Thursday, July 10, 2014

Film Review: Transformers - Age of Extinction

It is hard for me to be disappointed by a Transformers movie because, honestly, I expect so little from them.

The last 3 movies have been tolerable spectacles.  I enjoyed the action but cringe at every scene with Shia LeBouf.  It isn't entirely his fault.  The part of Sam was terribly written, as was everyone in his life.  But I enjoyed the good parts of Transformers and ignored the bad parts.  Director Michael Bay knows how to make a movie visually dynamic, but his movies often have other deficits.

The usual critiques of the Transformers films were these:

1.  The human characters are stupid
2.  The comedy is too silly
3.  The Transformers are indistinguishable from each other.

Usually by the fourth movie in a series, you hit a low in terms of quality (Alien 4, Jaws the Revenge…).

But Transformers: Age of Extinction is the best Transformers yet.

The plot takes place years after the Battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon.  A division of the government as turned on all Transformers, Autobot and Decepticon.  With the help of the mysterious Transformer Lockdown, the Autobots are being hunted.  Struggle single dad and Texas handyman/inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers a derelict truck that he intends to strip for parts, but turns out to be Optimus Prime.  This leads to a series of events that has Cade and Optimus on the run and hunting their hunters.

My biggest critique of the movie is that it is way too long.  At nearly 3 hours, the film drags in ways it shouldn't.  Many sequences and story lines could have been cut to get it down to a lean 2 hours.

But other than that, this movie is head and shoulders above its predecessors.

It fixes the above problems.

Wahlberg is a breath of fresh air after watching LeBouf's twitchy performance.  Instead of a man-child who metrosexually stumbles his way through the action, Wahlberg is the epitome of can-do masculinity and plays believably as a human fighting along side giant robots.  It is a nice tonal shift from following Sam's journey to adulthood into Cade's struggles as a man with responsibilities.  The supporting characters don't meet Wahlberg's level.  His daughter (Nicola Peltz), her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and Steve Jobs-lite Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), are still a bit to bland.  Kelsey Grammar, however, delivers a deliciously evil and serious performance as CIA Black Ops leader Harold Attinger.  Peltz particularly serves as this movie's eye candy, which is strange.  We are supposed to identify with Cade's frustration as his daughter acting wild and rebellious as he lectures her on inappropriate dressing, and yet the camera lingers on her body.  Oh, and she's plays a 17-year-old, so it feels kind of icky.

And while the comedy is just a little much on the side of silly in this film, it is much more serious than in the previous ones.  The banter between Cade and his daughter's boyfriend is particularly fun.  But the movie wisely tones down the slapstick.  There is no 10 minute sequence of Autobots hiding in a backyard.  And this movie wisely starts killing characters, something the other Transformers movies were hesitant to do.  But with character deaths in the first act, it gives the movie more tension and weight.

But one of the best improvements was the character design on the Autobots.  Instead of dozens of indistinguishable robots, there are only 5 Autobot heroes, each with their own distinct voices, shapes, colors, and attitudes.  The standout is John Goodman as Hound.  Reminiscent of Tom Siezmore's character in Saving Private Ryan, he's an old violent veteran who cracks wise in the face of battle while fragging dozens of enemies.  Each Autobot occupies a very specific character space and it makes for nice chemistry.  The new enemy Lockdown is what Shockwave from the last movie should have been: ruthless, calculating, unrelenting.

The story is convoluted, but it involves the creators of the Transformers and Dinobots.  The latter only show up towards the end of the movie, but they are a real visual treat.  Their entrance into the story doesn't make a lot of sense and it feels like there is a storyline missing that explains them.  But by that point it doesn't matter.  To see Optimus Prime riding a fire-breathing Grimlock… 80's child heaven!

Speaking of Optimus, this is his movie.  I have never seen this character his PO'd.  And it works so well.  We feel his dilemma.  He fought and sacrificed so much for humans (or as he always says, "huuuumans.").  And in return they have killed his friends and hunted him.  He feels betrayed.  He is betrayed.  But with that rage we see a powerful, aggressive, kick-butt side to him that is so much darn fun to watch play out on the screen.

If you've given up on Transformers movies, give this one a shot.  It may seem like mindless action but, pardon the phrase, its more than meets the eye.

4 out of 5 stars.

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