Any hope of seeing the Transformers millions of fans grew up watching on Saturday morning long ago dashed, Michael Bay's films are now little more than a licensing expo masquerading as a Hollywood blockbuster. The fourth film in the franchise, the aptly named Transformers: Age of Extinction is a thundering assault on the aural and visual senses and a marketing agent's wet dream of product placement overload. In other words: same energon, different chassis, right? In terms of sheer brazen spectacle Bay delivers maximum action; big and loud as ever but also lacking the passion he usually brings to every single project.
It wasn't that long ago Bay had planned for Dark of the Moon to be his final time chronicling the ongoing war between the heroic Autobots and evil Decepticons, but a last-second deal with the studio got him back for at least one more. And part of that deal was he would get to direct his passion project, the crime comedy Pain & Gain, before jumping into 'Age of Extinction'. That bit of arm twisting may have done something to Bay enthusiasm, or at least it feels that way. The result is a film that sees Bay burning through his usual bag of tricks at an accelerated pace and employing a visual style best described as uninspired. Surely, a Transformers movie that doesn't look all that good would be an utter disaster, right? Well, not exactly, because Bay and franchise scribe Ehren Kruger have come up with a story that is surprisingly effective, easy to follow, and tailor made for new star Mark Wahlberg. That's right, no more of Shia LaBeouf's stuttering and getting pushed around by Megan Fox, this film has a genuine tough guy in Wahlberg and it's a drastic improvement.
Not quite a reboot but forging a new path forward, the story takes place a few years after Chicago was devastated in the prior movie. The city has been rebuilt remarkably well, almost as if nothing happened at all. In fact it looks exactly same. In the time since, the world has cooled on the idea of giant killer robots hanging around, and that includes Optimus Prime and his Autobot. Kelsey Grammer plays Harold Attinger, one of those non-descript government guys who always have some black ops unit doing their own thing behind the President's back. He's been out there slaughtering Autobots, including some old favorites, with the help of Lockdown, a mercenary Transformer who desperately wants to find Optimus. In exchange, Attinger will receive a giant Macguffin "the seed", a powerful object responsible for the destruction of the dinosaurs and not the "Big Bang". Trust that this reworking of history is only there to introduce the fan-favorite Dinobots and not as any part of the story that matters in any way. What's Attinger's deal? Plain old human greed as he's hoping to gain a big payoff by working alongside Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), the temperamental head of KSI Industries who have begun building superior models of Transformer for military use.
Wahlberg, playing the same sort of homegrown lunk/intellectual he played in The Happening, is lowly robotics expert Cade Yeager. His Paris, Texas business has been hit hard by what looks like the worst economic depression ever, and he's basically struggling to make ends meet while keeping track of his hot and rebellious daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz). She's got a thing for bad boys, though, and has secretly been dating a race car driver (Jack Reynor) whose skills come in handy when everything goes to Hell in a hand basket. And it takes a good stretch of time before that happens as we're treated to the Yeagers' financial woes and familial squabbling; even though we know it will be forgotten once Bay starts blowing stuff up. When Cade buys a beat-up old truck at a bargain it turns out to be an in-hiding Optimus, bringing Attinger's goons and Lockdown to his doorstep.
There's never been an excuse for how convoluted the earlier movies have been, especially since...HELLO!!!....this is Transformers and the primary audience is kids. So it's somewhat refreshing to have a story that's fairly simple and straight forward with Optimus looking to protect a humanity that has constantly stabbed him in the back. Does he finally reject humanity and leave them to their fate? He'd be justified to do it, and the dilemma raging within him is probably the most interesting development of the entire series.
But as stated before, nobody comes to these movies for insightful character development. They want to see stuff blowed up real nice, and as stated before Bay just doesn't seem all that into it. Sure, there's more slo-mo and gratuitous flag waving than ever before, not to mention an abundance of glass buildings ready to be shattered, but what else? You can count on two hands the number of times the Transformers do the "drop and roll" maneuver and Bay shoots them exactly the same way every time. Same cars getting bowled over, same skyscrapers toppling, it all just gets repetitive and deadening after a while. By the time the action heads to China for the final stretch you've seen it all, ad nauseum. Every critic on the planet is going to talk about the 165 minute runtime so why bother joining in? You know it's too long. I know it's too long. The only one who doesn't know it and doesn't care is Michael Bay. There are a couple of great scenes that really leap off the screen, both car chases set in the middle of falling debris, leaping robots, blasting lasers, and everything else Bay could think of. There's still that difficulty in finding something for the humans to do while the Autobots fight, and for the most part Peltz and Reynor are left to hide in the background, occasionally stopping to make out. Wahlberg wasn't brought in to be on the sidelines and is wisely thrown in the middle of every battle, something they simply couldn't do believably with LaBeouf.
Some curious decisions were made in the choice of Transformers to follow this time, too. While the Dinobots have been demanded by fans since the beginning, they're more monstrous than any previously seen version. Ken Watanabe voices the samurai-esque Autobot, Drift, while John Goodman is the cigar chewing Hound, neither of which you'd call "first stringers". Hardly any Decepticons appear at all but the one who does is the only one that really matters, setting the stage for the second chapter in what is to be a brand new full-metal trilogy. Every Transformers movie has been a greater success than the last and even if this one doesn't continue the streak this franchise isn't going anywhere for a long time. That will make a ton of fans very happy but everyone else may want to stock up on Excedrin.