For the past seven years or so, Michael Bay has focused almost exclusively on "Transformers" films, with one exception—last year's "Pain & Gain." That steroid-infused movie presented an overstimulated, sneering and cynical view of the pursuit of the American dream, following two muscleheads who scheme their way towards the life they think they should be living. Swimming in greed, murder and mayhem, the film portrayed the pursuit of material wealth as an empty endeavour, which seems a bit surprising for a filmmaker who has directed TV ads for major corporate brands and worked exclusively in the studio system. And in a strange way, "Transformers: Age Of Extinction" almost acts as an apology for "Pain & Gain," with the film presenting everything that's the best and worst of Bay's toy movies to the extreme, while proudly waving the American flag.
Mark Wahlberg leads this latest installment, and his character here is pretty much the polar opposite of his Daniel Lugo in "Pain & Gain." The actor plays Cade Yeager, a single father, living on a big parcel of beautiful land out in Paris, Texas, where he's raising his teenage daughter Tessa (Nicole Peltz) and trying to keep his house from being foreclosed on. He has a barely functioning robotics business running out of his barn, but the economy has hit everyone hard, and Cade keeps a bin at the end of his driveway where his neighbors can drop off their electronics repairs for a pay-what-you-can price. This is a swift ninety-degree turn from money grubbing antics of "Pain & Gain," and with Bay never missing a moment to find space for an American flag in the camera (even Cade's welding helmet has a flag painted on it), and combined with a variety of golden hour, Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade shots, in the early going 'Extinction' is a blockbuster Hallmark card. You half expect everyone on screen to start singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at any moment.
But this is a "Transformers" movie after all, and once Bay is done attempting to be something he's not—a filmmaker who cares about character and themes and subtext, as much he tries—he gets back in the business of delivering what everyone who buys a ticket wants to see. But by time the nearly three hour movie—the longest in the series so far—reaches the credits, audiences may regret getting as much bang for their buck as possible. On the one hand, this is pure Bay, and if you've seen the previous "Transformers" movies you know what you're getting into, only this time, the director feels uninspired, more like he's punching a clock at the blockbuster factory, with even his flair for inventive setpieces mostly muted.
The plot of the film is both simple and convoluted all at once. After the events at the finale of "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" left Chicago in ruins with far too many civilian casualties, the government has officially ended their alliance with the Autobots, and have ordered any remaining Transformers to be rounded up. That's a task given Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) of the CIA, and he's doing the job via a black ops program called Cemetery Wind headed up by Savoy (Titus Welliver). They get some assistance from the ruthless Lockdown, a new alien Transformer, working on behalf of their creators, who has been promised he'll get to personally handle Optimus Prime. Meanwhile, Attinger has also struck a deal with Steve Jobs-esque inventor Joshua (Stanley Tucci), who is reverse engineering the captured Transformers to create military tech, with an assistance from a geological dig that has uncovered the source material for the robots called—wait for it—Transformium. The problem? Cade bought a beat up a truck that just happens to be the damaged Optimus Prime, making him the accidental center of these nefarious schemes, and when this word gets out, it makes him and anyone around him a target. Phew. What does this all ultimately mean? Chase sequences. Lots of them.
We'll admit, an early sequence that shows a car chase between the Cemetery Wind goons and Cade's family, with Lockdown and Optimus Prime battling simultaneously, is impressive. So too is a later sequence that once again sees Cade and company in a jeep, driving backwards, evading danger and other vehicles in front and behind, along with yacht-sized debris falling from up above. But these are just momentary incidents of Bay-boosted excitement in Ehren Kruger's otherwise needlessly cluttered script. The screenplay finds any plot movement eventually building to a sequence that eventually sees Cade, Tessa and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) running from or escaping things, or simply ducking for cover as the Autobots do their best to once again protect human life, while preventing their own kind from going extinct. And quite simply, it gets tiring.
It would appear that after three movies, Bay himself isn't quite sure where to go next from a spectacle standpoint with "Transformers." The majority of the film is one steadily deadening scene after another of robots transforming, running at high speeds into each other and cars flipping over, with slow-motion sometimes employed to hold the moment of something Bay thinks is pretty cool. But by time the last third of the movie heads to China for the final showdown, with Hong Kong getting the dubious honor of being ripped apart by Transformers, it feels like you're watching a retread of the Chicago sequence from 'Dark Of The Moon.' How many more shiny glass buildings can one see get destroyed? And even the Dinobots, which come into the picture late in the game are fairly unmemorable as well, as outside of their design, they pretty much blur into the digital noise of everything else that's happening.
With Bay largely failing to deliver on the action front, it makes his inadequacies and tired habits in other areas of his filmmaking all the more apparent (though, in his defense, the script by Kruger doesn't do him any favors either). Once again, Bay can't help but leer uncomfortably at his female lead, with Peltz's legs and behind getting a thorough look on more than on occasion, to the point where I thought she might transform (and she's not given much else to do otherwise than ask to be rescued over and over and bicker with Wahlberg). Throughout the series, the tone of the films has wavered wildly from over-pitched comedy for the kids, to gritty realism for the adults, with little rhyme or reason, and so it goes here, with inconsistent acting to match. And the sometimes commercials director also shamelessly unsubtly parades a variety of brands throughout the picture from Bud Light (which even pauses to let Wahlberg take a swig) to Victoria's Secret to Tom Ford to Beats to GoodYear and more. So if your kid asks for a Dinobot and some Blue Cross insurance after the screening, you'll know why.
Like the generic, Hans Zimmer xerox-style score by Steve Jablonsky, and the lightweight, edgeless and comically earnest indie-pop soundtrack songs by Imagine Dragons, 'Age Of Extinction' is oddly anonymous and impersonal. An early scene in the movie finds a man suffering from dementia commenting that the movies these days are just "sequels and remakes" and are mostly "crap." It's a moment of self-awareness and one that we hoped indicated that Bay was acknowledging the pitfalls of follow-ups, now four movies strong into the "Transformers" series. But as the credits roll you get the sense that Bay was agreeing with that character and is simply playing into a formula that has so far seen each successive "Transformers" movie make more money than the last. Bay is living the American dream, but unfortunately, his gain is our pain. [D]