After nearly three hours in the crucible that is “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a sort of shorthand might be helpful to discuss the fourth edition of the ginormous action franchise ruled by the iron fist of director Michael Bay.
To that end, let’s say “Bayed,” as in “being Bayed,” is the core principle at work in the films. In general, being Bayed means being beaten, blasted, bashed, crushed, melted, morphed, reconstituted and remade over and over and over again.
The term can be applied broadly starting with “Extinction’s” greatly expanded world of Autobots, Decepticons and Dinobots, all of which undergo the entire regimen many times. But it is also useful in referring to the human hordes on the receiving end of much of that pounding. And I don’t just mean cast members Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Bingbing Li and T.J. Miller. I mean you and me, brother.
The film picks up four years after “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” in which Chicago was completely Bayed and Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky was left behind along with the mess.
“Extinction” has many staging grounds and even more subplots: The government has ended any Autobot-U.S. military joint operations and put a price on their metal-heads, including intrepid leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen).
There’s a secret CIA unit called Cemetery Wind run by the self-righteous and sinister Harold Attinger (Grammer). His top assassin James Savoy (Titus Welliver) is hunting bots with the help of a dark metal asset named Lockdown (Mark Ryan), who spends nearly as much time fussing about Optimus Prime’s habit of helping humans as fighting. Jeez, chill.
Any spare bot parts are being fed to KSI, a high-tech operation run by Joshua Joyce (Tucci). By working off of Megatron’s severed head, which Optimus displaced in 2011’s “Dark of the Moon,” Joyce’s Kinetic Solutions International has created a new-and-improved morphing metal substance called “transformium.” Joyce is using it to make a new robot army. Bay is using it to inject a few sight gags. It’s a toss-up as to which is handling transformium better.
Joyce has captured and is exploiting the little jiving gizmo named Brains (Reno Wilson). As in “Dark of the Moon,” Brains’ bad attitude and sarcastic riffs bring welcome comic relief. The movie could actually use more humor, especially since some of the one-liners delivered by Autobot regulars like Hound (John Goodman) fall like lead.
KSI’s newly created Transformer, Galvatron (Frank Welker), is one of the movie’s major headaches. He’s big, he’s bad, he’s primed to take on Prime.
Meanwhile in rural Texas, where the grass is always green and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye (apparently Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger haven’t spent much time in Texas), widower-inventor-all-around-good-guy Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) discovers a broken-down semi that is perfect for his robotics tinkering. The junker also happens to be where a wounded Optimus Prime is hiding.
Lucas (Miller) is Cade’s stoner-partner and clearly can’t be counted on, man. Teenage daughter Tessa (Peltz) is in the process of rebelling. She’s got a secret boyfriend named Shane (Reynor), a stock-car racer that Cade doesn’t exactly welcome with open arms. A bit of male bonding behind the wheel will be required.
In another Bay trademark, Tessa spends most of the movie in a full-out Bayed run, maneuvering through raging robots in skinny jeans and four-inch heels. Will someone please float the idea of sensible shoes for the requisite hot chick past Bay?
Now to the Dinobots, who get their own back story. One of Joyce’s scientists discovers the metal bones of a dinosaur in some frozen tundra — trust me, the specifics aren’t important, but the filmmakers do not agree. So we take a side trip down memory lane to see how Dinobots came to be. Later, Optimus Prime will pick up the story, talking about the legendary knights. Grimlock is the main dino, though the creature variations include Scorn, Slash, Slug and Strafe. Though they do have the capacity to change shapes too, they pretty much look like big metal mash-ups of the beasties who roamed during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, not to mention “Game of Thrones” dragons. Fire-breathing is part of the package.
The major battleground moves between Beijing and Hong Kong, with Hong Kong getting the brunt of the Baying. Pretty much everybody — bot or human — fights everybody else at some point before the final credits roll.
Bay continues to get better at staging the battles, making it easier to follow which particular metal warrior or villain is being shredded. It allows even the uninitiated to appreciate the incredible technical wizardry required to make all those grinding gears that are constantly assembling and disassembling interesting.
It’s clear that while much of the focus is on the fighting, the intent was to ratchet up the story too. There’s a lot of pontificating going on, with Lockdown, Optimus, Galvatron, Attinger and Joyce having a whole lot of opinions on a whole lot of things including good and evil, life and death, humans and robots.
Though Cullen’s Optimus does kind of sound like some higher power who ought to be listened to, the most interesting voice is Wahlberg. The actor continues to be such a likable on-screen presence that it is easy to overlook some of the really corny lines he’s asked to deliver.
Grammer spends his time glowering at friend and foe alike, basically the pomposity of “Frasier” without the funny. Tucci’s Joyce has a relatively transformative character arc, from villain to … it’s ludicrous, but I don’t want to spoil it. Besides, the actor makes it entertaining regardless.
But mankind — good, bad, indifferent — is never really the point in these movies.
The filmmaker has actually built a better “Transformers” in “Age of Extinction,” one I’m sure fans of the franchise will adore. It’s still not a great movie, but it is, most definitely, full-metal Bay.