Tuesday, July 1, 2014

'Transformers: Age of Extinction' review

I'm a passionate defender of Michael Bay's Transformers franchise. I loved the first film when I first saw it. Granted, I was a young kid at the time who was just excited to see robots smash each other, but I still loved the film. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was also a movie that I enjoyed at the time. I rewatched it the other day and it really doesn't hold up as a coherent film, but the action is still effective and it is quite spectacular at times. The third film, Dark of the Moon, is also incredibly good. Sure, the first hour is a little stale and useless, but the final battle in Chicago is extraordinary. All in all, I've never understood why people hate these movies so much.

Bay returns now with Transformers: Age of Extinction, the latest film in the massive hit franchise. This installment also doubles as a reboot for the series. Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and John Turturro are all gone and so are most of the robots. The only main characters from the original trilogy that still appear in this movie are Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. However, besides the character swap, not much else has changed. This is still a Michael Bay action movie through and through. It's overstuffed, overlong and feels like an action movie pumped up on steroids. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Age of Extinction is a glorious mess of a movie, a film with long setpieces and extraneous plot threads that add almost nothing. But in the end, the human story is much stronger, the acting isn't as cringe-worthy and the massive battles are still insane. If you enjoyed the first three films, you'll enjoy the heck out of this one as well.

Transformers: Age of Extinction takes place after the Battle of Chicago, which took place in the third film. Autobots and Decepticons are being hunted by humans, specifically government agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) and his CIA hitman Savoy (Titus Welliver). Meanwhile, failed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) are living their life in Texas. Cade is trying to keep up with payments while also protecting his girl and getting her to college. Their life is changed dramatically when Cade brings home a truck which ends up being Optimus Prime. The Autobot and Cade bond and the family decides not to turn him in. But soon enough, the government agents come knocking and the Yeager family is forced to go on the run.

As the film shifts to its second act, we learn that humans have discovered Transformium, an element that can change into anything. Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), leader of tech group KSI knew the potential for Transformium and started to develop new Transformers for human military use with the help of Attinger and the CIA. In addition to those two plotlines, we learn that humans want this object known as the Seed, which is essentially a massive nuclear bomb. Alien mercenary Lockdown has the Seed, but will only give it to Savoy and Attinger if he can capture Optimus Prime. All of these plots collide together for massive battles in Chicago and Hong Kong.

Age of Extinction is supposed to be a fresh start for this franchise.  And it feels like a fresh start. While the plot is the main weak spot, Age of Extinction legitimately does try to have a story that feels new and interesting. It does become very muddled at times, but there is a very interesting story within this new film that makes is feel very exciting at times.

The new cast is pretty strong. The giant robots are the stars of these movies, but the human drama is always mildly interesting (it's better in this film) until Bay drops it for some good ol' mass destruction. Mark Wahlberg anchors the film and he's serviceable in the movie. I really liked Wahlberg's character at the beginning and all of the stuff involving the relationship with his daughter was pretty good. Nicola Peltz is also solid in the film. None of the leads are spectacular but they're decent enough. You really don't need great leads in these movies. Only characters that are good enough to get through the story. However, Jack Reynor's character is so incredibly useless. He serves no point and the movie would be a whole lot better without him. Seriously, Age of Extinction is a MUCH better film if Reynor's character gets cut from the movie.

The supporting cast shines in the film. Stanley Tucci is so great and rises above the material quite frequently. Kelsey Grammer is a solid addition to the franchise as Attinger, a shady politician. And Titus Welliver (Argo, The Town) is fantastic as a menacing villain. He's slowly becoming one of my favorite character actors. There are a few other supporting characters but none of them do much but take up screen time.

It's the story that really bogs down this film. The first act does a great job of setting up all of the main characters and all of the plot threads that will connect throughout this film. The second act is where it all comes apart. Once the action moves from Texas to Chicago, stuff starts to get confusing. The characters head to Chicago because they want to find the corporation who's responsible for hunting the robots and experimenting on them to create new robots. At the same time, the robot mercenary Lockdown is hunting Optimus because he needs him for a reason I won't spoil and then there's a large set piece on a spaceship that I won't spoil either. And I'm telling you, the amount of time spent in Chicago could be cut in half and this movie would still be cohesive. In fact, it would probably be even more cohesive. The spaceship scene provides for some cool visual effects, but in the end is just one very long scene that's only there so that an object can get from point A to point B.

However, I really can't complain about this film too much. I gave me exactly what I wanted and even a little bit more. You can't really go into this film expecting a cinematic masterpiece because you aren't going to get it. I expected a film that would entertain me for 3 hours with beautiful visuals that shine and dazzle on the IMAX screen and some decent human drama. And I definitely got all that I was expecting. The 165 minute runtime goes by pretty quickly and the pacing is pretty solid. If Bay had cut this to a more reasonable 145 minutes, this might be one of the better Transformers movies. But there ended up being some extra fat and I guess that's okay because Age of Extinction still delivers the excitement in droves.

While nothing in Age of Extinction quite tops the extraordinary final battle in the film's predecessor, the action is still quite spectacular. The robots continue to fight and destroy each other in gruesome ways, but I actually felt like Bay was taking a step in the right direction with the action. There's a little bit more creativity this time. The Dinobots are a welcome addition and they contribute to one of the best action scenes in the film. Also, an action scene early in the film involving the complete annihilation of one of the Autobots was sad, but also well-done. All in all, Michael Bay delivers his signature "Bay-hem" and takes it up to another level. It's quite extraordinary.

Age of Extinction is a good way to spend 3 hours and it's a film that you won't regret seeing if you enjoyed the previous Transformers films. Despite that, I really think that this needed a major editing job. There's a great Transformers movie buried underneath all of the fat, but with too many excess storylines, Age of Extinction just gets a bit messy at times. If I was redoing the script, I would have cut the second act down to a more reasonable length and the subplot about the boyfriend would have been cut. With all of that gone, the film would be a more manageable 145 minutes and would certainly be much, much better. But for now, we're stuck with this version, which is a highly enjoyable, frequently awesome slice of blockbuster fun.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

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