Before its release, few would have predicted that “The Last Knight” could actually be the last movie (save for the announced Bumblebee spin-off) in the formerly surefire “Transformers” franchise, but it appears Optimus Prime is facing his greatest nemesis yet: apathetic moviegoers. The lukewarm box office so far is especially shocking since the last film – “Age of Extinction” – pulled in $1.1 billion three years ago, but it appears that the general disinterest by audiences in anything this summer not related to Marvel or DC has infected Paramount’s cash cow as well.
Tough Guy Digest has always had mixed feelings about the “Transformers” movies, but we appreciate that they are the rare blockbusters nowadays with a distinct personality; that personality of course belonging to director Michael Bay for better (gorgeous visuals, spectacular action and special effects) and worse (punishingly long runtimes, any attempt at comedy). To get different perspectives we sent CJ, a diehard believer in the gospel of St. Michael, and Kevin, a skeptic who still appreciates certain aspects of the Church of Transformers, to check out the latest entry and report back:
Kevin: CJ as the resident “Transformers” expert among us, let’s start our discussion by seeing if you can summarize the plot of “The Last Knight” in three sentences or less.
CJ: This is a trick question, as truly great movies need more than three sentences to describe the plot. For example:
“District 9” – An alien race lands in South Africa, develops slums, and wastes away as humans steal their technology. Meanwhile, Sharlto Copley slowly turns into an alien while trying to help the aliens return home. It is a VERY SUBTLE take on apartheid.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” – Tom Hardy drives for a couple of hours. He turns around and comes home. No need for a third sentence.
On the other hand:
2017 Best Picture “Transformers: The Last Knight” – Transformers have been around since the time of Merlin, who is totally real, appearing in various important battles over time that are depicted in art but that we collectively pretend not to notice. Several of these Transformers have been sworn to protect the world from Unicron, a planet-sized evil Transformer who is actually Earth itself and who has been lying dormant for centuries. Optimus Prime has been chosen by Quintessa, who created him, to unite Earth and Cybertron so Cybertron can suck the life out of Earth unless Mark Wahlberg can hit him on the head hard enough so that his memory jogs back to normal. Bonus fourth sentence: A clock killed Hitler.
Kevin: Yes let’s go back to that whole pre-credits sequence in which we get the official Michael Bay-approved version of the King Arthur legend (which means we might as well go ahead and burn the negatives of any previous cinematic interpretations by the likes of John Boorman, Antoine Fuqua, or Guy Ritchie). “The Last Knight” actually incorporates the part of Fuqua’s “King Arthur” which posited Arthur as a half Roman-Celtic general and Merlin as a non-magical guy, and adds a few things not in Fuqua’s film like a flying three-headed robot dragon. It turns out that Merlin’s “magic” is actually divine intervention by some Transformers, and in fact not only do they help Arthur and his men win a major battle, but after that each of the 12 Knights of the Round Table is shadowed by his own Transformer at all times, like a spirit animal or a bodyguard who follows behind Justin Bieber everywhere.
I’m not sure though how a sword named Excalibur that a bunch of British drunks couldn’t pull out of a rock became such a lasting part of the Arthur legend, but their giant sword-wielding metal companions somehow never got mentioned. Also not sure why Stanley Tucci plays Merlin here when he played a completely unrelated modern-day character in “Age of Extinction,” or how the Transformers decide whether to take sides in different conflicts. Apparently Bumblebee kicked ass for the Allies in WWII, but I guess he was a conscientious objector in Vietnam.
CJ: I would see any “Michael Bay-approved version of…” film because it would take the story I slightly know and make it wildly more interesting than what actually happened. For instance, in the Bay version of “Steve Jobs,” Jobs would be on the hunt to develop the iPod. His search takes him across the globe as he tracks down only the best pieces of circuitry. During all this, a clandestine group of ne’er-do-wells using prototype weaponry and evil Rottweilers are hunting him down because only his mind can unlock ancient secrets to free Greek gods and set them loose upon the world. This culminates in an epic battle where Zeus throws down lighting strikes as he faces down evil Titans. What about the iPod search from the beginning you might ask? Shut up nerds, Bay would answer!
Apparently people are getting annoyed at Bay for inserting the Transformers into history, which I am confused by because they loved seeing the X-Men fight on a beach during the Cuban Missile Crisis or Captain America apparently fighting every single Nazi during WWII. So which is it guys, can all these made up characters be in history or not? Maybe if Bumblebee sleepwalked through his lines like Jennifer Lawrence people would have liked “The Last Knight” more.
Also, I’m pretty sure Bumblebee didn’t fight in ‘Nam cause they were the ones making toys based on him. Can’t hurt the moneymakers Kevin.
Kevin: After this we discover that apparently new Transformers keep falling to Earth and getting into random destructive street brawls with each other, so essentially turning all of Earth into South Boston at 3 a.m. on any given Saturday night. Oh yeah, and remember how Optimus ended the last movie by flying off into space and vowing to put an end to all this destruction once and for all by taking out the main villain himself? Well when we first glimpse him in “The Last Knight” he’s frozen solid and floating aimlessly through space. Good job Optimus!
Then the movie does not exactly get off to the greatest start when it threatens to turn into “Transformer Babies” with the introduction of some obnoxious kids and an orphan named Izabella, who has an adorable pet Transformer named Squeak and a protector robot named Canopy. And yes, it appears that his main job is to act as a canopy, which is why it’s not too surprising when he gets easily taken out by the Transformer Reaction Force (TRF) led by returning series vet Josh Duhamel. Tyrese Gibson sits this one out though, which made it kind of awkward when CJ showed up to the theater in his Sgt. Robert Epps cosplay outfit (no blackface though, so save your angry tweets).
We soon learn that Izabella is a spunky, empowered, no-nonsense, and opinionated pre-teen girl, so obviously she is incredibly annoying and you want her to die immediately. I’m guessing she and Squeak were studio-mandated additions meant to “broaden” the appeal of “Transformers” over Bay’s objections (I could easily see an “Adventures of Izzy and Squeak” animated spin-off in our near future), because that’s just one less smoking hot chick he could be objectifying in a movie aimed at kids. Anyway he obviously hates her as much as we do because he thankfully sidelines her as soon as possible until nearly the end of the film.
Either way, Boston-born native Texan Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) runs in to save the day, and the “who gives a shit, let’s just get to the next scene” quality of this franchise is again confirmed when we immediately cut from the previous scene in Chicago to his hideout in South Dakota that he apparently gets back to in like 20 minutes. Apparently Cade has been “hiding” right out in the open in a giant junkyard with some of the Autobots from the last film, including that giant Dinobot who hopefully will finally get to do something badass in the next sequel that may not happen. Cade also has an assistant played by Jerrod Carmichael, who doesn’t really have any funny lines but I guess is supposed to be comic relief since Bay just inherently finds anything black people do or say hysterical.
CJ: Yeah you laugh at Optimus for “floating aimlessly,” yet amid the vastness of space he somehow ended up exactly where he wanted to be, which is in fact the opposite of aimlessness. I’d actually call that “slow flying to conserve energy with intent.” So in fact, GOOD JOB OPTIMUS!
Regarding the character of Izabella, I’d like to think Bay’s critics at least gave him credit for finally listening to their demands to cast an independent female role model for the young girls in the audience to aspire to. Let me check … nope, apparently strong female characters only matter if critics like the movie. That seems convenient. That being said, I’m also glad she disappeared for two reasons. First, no one likes child actors, ever. Second, the less screen time she has, the fewer chances Bay has to shoot her in a way that makes everyone in the theater REALLY uncomfortable.
Kevin: At least no one in this movie carried around a laminated card in his wallet detailing the age-of-consent laws in the state of Texas as in “Age of Extinction.” I actually thought that one might have had a credit at the end saying “For more information about fucking your teenage girlfriend in any particular state, visit www.MichaelBay.com …”
But yes Optimus manages to crash land right onto Cybertron, and as usual one of the first things this beloved children’s toy says is, “I’LL KILL YOU!” to an evil robotic sprite named Quintessa. Now after four movies of Optimus posturing as the greatest warrior in Transformers history even while routinely having his ass handed to him, I was not surprised to see him be overtaken immediately by a female robot 1/27th his size. Quintessa also has the power to turn Optimus evil and then keep him off screen for the next hour and a half.
But taking over his screentime is our boy Megatron, who is second only to Marvel’s Thanos in the “constantly making empty threats without ever following up on them” department. Both Megatron and the U.S. government are after a talisman that one of the original Transformer Knights gives to Cade before dying, which somehow will lead to a staff given to Merlin that could kill everyone on Earth if it falls into the wrong hands (although judging from what we’ve seen in this franchise, if it falls into the Autobots’ hands it will only kill half the people on Earth). I have to say I do inherently love any movie where characters say dialogue like, “Without the talisman I cannot possess the staff!” with complete sincerity.
Anyway Megatron somehow convinces the TRF to work with him and release a bunch of his comrades, and the movie briefly turns into an all-robot remake of “Suicide Squad” as we get mini introductions for all these colorful villains who we will quickly forget about after the movie sidelines them as well until nearly the end.
I should point out that after the grief he got from the first two “Transformers” for the allegedly racist overtones of Jazz (whose first line of dialogue is “What’s crackin’ little bitches?”) and Skids and Mudflap …
… you would think that Bay would shy away from anything potentially “problematic,” but he obviously could give two shits since one of Megatron’s comrades might as well be called “Problematicon.” I’m surprised there hasn’t been the usual chorus of outrage, but maybe that’s because no one can determine who should be offended since this thing contains like 14 potential stereotypes put together, including gold chains, smooth dance moves, and a vaguely foreign hip hop patois. I feel like if Arthur and his Knights had their own proud Transformer mascots, this guy would be the mascot for the Haitian drug gang in “Bad Boys II.”
CJ: (Slips unidentified laminated card back into wallet.)
Once again, you fail to see the true leadership and strategic genius of Optimus. Prime allows himself to be defeated numerous times in order to constantly throw the bad guys off. If you were plotting a world takeover and all that was in your way was a guy you’ve beaten up many times, you’d let your guard down and open yourself up to mistakes, AND THAT’S WHEN HE STRIKES! If anything, we should be impressed that over five movies Optimus has been able to thwart everyone by essentially employing a rope-a-dope (just like Ali-Foreman, or better yet Rocky against Clubber in “Rocky III”).
As for Quintessa, Optimus is showing how gender-friendly he is. Unlike actors like Vin Diesel, who want us to believe he can beat up The Rock, Optimus has no qualms with letting a girl beat him up. He doesn’t subscribe to today’s misogynistic culture, nor does he employ a condescending #feminism mentality. Bay simply asks him to take a beating from the girl and Prime puts his ego aside and goes along with the script (because he is real). Frankly I found it rather refreshing.
It’s a little disappointing that the 30-second “Suicide Squad”-type montage was not only better than all of “Suicide Squad” itself, but also contained more action than the real movie did. And regarding your point about him either not listening to or caring about past criticisms, I think Michael Bay’s nickname should be “Double Down,” because while other directors/writers immediately shrink and cater to whatever overly whiny complains critics have, Bay refuses to do so. For example:
Complaint: Michael Bay’s movies are just a bunch of explosions.
Double Down: The stars above the Paramount logo before the opening credits of “The last Knight” turn into giant fireballs that explode.
Complaint: Marvel and DC and all these movies should never kill innocent people.
Double Down: Cybertron rips through Earth, smashes pyramids, and generally kills millions of people and hardly anyone seems to care.
Complaint: Racist jokes are terrible.
Double Down: Every Michael Bay movie.
And you know why, because right now he is on a boat with a dozen 23-year-old blonds all lined up outside his bedroom. What are any of YOU currently up to?
Kevin: Back to the movie, Cade escapes an ambush by Megatron and the TRF and is rescued by a snooty robot butler named Cogman belonging to Sir Anthony Hopkins, which leads to easily my favorite stretch of any of these movies. There is no action at all here, just a confused Mark Wahlberg in a giant English estate listening to Hopkins spout insane exposition and it’s goddamn delightful. I have no idea if Bay or Hopkins decided he should act like a very refined mental patient with split personality disorder, but either way he is hilarious.
Later there is a car chase in which Hopkins just yells random nonsensical shit out the window and gives people the finger while his robot butler sings “Mooooove bitch, get out tha’ way!” by Ludacris, and I’m sure some will call it his lowest moment as an actor, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the highlight of his career.
During this second act we also have to observe an important milestone for Michael Bay: For the first time ever, the lead actress in one of his movie looks like she is over 30 and didn’t have to audition by washing his car in a bikini. Laura Haddock plays a museum curator who is descended from Merlin, making her the Last Knight. No wait, I think Mark Wahlberg actually turned out to be the Last Knight. Shit now I can’t remember who the Last Knight was (Bumblebee maybe?).
Either way, as a woman of class and refinement she is totally turned off by Wahlberg’s boorish manners, macho confidence, and bulging biceps, and if you know anything about women in movies, especially women in Michael Bay movies, you can be sure that her feelings will not change at all during the film. The two of them also continue a recurring theme in the movie about science and education vs. recklessly following your gut instinct as an uneducated American. You’ll never guess which side of that argument Bay’s movie sides with.
CJ: I’d just like to second your thoughts on Hopkins’ role, which was much larger than I thought it would be. When I first learned he would be in the movie and have a robot butler, I was fully expecting them to be super refined English gentlemen. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that apparently this was their character description in the script: “just total dicks.” And my god did it work! There was a weirdly hilarious relationship between the two that was almost like a marriage, with Cogman constantly griping about having anger issues and Hopkins telling him to channel that anger. Channel it into what, cooking and cleaning!
I did enjoy Haddock in this movie, as she proves herself to be the smartest character yet when Cade claims to be an inventor and she follows up with, “What have you invented?,” which leaves him speechless. You may think she asked that because she was skeptical of a random stranger’s bold claims, but I’d like to think Bay was really using this scene as comment on society. And that no one believes Mark Wahlberg can invent things (for proof, watch any Marky Mark interview).
Kevin: I almost forgot to mention that because Bay’s comedic sensibility was honed by “Three’s Company,” there is a scene where Walhberg and Haddock are tearing apart her father’s office looking for a clue to find the staff, but her mother and a bunch of dowdy old British ladies downstairs think they are totally doing it and seem to even get turned on a little. I can’t decide if this scene is funnier than the one in “Bad Boys II” when an entire Best Buy thinks it’s overhearing Will Smith and Martin Lawrence talk about having gay sex with each other, but it doesn’t matter since they are both the two funniest scenes in cinematic history.
Anyway Hopkins helps everyone escape in a submarine, with the TRF in hot pursuit (seriously no matter where you go or what mode of transportation you use, the TRF is always right behind). Eventually they find Merlin’s staff which can only be wielded by Haddock, while Walhberg’s talisman turns into a giant Excaliber type sword. Finally evil Optimus shows up and dukes it out with Bumblebee, and eventually he regains his memory in one of the only two ways that can happen in movies or TV: 1) Get hit on the head by a coconut, or 2) Hear something poignant from a loved one that snaps him out of it. In case you are wondering it’s 2.
Anyway, after this happened I went to the bathroom for like two minutes and when I returned there was a giant battle in the sky above Stonehenge, and Egypt and Singapore were getting destroyed off screen (I guess they are not the kind of important foreign markets that “The Last Knight” will need to turn a profit). So what did I miss CJ and why was this going on over Scotland’s biggest tourist attraction? And also what was the point of Tony Hale’s character since all he does is complain that none of these idiots are listening to his “I fucking love science!” solution for taking out Quintessa’s ship, but then when they finally try it and we think he’s about to be vindicated, it doesn’t work at all?
CJ: Happy to explain! You see, the ship they uncover deep in the ocean is actually a key, and the keyhole is Stonehenge, which would thus awaken Unicron and allow Cybertron to suck from Earth’s sweet teat. And since no one actually knows what Stonehenge is for, this explanation is as perfectly plausible as any other.
I actually loved watching Tony Hale scream out “science!” while defiantly raising his fist in the air. But what I loved even more was him going “so if we shoot these rope things, then that piece of planet will swing down and knock out any weaponry.” Fast forward to the chunk of planet swinging down, destroying everything, and leaving us with nothing but the screams of terrified soldiers and Autobots as they run for their lives. We then watch Hale drop his head in defeat, and the only thing that would have been better would have been if the failure music from “The Price is Right” started playing.
At this point I would like our readers to know that, yes, I was enjoying every single moment of this movie. I loved it so hard!
Kevin: Either way I’ll refrain from spoiling how the movie ends, plus I was on my third beer so some of the details are a little hazy right now anyway. Before we conclude is there anything else you’d like to mention about “The Last Knight”? And where does this rank among the films for you?
I still like “Revenge of the Fallen” the best of all the “Transformers” films because it contains every Michael Bay trademark (hot chicks lovingly ogled by the camera, near pornographic fetishization of cars and military weaponry, nihilistic disregard for human lives, “questionable” racial humor) cranked up to 11. After that I’d say “Dark of the Moon” since it has probably the best action, with this newest one squarely in the middle. I can’t recall any particularly memorable action scenes, and it is really missing a decent villain like Kelsey Grammer from “Age of Extinction” (the TRF is actually the main antagonist for much of the film and they’re not even really bad guys), but the addition of Hopkins and the weird King Arthur mythology make up for a sluggish start.
CJ: I’ll spoil it: we win! U-S-A! U-S-A!
As for the rankings, goodness, why not make Michael Phelps rank his gold medals while we’re at it? So I have two lists. The first is based purely on action, which I would rank them as 3, 1, 2, 4, 5. I know 1 seems a little high as the action wasn’t insane and Bay hadn’t figured out that you probably shouldn’t zoom in on trucks that talk, but one element it had that I think added a lot to the final fight was that the Decepticons were still very scary and you weren’t sure how evil they would be, as opposed to the later movies where they were just kinda weird and non-threatening.
In terms of overall movie value, I’d rank them 1, 3, 4, 5, 2. Where Bay undeniably excels is that the ante is upped pretty well with each movie, whereas we see a lot of other franchises repeat the same old beats (Marvel by a factor of a million), not really know where to take the story (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), or make insane illogical leaps (“Fast & Furious”). Speaking of, for the people who gave this a bad score but praised any of the recent “Furious” movies, you have to be kidding me right?
As for the series as a whole, I genuinely do love these movies. They provide top-notch CGI, visuals, and spectacle, and you see something very different from what everyone else is doing. To those who wanna hate, well, you guys also complain about whether Spider-Man’s webbing shoots organically out of his wrists or through some contraption he made. As we can all figure out, if it was “Michael Bay’s Spider-Man,” at some point there’d be a joke about it shooting out of his dick.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s giant cars that stand up and beat the shit out of each other. What else do you want?
Post Script: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the significant character arc we have seen Optimus Prime go through over the course of this series, especially regarding his dedication to keeping the people of Earth safe.
“Transformers”: “Protect humans at all cost.”
“Revenge of the Fallen”: “Protect humans at all cost, and 20 minutes into the movie the cost turned out to be my life.”
“Dark of the Moon”: “Humans have lied to us and apparently some work with Megatron, so maybe we should abandon these assholes. Still, try not to kill anyone if you can.”
“Age of Extinction”: “Now humans are hunting us. I’m gonna kill Frasier but that’s it.”
“The Last Knight”: “I’m killing anyone who talks to me.”
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