Michael Bay's aesthetic is American-style too much. The action auteur relishes in the low-angle slo-mo that makes mere mortals look like towering titans onscreen. He cherishes spectacle over sense, and his love for explosions is legendary. So, in this respect, Transformers: The Last Knight is the ultimate Michael Bay movie, as it is the most too much of all.
At the film's core is another adventure about the noble Autobots defending Earth from the invading Decepticons. But Transformers: The Last Knight is also the next chapter in the story of Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a blue-collar inventor who's not only become a trusted ally to the Autobots but a fateful figure in the latest battle for the planet. It's the story of scrappy orphan Izabella (Isabela Moner), whose parents were murdered by Decepticons, leaving her as the Resistance's tiniest (yet mighty) rebel. It's the story of cynical history professor Vivian Webley (Laura Haddock), whose family ties tug her into the Transformers' latest interplanetary conflict. It's also the story of an Illuminati-like group that has long guarded the secret history of Autobots, and boasts such famous members as Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Harriet Tubman. Yes, in this cinematic universe Harriet Tubman was a friend to Transformers. And as a barrel of cherries on top, this group is led by a deliciously absurd aristocrat Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins). But more on that in a bit.
For all that, that's still not all the fifth Transformers movie sticks into its beefy two hours and 29 minutes. The film begins in Dark Ages England, and with plenty of explosions in the way of catapulted balls of fire. (Bay gonna Bay.) King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are embattled and desperate, waiting for Merlin's magic to offer them a powerful weapon to turn the tides of war. Enter drunken Merlin (Stanley Tucci channeling camp perfection), a self-proclaimed "sozzled charlatan" who seeks this weapon from a strange cave, which of course is actually the entrance to a crash-landed Transformers ship. (Yes, here magic is actually ancient alien technology.) And so is introduced the movie's MacGuffin, a staff with vague powers, but shut up who cares look at the three-headed robot dragon!
It's an absolutely, unapologetically insane opening, and honestly, it's awesome, alive with Bay's special brand of epic outrageousness. Sadly, we soon leave ancient England to travel to a modern world where the U.S. government chases down any Transformer, Autobot or Decepticon, counting them all as too-risky refugees. While Cade's battling to keep his bot bros safe in a Badlands junkyard, Sir Edmund is sending his Autobot buddies to collect the essential elements needed to beat back the most aggressive Decepticon attack yet. That requires uniting Cade, Vivian and Merlin's mighty staff. There's also a brief flashback to World War II, because, yes, in this cinematic universe Autobots battled Nazis.
Anyhow, there's so so much going on in Transformers: The Last Knight, it's hard not to like it. The film is like a mile-long buffet bar, offering just about anything you can imagine. Sure, some of its selections should never sensibly share space, but that doesn't mean they're not delicious. Sure, there might be a lot that's not to your taste. Perhaps -- like me -- you can't tell the difference between these overly designed robots, and so actions scenes become a blur of gears and grumbles without stakes or clarity. Still, there are enough tasty treats along the way, allowing you to walk away satisfied.
Chief among Bay's deranged delights is the Arthurian opening, with the ever-charming Tucci chewing scenery with relish and whimsy. It's weird and wondrous enough that I wish we'd stayed there among the stern bearded knights, the flustered "magic" con man turned hope of a nation, and the dragon who rains fire and terror. But with this reportedly being Bay's final time directing this franchise, he has a lot to check off his bucket list, so we press on. Still, there are goodies in the present too, like every single line Hopkins delivers, and his begrudgingly obedient butler bot Cogman (Downton Abbey's Jim Carter).
Theirs is perhaps the weirdest onscreen pairing in cinema history. Hopkins, one of the most esteemed living actors and an honest-to-God knight in the CBE way, throws himself and his austere bravado into every moment, bickering with his snobby robo-servant. It's preposterous to see this acclaimed thespian spit out lines like, "If I could find your neck, I'd strangle you," and "You want to know, don't ya, dude?" Honestly, it's worth the ticket price just to hear how Hopkins enunciates "dude."
While there's a gaggle of new Transformers introduced in this movie, like French-accented Hot Rod (Omar Sy), the punk Mohawk (Reno Wilson) and sketchy scavenger Daytrader (Steve Buscemi), the standout is clearly Cogman, who looks like a flashier C-3PO, but has a dark side that's more Bender in "kill all humans" mode. Much like Alan Tudyk's K-2SO in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Carter's Cogman is an apathetic to hostile bot who has little patience for humans, and his indifference proves a surprising source of comedic relief. Whether he's threatening to murder rude Cade outright, or adding some oomph to a dramatic moment by creating a soaring soundtrack, Cogman is crafted to steal scenes.
Wahlberg offers an uneven performance. He's at his best playing opposite the Transformers, cuddling with adorable baby dino-bots, reprimanding the likes of Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe) or Bumblebee (Erik Aadahl), or getting into a heart-to-reactor talk with a down-and-out Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). But when he's asked to share a scene with a human woman, things get awkward to awful. As the father figure to Izabella, he's gruffly charming, teaching her the inner-workings of Autobot repair while jovially calling her "bro." But when it comes to Cade's interactions with Vivian, Transformers: The Last Knight stalls out.
He's the uncouth American with dirt under his nails and a glint in his eye. She's the snooty, educated English professor whose just asking to be taken down a peg. And because this is a Bay movie, she wears a lot of white and very low-cut tops. They hate each other on sight, and their fates binding them together for a world-defining quest seems their special brand of hell. But naturally they'll fall for each other, because why else have a man and woman share space in a movie I guess. I'd be less bitter about the movie's requite romance if Wahlberg and Haddock shared even a spark of chemistry. But as it is, their attraction feels so forced that the inevitable kiss drew barks of laughter from the unimpressed audience. Like I said, this movie is a buffet. It has a lot going on, and some of its selections are bland or outright bad.
So what to make of Transformers: The Last Knight? Fans of the franchise will likely cheer over its final 40 minutes, which are one long action sequence featuring a barrage of battle bots. But people looking for some bang for their buck would be hard-pressed to do better, as Bay offers more bangs, bells, whistles and bonkers moments than any filmmaker working today. Story-wise, the movie is a mess. There are too many characters to keep track of, much less care about, so many of the big emotional moments lack resonance. Nonetheless, there's some genuinely wild and fun stuff to be found in this clusterflick. If nothing else, see it for the WTF.
Transformers: The Last Knight opens Wednesday nationwide.