As I write this, Transformers: Age of Extinction has a critics' score of . Credit the usual suspects, who recycle the same old Bay criticisms and act surprised that somehow The English Patient didn't break out in the middle of this, the fourth installment of the Autobots vs. Decepticons explosion-fest. Ignore them. It took Bay seven years and four attempts, but he finally delivers the Transformers film fans have wanted all along.
Listen, I'm not saying this isn't flawed. It's 2 hours and 45 minutes long and heavy (as usual) on exposition. Do not get the large soda unless you're wearing a catheter. While Age of Extinction picks up the storyline four years after the events of Dark of the Moon, it's essentially a franchise reboot, so there's a lot of table-setting for newcomers. That said, the film moves pretty well despite the bloated running time, and for this you can heap credit onto the overhauled human cast, a hugely improved ensemble led by Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci, all of whom deliver.
Spoilers from here on out, so consider yourselves warned.
The basic plot is this: After the destruction of Chicago in the massive Autobots vs. Decepticons showdown in Dark of the Moon, humanity's love affair with the Transformers is over. Kelsey Grammer plays Harold Attinger, a CIA black-ops string-puller whose team, Cemetery Wind, hunts transformers with the help of Lockdown, an unaffiliated bounty hunter who cares nothing for Autobots and Decepticons alike. Imagine a giant robot Boba Fett who turns into a Lamborghini Aventador. Grammer, for his part, is perfect here, oozing cool menace and clearly enjoying himself.
We taste the effectiveness of Attinger's group when they track down and corner Ratchet, the only remaining Autobot from the original trilogy not named Optimus Prime or Bumblebee. The human strike-team does damage, and Lockdown summarily executes Ratchet when he refuses to reveal the location of Optimus Prime.
That location, incidentally, is an abandoned Texas movie house, the backdrop for a bunch of industry in-jokes about sequels and the like, and where he's found by Cade Yaeger (Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck garage inventor and roboticist looking for junk that he can repair or strip down for parts to make a buck.
The truck, of course, is Optimus Prime, damaged and in hiding. His mere presence spooks Cade's daughter, high-school senior Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and his partner, Lucas (Silicon Valley's T.J. Miller). One thing leads to another, and the CIA shows up in a fleet of matte-black Escalades and Rally Fighters. Threats are made, things blow up, we meet Tessa's secret boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor), and we get the first big set pieces of the film. It's all good stuff.
The Wahlberg/Pelz/Reynor triangle, incidentally, is an exact clone of the Bruce Willis/Liv Tyler/Ben Affleck relationship from Bay's Armageddon. He makes it work. At no point did I actively root for any of them to die as I did through three Shia LaBeouf Transformer movies.
Optimus and his new human friends eventually hook up with the remaining Autobots—Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio)—and plot revenge against those responsible for the slaughter of the post-Chicago Transformers.
This necessitates a trip back to Chicago, where tech company KSI, headed by billionaire genius Joshua Joyce (an excellent Stanley Tucci), has taken dead Transformers supplied by Attinger's crew and decoded their genome. The result is that he's been able to create human-built transformers. The problem is that Megatron's severed head is one of the primary resources behind all this work, so you know it can't end well. Tucci has dozens of prototypes led by Galvatron (Megatron's reincarnation) and Stinger, the red Pagani Huayra whose robot form is loosely modeled after Bumblebee.
More fighting ensues, it becomes apparent that Joyce has no control over his human-created robots, and we effectively have a new Decepticon menace. In addition, the relentless Lockdown finally captures Optimus Prime and hints at higher powers in play when he tells the Autobot leader, "You weren't born, you were built." Lockdown's contract is being paid by said builders, whom we won't see until the next movie at the earliest.
This triggers a rescue mission that involves more Chicago destruction. (Note to world: never move there. It's a robot-apocalypse magnet.) We also get the film's requisite MacGuffin, "the seed." It's basically a bomb that, when detonated, turns the surrounding environment into "transformium" (yes, I know), the programmable metal that all Autobots and Decepticons are made of. Joyce needs it to continue production of his human-engineered Transformers, but Galvatron wants to use it to wipe out millions and get the raw materials to create a new Decepticon army.
This all necessitates a relocation to China for the final act because, well, the film is a Chinese co-production, and doing so allows Bay to turn Hong Kong into a sea of twisted metal and shattered glass. Along the way, Joyce finds his conscience and aligns with the good guys, we get the epic final battle, and yes, the Dinobots take the stage, and yes, they are fantastic.
Critics are quick to point out that the film's conclusion "leaves the door wide open for a sequel." No shit, Dick Tracy: We're into a new trilogy now.
The haters will never have anything good to say about the Transformers series, and the first three were riddled with problems, so the earlier criticism is merited. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, is one of the worst movies ever made, period.
But Transformers: Age of Extinction, long and imperfect though it may be, is fun. The human cast delivers—the importance of which cannot be overstated, as the robots do exactly what fans are looking for, and I, at least, walked out of the theater both pleasantly surprised and finally, after seven years of Bayformers, satisfied. Hurry up with the sequel. This new trilogy is off to a rocking start.
VERDICT: Go see it (and spring for the 3D)