A film so big that re­sis­tance is use­less

The best, and the weird­est, of the bunch

The Daily Telegraph - - Style & Fea­tures - Rob­bie Collin CHIEF FILM CRITIC

Dir Michael Bay Star­ring Mark Wahlberg, Laura Had­dock, An­thony Hop­kins, Is­abela Moner, Josh Duhamel, Stan­ley Tucci

It’s a shame that Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-cen­tury the­olo­gian, didn’t live to see Trans­form­ers: The Last Knight, if only be­cause he would have found out what ac­tu­ally hap­pens when an un­stop­pable force meets an im­mov­able ob­ject. For the cli­max of Michael Bay’s new film – or rather the last 45 min­utes of it, be­cause from the first shot of pro­logue on­wards, the whole thing is noth­ing but cli­max – the di­rec­tor smashes two plan­ets to­gether, a catas­tro­phe we’re told en­tails “ca­su­al­ties in the tens of mil­lions” as en­tire cities are gouged from the Earth’s sur­face with the non­cha­lance of a fin­ger­nail run­ning across a bar of soap. By def­i­ni­tion, this is the largest ac­tion set-piece Bay will ever pull off – un­less in his next film he just finds two big­ger plan­ets, or throws in a moon for good mea­sure. But the se­quence, in all its lit­er­ally earth-shat­ter­ing pre­pos­ter­ous­ness, is a cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence no other film­maker could have pos­si­bly con­cocted.

Fighter jets arc from back­ground to fore­ground in lock-tight for­ma­tion, shud­der­ing planes of rock plough into each other at neck-cran­ing an­gles, gi­ant ro­bots slug each other with swords and rock­ets as one sur­face tilts crazily into the next. In its com­mit­ment to clash­ing view­points and gonzo ge­ome­tries, the car­nage is al­most Cu­bist – and watch­ing in 3D on an Imax screen, my eyes spent half the time stuck out on stalks, like a Tex Avery wolf. Crit­ics aren’t sup­posed to get ex­cited about Trans­form­ers films, be­cause they’re gar­ish, pan­der­ing, chaotic, ma­te­ri­al­is­tic, hawk­ish and sala­cious – as if these are nec­es­sar­ily bad things – and just gen­er­ally out to tear down the sep­tième art as we know it. Well, sorry: if you’re not stag­gered by the tech­nique on dis­play here – the stuff that sets Bay’s work miles above the Fast & Fu­ri­ouses, X-men: Apoca­lypses and Tom Cruise-chas­ing Mum­mies of this world – you’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Bay’s first live-ac­tion Trans­form­ers film – a log­i­cal next step for the di­rec­tor of The Rock, Ar­maged­don and (shud­der) Pearl Har­bor, though a coy and timid af­fair by the new ones’ stan­dards – was re­leased in 2007, and de­fend­ing these things over the 10 years since has been a lonely and point­less task. They make bil­lions ($3.8bil­lion to be ex­act, across four films to date) re­gard­less of what crit­ics write about them, which is al­most al­ways “ugh” strung out to 800 words, or there­abouts. Try en­gag­ing with them sin­cerely and peo­ple think you’ve lost your mind.

In a way that’s fair enough, be­cause the films them­selves are like Gore­tex to sin­cer­ity. In this new one – prob­a­bly the best, and by some way the weird­est, of the bunch – we dis­cover the Trans­form­ers took on the Third Re­ich and fought along­side King Arthur, with Stan­ley Tucci cameo­ing as a boozy, John Cleese-in­flected Mer­lin in the Dark Ages-set pro­logue. Mean­while in the present, An­thony Hop­kins ap­pears as the 12th Earl of Fol­gan, a noted Trans­form­ers buff whose ro­botic but­ler Cog­man is voiced by Jim Carter, aka Mr Car­son from Down­ton Abbey.

Stand by also for the Bay ver­sion of a strong fe­male char­ac­ter, as played by The In­be­tween­ers Movie’s Laura Had­dock: a young Ox­ford pro­fes­sor who’s de­scribed, both ac­cu­rately and ap­prov­ingly, as an “overe­d­u­cated ivory tower princess in a strip­per dress”. Oh, and Op­ti­mus Prime meets the Trans­form­ers God. Mark Wahlberg’s char­ac­ter is still called Cade Yea­ger.

Hop­kins, a new­comer to the fran­chise, is an in­struc­tive case study. It’s not that no di­rec­tor but Bay could have got from the ac­tor the per­for­mance he gives here, so much that no other di­rec­tor would have thought to ask for it. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously hokey and cokey, it’s a man­i­cally odd comic turn, whether the Earl is har­ing around Lon­don in a su­per­car while fend­ing off booty calls from old flames, or threat­en­ing a plummy, David Cameron-es­que Prime Min­is­ter in his Down­ing Street quar­ters with “the watch that killed Hitler”. But it also rarely drops be­low up­roar­i­ous, and is nicely abet­ted by Carter’s side­kick, whom an­other char­ac­ter brands a “C-3PO rip-off ” be­fore we get the chance.

By the time Hop­kins de­scends into the gut of a sub­ma­rine and starts wax­ing rhap­sodic about “the sour-sweet musk of men at close quar­ters”, you’re ei­ther ir­re­vo­ca­bly on board, or on board the bus home. But it’s worth bear­ing in mind that Bay’s brand of ag­gres­sive flip­pancy is a non-ne­go­tiable part of the for­mula: The Last Knight couldn’t take spec­ta­cle for its own sake to such blar­ing ex­tremes with char­ac­ters that you cared about in the con­ven­tional sense.

Do they look hot? Are they funny and/or charm­ing? For Wahlberg and Had­dock, the an­swer is yes, and any­thing be­yond that would just cre­ate drag. There’s a mo­ment when the film’s peppy pre-teen hero­ine Izzy (Is­abela Moner) in­ex­pli­ca­bly ap­pears in the mid­dle of a mil­i­tary sor­tie: Wahlberg’s char­ac­ter asks her what on earth she’s do­ing there, and she replies, with com­mend­able hon­esty, “I don’t know.”

The things that don’t work are the things that never do. The ban­ter be­tween the Au­to­bots is grat­ing in the ex­treme, and the film’s pick-and-mix at­ti­tude to cur­rent pop cul­ture is wildly undis­crim­i­nat­ing: while the Stranger Things bit is fun enough, there’s ab­so­lutely no call to pay homage to Sui­cide Squad. Bay’s bet­ter than that – and at this par­tic­u­lar tenor of obliter-tain­ment, in this par­tic­u­lar film, it of­ten feels like he’s bet­ter than any­one.

Knight to re­mem­ber: Laura Had­dock’s char­ac­ter squares up to Au­to­bot Hot Rod

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