Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo.
Running time: 165 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Long before Optimus Prime hoists his hulking metal frame onto the back of a giant robot dinosaur, wields his mighty sword and rides valiantly away to save the planet once more, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” plays like a parody of the bloated, self-important Michael Bay blockbuster.
Finally, with the fourth film in the epic franchise about vehicles that turn into talking robots, Bay seems to recognize the innate ridiculousness of these characters, this world, this overblown aesthetic that is his signature. That’s not to say that it’s “good,” per se. With a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, “Age of Extinction” is butt-numbingly long and padded with hilariously obvious product placement to appeal to the widest possible international audience. (It’s just two minutes shorter than “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for a bit of perspective.) But Bay, his international cast and his massive explosives team at least seem slightly more self-aware in telling this terrible tale.
Actually, the script from returning writer Ehren Kruger (who wrote the second and third “Transformers” installments) feels like two entirely separate movies slammed up against each other. The first half or so takes place in the United States — in rural Texas and urban Chicago, to be exact. The second part shifts to China for reasons that have nothing to do with narrative cohesion and everything to do with marketing. All of it is shot with the false grandeur of a Super Bowl ad for Ford F-150 trucks. Waving fields of grass, nostalgia-tinged sunsets and American flags abound. Then the robots show up, and everything gets blown to bits.
At least you can actually see who is doing what to whom this time. So often in the “Transformers” series, the big set pieces consist of massive, twisted hunks of metal slamming into each other in indiscernible fashion — a jumble of shiny machinery, noise and destruction. The details seem finer this time and the 3-D effects often make them pop. But the story is so slapdash, the characters are so shallow and the entire endeavor is so self-indulgent, it all outweighs any vague, sporadic pleasures.
On the upside: Shia LaBeouf is nowhere to be found. He never existed as far as this universe is concerned. This time, Mark Wahlberg plays our reluctant hero, the awesomely named Cade Yeager. The south Boston native doesn’t even begin to affect a twang, even though his character is a small-time inventor living on a farm in small-town Texas. Cade is the overprotective, widower father of an insanely hot 17-year-old daughter named Tessa (Tara Reid look-alike Nicola Peltz) who enjoys traipsing about the property in ass-hugging Daisy Dukes and high-heeled ankle boots. She functions in the same eye-candy role as Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in the previous films, and is afforded about as much characterization.
While helping renovate a decaying movie theater — a once-lavish palace whose owner laments the prevalence of mindless sequels and blockbusters, hardy har har — Cade discovers a beat-up semi truck. Back home with a little elbow grease in his quaintly scruffy barn, he reveals that the vehicle is the venerable Optimus Prime himself (voiced as always by the esteemed Peter Cullen with more dignity than these films deserve). Seems the Autobots, the good-guy robots who were once considered loyal friends to us humans, are now viewed as threats and they’ve gone on the run.
Kelsey Grammer plays the CIA honcho in charge of tracking down and wiping out all Autobots. (Titus Welliver is his driven and diabolical right-hand man.) A scenery-chewing Stanley Tucci plays the high-tech corporate guru who’s secretly helping Grammer’s character; he’s the private contractor who’s creating a shape-shifting metal that will serve as the basis for an army of high-powered government robots. Watching these two seasoned actors spar provides some of the few genuine high points in “Age of Extinction,” but it’s simultaneously depressing because they deserve such better dialogue.
The set-up is an obvious metaphor about illegal immigration and post-9/11 terrorist fears – one that’s quickly established in an effort to achieve relevance or gravitas or something, and then just as quickly abandoned. Bay & Co. are more interested in blowing Cade’s house to smithereens during the military’s hunt for Optimus Prime.
Suddenly thrust into the vortex of danger, Cade must escape with Tessa and her older boyfriend, Shane — an Irish racecar driver, of all things, played by Jack Reynor — in hopes of protecting Prime and his pals. (Cade hates the guy immediately, but the two eventually will bond over their shared love of firearms.) Also along for the ride is Cade’s obligatory, wise-cracking best friend (T.J. Miller), who drives around with a surfboard constantly strapped to the top of his car, even though he lives in middle-of-nowhere Texas. Their quest takes them to Tucci’s headquarters in Chicago — a city that supposedly was decimated by the robot battles of the third film, but the place looks just fine — and finally, China.
This entire, final segment of the film is astute acknowledgement of the power of the Chinese market. It’s also shameless pandering to the highest degree (or the lowest, depending on your viewpoint). It’s not enough for Cade to stop what he’s doing while being pursued through the streets of Chicago to open a Bud Light and take a satisfied swig. It’s not enough for Shane to mention that he’s been sponsored by Red Bull while listing the many ways in which he’s right for Cade’s daughter. Once we arrive in China, Tucci’s assistant there — played by the slinky and sophisticated Li Bingbing — takes a long and luxurious sip of bottled water while sitting in the back of a chauffeured car. I don’t read Mandarin so I don’t know what brand it is, but mmm-mm, does it look refreshing.
Then the giant robot dinosaurs arrive to provide Prime and his buddies with transportation, and you realize that this “Transformers,” perhaps even more than its predecessors, was cobbled together in the minds of 8-year-olds after all.