sequences. This exacerbates the problem of the movie's extravagant running time, as well. At two hours and forty-five minutes, if you're not on board with this movie, it's going to feel like a slog.

The human lead is a bit more likable than Shia LaBeouf ended up being by the third movie. Mark Wahlberg is doing his thing, which is always fun to watch. There's nothing special about Cade Yeager other than his ridiculous action movie name, which is worth a chuckle every time a giant robot shouts it. But it's Mark Wahlberg. Sure, he's capable of depth, but if the script isn't going to give it to him, he's just going to have fun and that's definitely what he's doing here. He remains as likable a presence as ever, paper-thin characterization be damned. I mean, the guy's supposed to be Texan but doesn't even bother trying an accent. For that matter, no one else does, either. Fine by me.

Nicola Peltz, on the other hand, is just kind of there. It'd be nice if there were a female character in one of these films who could do more than wear high heels in dangerous situations, but since there's no more depth to her than any of the other characters... Meh, I say. I might say she gets even less depth than Megan Fox ever did. Jack Reynor, too, is just kind of there to be beefcake, though he does get a few good jabs at Wahlberg. The two of them actually have pretty decent buddy chemistry together.

As for the other characters, Grammer is suitably menacing in his villainous role. The same with Titus Welliver, who could play this kind of mercenary bastard in his sleep. Stanley Tucci is clearly having a lot of fun, and gets some of the movie's funniest lines, especially in the third act. That said, he kind of falls flat at times, especially when he's trying to be menacing. It feels like it takes a while for his character to get into the right groove.

Peter Cullen once again proves that he's the voice for Optimus Prime, just as Kevin Conroy does for Batman. And, thankfully, this franchise has also found a way to get Frank Welker on board, too. As a "Transformers" fan, having those two in the cast is always a bonus.

So, knowing that, what else do we get here? For one thing, this is actually the easiest of the four "Transformers" films to follow, visually. Forced to make longer, steadier shots due to the needs of the 3D IMAX camera systems, Bay has constructed his action sequences much more carefully. There are only a few moments in this film where things get too shaky, and those don't last long.

There are explosions for days in this movie, but again, we knew that going in. Some of these explosions are so large and outlandish as to be laughable, which is also par for the course. Michael Bay loves his explosions. He loves them so much that he demands they be bigger and everywhere. He doesn't love them enough to equip them with proper physics, though, because for all their size and fireball-iness, characters are rarely affected by them. That is, an explosion goes off right next to Mark Wahlberg and he's not thrown aside by the concussion. Like, ever. It's kind of funny. But it looks great. Somewhere, someone is complaining about kids growing up thinking explosions don't hurt.

Is "Transformers: Age of Extinction" worth your time? As with the rest of this franchise, that's a complicated question. If you liked the other ones, then yeah. Knowledge of the previous movies isn't necessary. Nor are any kind of critical thinking skills. But, an appreciation for the Transformers, and lots of delicious destruction, doesn't hurt. (When you see which familiar Decepticon the humans have built in their factory, if you're like me, you'll smile. More so when you hear him speak.)

If you hated all the previous "Transformers" movies, or if you've hated every Michael Bay flick that you put in front of your eyeballs, don't bother. He's not going to change your mind, and frankly, neither he nor myself cares if he does. But, y'know, if what you really want to do is write a long, angry rant... be my guest, though for my money, there are movies that are more deserving.

Someday, I do hope someone makes a legitimately good "Transformers" film, doing for this franchise perhaps what Christopher Nolan did for Batman. Until then, though, I'm content to put my head back and roll with the Bayhem.

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