What the Transformers franchise lacked before was real star power at its center. Former lead Shia LaBeouf could play a displaced rebel without a cause in his sleep, but that meant he became redundant once he found his cause, and he lacked the charisma to turn into something new. Megan Fox may have been that dynamic core, but she was never afforded the opportunity to do more than scream and run in slow-motion.
Fourth entry Transformers: Age of Extinction shakes off the baggage of previous casts that tended to be more dramatic off-screen than on. In LaBeouf’s place is Mark Wahlberg, one of the few actors you can watch having a sword fight with a robot alien bounty hunter 40 times his size and think, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
He plays failed inventor Cade Yeager, who’s converted his Texas barn into a robotics lab. The first half hour follows Wahlberg in full exasperated 12-year-old mode, a role he’s perfected over the years. He’s broke and he can’t pay for his daughter’s college, but all he really wants to do is build robots. He poses in front of sunsets and American flags while looking across his land as if marking off a country music video checklist, but you know what? Wahlberg pulls that off, too.
One day, Cade tows a rusted big-rig in for salvage. Turns out the truck is really Optimus Prime, leader of the heroic Autobots, in disguise. The CIA is hunting him down. The reason why is pretty clever: defense contractor Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) is reverse engineering Transformers to develop his own patented robots. Sure, it’s illegal, but he’s promised government insider Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) millions in stock to sign off on it anyway. If this sounds suspiciously similar to how Congress works, it’s because that’s exactly how Congress works.
It’s the last kind of wrinkle I ever expected in a Transformers movie, but with all the other summer blockbusters developing a social conscience, writer Ehren Kruger brings a little subtext. It’s not much, and the movie runs away from anything heavier as soon as things start blowing up, but I’ll give Age of Extinction credit for trying something a little deeper than its predecessors. It’s also refreshing to see director Michael Bay go back to basics, even if it doesn’t last – with Wahlberg front and center, there’s more focus on the humans in the chaos. This means more car and foot chases.
Things are complicated when transforming bounty hunter Lockdown shows up. He wants to capture the Transformers. Good or bad, he insists they’re a threat to humans. He’s supposed to be evil, but given that millions of civilians slaughtered in the first three movies would still be alive without the bunch of them, Lockdown has a point.
It’s disappointing when Bay’s worst tendencies inevitably take over at the end. If you thought the last movie’s two-sided conflict was filmed confusingly, get ready for Autobots vs. Decepticons vs. CIA vs. Wahlberg vs. China vs. Lockdown vs. Dinobots (don’t ask).
The franchise’s biggest draw and biggest problem remains its action. There are neat shots, but they all happen independently of each other. It’s like paying to see the game but all you’re given is the highlight reel. How many evil Decepticons are there? We’re told 50, but after 20 minutes of battle, are there 45 left or do only three remain? Your guess is as good as mine. Sure, the world’s at stake, but isn’t it always? The moments in between – the juxtaposition of heroic deeds against physical struggle and underlying fear – give action movies their weight. Age of Extinction forgets this halfway through, just about when the Transformers take over as the lead actors.
Go for Wahlberg, or the car chases, or to see Texas filmed beautifully in the first half hour. If you’re looking for an action movie, I’d recommend Edge of Tomorrow instead, especially as 3D goes. Bay’s camera is always moving quickly, backgrounds are usually bright, and the man is a lens glare addict, making the 3D in Transformers: Age of Extinction some of the most headache-inducing around.
It’s rated PG-13 for violence, language, and innuendo, but killing robots instead of people lets Bay get away with much more brutality than PG-13 would usually allow.