In theaters Friday, June 27
2 stars (out of 4 stars)
The thought hits you right around the 145-minute mark, as the fire-breathing Dinobots run rampant in Beijing: At what point did Transformers—a slick half-hour after-school cartoon in the 1980s with an accompanying Hasbro toy line—morph into a soulless, bloated, hefty-budgeted franchise?
Mind you, this tepid fourth installment is actually an improvement over 2011's ridiculous Dark of the Moon entry. But that's like saying the flu is better than pneumonia. Either way, a high threshold for pain is required.
In the plus column, Shia LaBeouf's bratty suburban teen is out of the picture. Enter Mark Wahlberg, a bona fide, charismatic action star. He's a near-destitute single dad named Cade Yaeger who spends his time tinkering around in his Texas garage. (Uh-huh. Wahlberg is a poor Texan name Cade. Did I mention the charisma?) He buys a broken-down truck for $150 and plans on selling the parts until . . . wait! . . . the light goes on. Why, it's really Optimus Prime, leader of the freedom-loving Autobot contingent, last seen in triumph mode after the "Battle of Chicago" in the previous film.
Yet Prime is in no mood to recap his glory. Four years have passed, and now the CIA (led by Kelsey Grammer's black ops leader) is hunting down all the Transformers and handing them over to a tech company megalomaniac (Stanley Tucci, hamming it up). The government doesn't care if the robots are good-natured or murder-minded like the Decepticons—they're all capable of being melted down and used for weaponry. This precious, manipulative substance is called (ugh) Transformium.
Almost all of this information unfolds in a mildly entertaining (if not coherent) first act. Then the shred of suspension-of-disbelief goodwill dissipates as soon as an agent (Titus Welliver) drops by Wahlberg's garage and demands to look inside. "My face is the warrant," he sneers with a straight face. Optimus escapes with Wahlberg, his teen daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her race car driver older boyfriend (Jack Reynor) in tow, and the good vs. evil war is on. And on and on and on . . .
. . . and on. . .and on. . . and on. . .
Oh my goodness, make it stop. Wait, why are Tessa and Optimus being pulled into a spaceship? Is chief villain Megatron still alive? Did anyone else like Wahlburgers? Do Kelsey and Camille Grammer still talk? The more the destruction piles up, the easier it is to take mental tangents. Indeed, only Transformers geeksters and 11-year-old boys will drool over the sight of the machinery crushing each other in an endless parade of bombastic, computer-generated action sequences and pyrotechnics. (Director Michael Bay has hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, and he's not afraid to use every cent.) When the action finally climaxes in China and Optimus unleashes the Dinobots—think robotic dinosaurs—it's a mighty task to sit and be awed. Note to Bay: Only movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio are allowed to run at 165 minutes.
Instead, prepare to snicker at everything from the clunky, earnest dialogue (Optimus solemnly tells Cade, "Look to the stars and you'll see my soul") to the feeble attempts at humor (one of the Transformers makes a Dirty Dancing barb). Not even the appealing Wahlberg is immune from the carnage, as his overprotective dad shtick grates to the extreme.
There is one punch line, however, that elicits a hearty laugh: It comes early on when a former cinema operator laments to Wahlberg about "crap sequels and remakes." Amen.