Five years after the events of the previous movie, down and out Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) purchases a rundown truck for its spare parts. Turns out the vehicle is none other than Optimus Prime, leader of the now in hiding Autobots. Intent on wiping out the Autobots is Harold Attinger (Grammer), head of an elite CIA group called Cemetery Wind (no, seriously), who despatches a black ops team to the Yeager farm to capture the Autobot. Escaping with Optimus, his teenage daughter Tessa (Peltz) and her race car driver boyfriend Shane (Reynor), Yeager flees with Cemetery Wind and Transformer bounty hunter Lockdown (a cheap cash-in on fanboys' love of Boba Fett) in pursuit.
I, like many, suffer from a fear of heights. Watching a set-piece high in the clouds is guaranteed to turn me into a nervous wreck. The documentary Man on Wire, in which a French tightrope walker walks across the twin towers of the World Trade Center, almost gave me a panic attack. Norman Lloyd's jacket tearing as he dangles from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur gets me digging my nails into the sofa every time. Don't even get me started on Tom Cruise dangling from the world's tallest building without the aid of a stunt double. But Wahlberg and chums hanging from alien cords high above the Chicago skyline (in a set-piece that, like much of the movie, makes no logical sense) had no effect on me whatsoever. This is partly due to how unconvincing the green screen background is (the one black mark against the film's FX team, whose work elsewhere here is simply stunning), but mainly down to Michael Bay's inability to construct an effective set-piece.
When asked recently about the consistently negative reviews his movies receive from critics, Bay replied, "it keeps me on my toes." This is clearly a lie, as in his 20 year feature film career Bay seems to have learned nothing from his critics. His latest movie is every bit as badly directed, if not worse, as his 1994 debut Bad Boys. Many inept and showy directors are accused of making every scene a climax; Bay's problem is that he makes every shot a climax. He doesn't seem to understand that film-making has its own grammar, that cuts and camera moves are the visual storytelling equivalent of periods and commas. When used incorrectly, as is so often the case in Bay's work, they disturb the rhythm of the film and make it impossible for the viewer to engage.
There are so many idiotic editing, camera movement and framing choices in T:AOE that the film will likely be adopted by film professors as a means of teaching students how not to construct a film. Take, for example, Bay's insistence on employing low angle shots. You would think the camera was constructed of lead, and thus couldn't be lifted more than two feet off the ground, such is Bay's over-use of low angles. He doesn't seem to understand that filming a character from a low angle places them in a position of dominance, as regardless of whether a character is roaring in anger or fleeing for their life, Bay frames them in this manner. Of course, it also allows him to get some sneaky upskirt shots of his actresses.
Speaking of Bay's women, the only female character in the movie that doesn't resemble a supermodel/pornstar is an estate agent, who just happens to be a stereotypically sassy, overweight black woman. There's a nasty undercurrent of body fascism in Bay's work, and it's more pronounced than ever here. At one point, John Goodman's bearded redneck Transformer (though I don't recall ever seeing this character actually transform into anything; at this point the series' title is gross misadvertising) shoots a harmless alien creature (one that oddly resembles female genitalia; make of that what you will) simply because he deems it "too ugly to live". Later, a snivelling Steve Jobs type scientist played by Stanley Tucci remarks to Wahlberg, "You're a good looking guy, you should take the gun." I can't help but assume Bay's entire career is an attempt to win over the jocks that flushed his head in the high school toilets.
The most bizarre aspect of a film that lurches from one head-scratching moment to another is the handling of Jack Reynor's character. It seems initially that Reynor is acting with an American accent, but at one point Wahlberg mocks him for speaking like a Leprechaun, at which point Reynor breaks into his native Dublin accent. A scene later, however, Reynor is back to speaking like a Yank. But it gets crazier. When Wahlberg accuses Reynor of statutory rape, the younger actor delivers a well rehearsed retort about Texas's Romeo & Juliet laws, a clause that allows him to legally have sex with a minor. As if that wasn't jaw dropping enough, he then produces a laminated printout of said law, which he carries in his wallet, as though this is an issue that crops up regularly. Only Michael Bay could insert a discussion on statutory rape in a movie based on a toy franchise.
Bay began his career directing commercials, and little has changed, given the amount of product placement on display here. Everything from women's undies to light beer (who the hell drinks light beer anyway?) gets shoved down our throats, but the most egregious placement is that of the Chinese authorities. During a geographically nonsensical climax involving the mass destruction of either Beijing or Hong Kong, or perhaps both, we get an awkward insert of some Chinese officials assuring us that "the Central Government has this under control." The rest of the movie tells us that governments shouldn't be trusted, but of course you can't say such things about the Chinese government if you want to shoot your blockbuster in Beijing, or Hong Kong, or perhaps both.
Some Stateside critics have declared this film as the end of cinema. It's not. Thankfully, Bay is a film-making anomaly. Even the worst of his Hollywood peers are merely hacks. Bay is no hack. A hack is someone who understands their craft but fails to apply any artistry to it. Bay doesn't even understand his craft.
Review by Eric Hillis
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