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Transformers: The One Good Movie

A bit of backstory here: I was at a bar last Saturday night, chatting with fellow film fan Mason Daniel via social media when an ad for Michael Bay's latest Transformers flick, The Last Knight, appeared on television, in which I had said that I would talk about each of the last four films before I (eventually) pay to see the fifth installment of the franchise. Also, I need to get back into writing and reviewing movies, because given everything that's happened in the world, and everything that has yet come to pass, I could use the distraction and escape. What better way to do that than to revisit the site's original whipping boy (before Jimmy Dore took the crown recently) and his soul-crushing franchise of noise and destruction?

Oh, Michael Bay. You and I have had a long, contentious relationship - most of it (extremely) negative. However, I do think his talent, purely from a visual aspect, is to be commended: every last one of his films has a slick Hollywood feel and shine that has been duplicated in some of today's modern popcorn flicks, like 2012's Battleship or last year's Independence Day: Resurgence. And, like a James Cameron, Bay knows how to put on a spectacle and put on a hell of a show for the audience. I mean, who doesn't want some part of their mundane lives to be captured in teal tones and to have their facial and body reactions captured in slow-motion takes; a sweeping sunrise in the background as if Bay himself was trying to frame a painting put in motion? What tiny part of our younger, hormonal 17 year-old selves doesn't want to be swept up in an unexpected adventure with 30-foot alien robots, help save the day and get to have Megan Fox as your girlfriend in the process

I think this is why Transformers, the first film in the franchise based on Hasbro's toy line as well as the 1980's animated series, works as well as it did: it's a film almost tailor-made for Bay's sensibilities and style as a filmmaker. The plot just has to be functional: a war between Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen)'s band of Autobots and Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving)'s Decepticons has made its way to Earth; both sides searching for the coordinates to the AllSpark, a macguffin that will help rebuild Cybertron. By twist of fate, said coordinates are in the possession of Disney Channel alum Shia LeBeoulf as Sam Witwicky, but all you need to concern yourself is that Bumblebee is his car, which can transform into the latest Chevy Camero and that Sam is praying that Mikalea (Fox) doesn't feel his erection when she sits on his lap.

Halfway around the world, U.S. Army Rangers, led by Capt. Lennox (Josh Duramel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson) encounter Decepticons who hack into a military base to gain information on the AllSpark's whereabouts, but all you really need to know is that they blow shit up real good. And in Washington D.C., the Secretary of Defense (John Voigt) wants answers as to why a military base in the Middle East was attacked, so he enlists the help of Morally Dubious Black Stereotype (Anthony Anderson), as well as Attractive Computer Hacker (Rachel Taylor) to figure out who or what attacked the base. Again, the only thing you need to concern yourself is that Anthony Anderson spouts cop drama cliches and admits he's still a virgin to an interrogator. Comedy! Oh, and that John Voigt is really wishing he was only a 10 minute appearance like he was in Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.

If it sounds like I'm being flippant on the plot and characters of the film, that's only because Bay is as well, and rightfully so: we're not here for the acting, we're here to see Optimus Prime and his comrades beat up Decepticons in the largest Rock-Em, Sock-Em Robots match ever put to film, and boy do we get it, and then some! It's a real thrill to see the Autobots transform right in front our eyes from GM product-placement cars and trucks, and, again, Bay knows when to unleash his inner giddy 10 year-old man child and let the third act of robot-on-robot CG carnage unfold. From Optimus taking on Bonecrusher in the middle of a freeway, to the Autobots, U.S. soldiers and Megatron starting a firefight in Mission City, the rest of this blockbuster extravaganza goes full sound and fury, signifying nothing by pure mayhem and excitement.

Unfortunately, we have to wade through an hour of padding to get to that point with a sprinkling of action pieces in the middle. I'm guessing this is Bay and screenwriters Alex Kurtman and Roberto Orci attempting to give the human characters something that resembles development, but it's like trying to put lipstick on a pig, and again - that's not why we paid $7.50 to watch this popcorn movie. You almost forget this is a movie featuring giant alien robots and wonder we've signed up for another obnoxious Armageddon clone, because the Transformers themselves sometimes veer dangerously close to acting 2nd fiddle in their own movie thanks to to the movie's filler and need to drone on more exposition. Did we really need a gag of Sam explaining to his parents that he's not beating off in his room as he and Mikalea try to search for the film's macguffin; juxtapose with Prime and his allies trying to hide in plain sight as fucking robots (despite the fact that whole sequence was actually kinda funny)? And was it necessary to see John Tuturro's Agent Simmons of the mysterious Section 7 get pissed on by Bumblebee? Most of these gags are, again, Bay's inner child being let loose, and while it's kept largely in check in this installment, it still comes off as crass and borderline unnecessary.

Still, Transformers knows when to dazzle and how to manipulate an audience into maximum enjoyment, mostly because Bay has done the one thing I'd never expected him to do: like Joss Wheedon in The Avengers and Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill: Vol.1 - he never gives up his own seat in the crowd. In Pearl Harbor, he cobbled together what he believes audiences loved in Cameron's Titanic (effective romantic leads who had charisma and on-screen chemistry) and what critics admired in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (a brutal, unflinching realistic portrait of war) and tried to make a war/romance picture that would equal the same success as both films, but ended up satisfying neither; and in Bad Boys II, he doubled down on his worst tributes as a director: incoherent action, frantic editing, rampant misogyny and bottom of the barrel humor and threw it on the screen because that's what he believed his audience wants. Here - you can tell he loves the characters, as well as the world they inhabit, and it shines on through for the most part. It masks most of the film's shortcomings and gets fine performances by some of the actors, LaBeouf in particular as a likable lead. And for the first time since 1996's The Rock, you can see Bay's talents as a showman really burst on through with dazzling visuals and an exciting third act of mayhem and destruction which brings out the kid in all of us. This is Michael Bay at his best. Unfortunately, all of the goodwill he built up in 2007 with Transformers, he douses in lighter fluid and sets it ablaze two years later with arguably, the worst sequel of its decade.

*** stars out of ****


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