Once the psycho wunderkind who gave up some of his salary to buy an extra explosion for Bad Boys, and who, for the following two decades, acted as the most aggressive cinematic purveyor of “the cuck stops here” machismo, 52-year-old director Michael Bay seems to be softening with age. In his latest spirit-slaughtering installment of the Transformers franchise, a five-film series based on a line of Hasbro toys and their many wacky genocides, there are strong signs that Bay is backing off from the sins of his past.
The central conflict in Transformers: The Last Knight involves refugee alien robots immigrating to Earth from a violent homeland, and Bay seems to side with the besieged immigrants rather than the “travel ban” crowd. There are also multiple heroic female characters with a bare minimum of drooling objectification, a vaguely eco-friendly message about coming together to “heal the planet” and, if that’s not surprising enough, count a French-accented Transformer among the Autobot good guys.
Bay tones down the rhetoric in The Last Knight, but not the bombast. Slo-mo explosions rip across the screen from the opening scene to the last, metropolises get leveled with the detached sadism of a child torturing insects, asinine attempts at sledgehammer-subtle comedy abound and each facepalm-worthy dumb idea (the legendary wizard Merlin learned “magic” from the Transformers) gets followed by an even more facepalm-worthy dumb idea (making a gape-mouthed Mark Wahlberg play a blue-collar genius).
Wahlberg returns to the Transformers franchise as Cade Yeager, now a fugitive from justice sheltering Autobots in the Badlands of South Dakota. Cade is hunted night and day by government drones, yet slips easily across the globe, from the ruins of Chicago to the ruins at Stonehenge, always at sunset, since time and space are complete nonsense here. Cade also picks up plucky orphan Izabella (Isabela Moner) while rescuing robots, and along the way becomes entangled with a polo-playing physicist (Laura Haddock).
Josh Duhamel transforms into a human-like creature to reprise his long-running role, while Anthony Hopkins, John Turturro and a few more slumming sad sacks provide the usual beneath-their-station supporting turns. Playing the guardian of a secret alliance between the Knights of the Round Table and sword-wielding alien robots, Hopkins takes to the hyper-broad tendencies of Bay like a fish to water, and shows more zest for acting opposite robots here than he displayed in Westworld or Meet Joe Black.
As always, Bay provides some truly stunning images, and shows a semimature tendency to laugh at his own excess, but we’re still trolling for pennies in a fountain filled with toxic waste. This is probably one of the better entries in the series, although picking your favorite Transformers film is a little like picking your favorite murder-suicide. At a certain point, I simply surrendered to The Last Knight. I don’t think I had a choice. The film had me surrounded, and I just wanted to see my family again.