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TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

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If Michael Bay had decided to call this half-sequel, half-reboot of his Hasbro toy franchise “Transfourmers,” the title would have been the wittiest thing in the movie, an elephantine stinker that’s the very definition of sound and fury that signifies nothing. But instead we just get a subtitle that makes you wish the bloated, puerile sludge-heap of mindless mayhem, sub-sitcom humor and chaotic plotting would go over the edge, already, and meet a well-deserved demise.

The script, credited—if that’s the proper word—solely to Ehren Kruger, who was co-writer on parts two and three, is set five years after the “battle of Chicago” that reduced much of that city to rubble last time around. (Amazingly, all the landmark buildings have been miraculously restored to their former glory in order to be wrecked again.) After a prologue that shows that the devastation of earth that killed off the dinosaurs was the result not of an asteroid collision but an attack by the transformers’ creators (a notion that will set up the emergence of what are called “legendary warriors” in the final reel—presumably aficionados of the toys will understand this), focus switches to our new human hero. He’s Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, replacing Shia LaBeouf), a self-styled rural Texas inventor/robotics engineer who finds a half-wrecked old truck cab while plowing through the debris in a long-shuttered theatre and, taking it back to his barn for work, discovers it’s actually old Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), whom he brings back to mechanical life.

That sets off alarms with sinister CIA black-ops specialist Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who’s been waging a secret war to wipe out all remaining Autobots—and is willing to trample on citizens’ civil rights, even that to life, in doing so—while seeking to feather his own nest prior to retirement. He’s in league with the Autobots’ new nemesis, a Decepticon bounty hunter called Lockdown (Mark Ryan), to whom he’s pledged to turn over Optimus in return for a “seed,” which will serve as the source of the mind-malleable element humans have none too imaginatively dubbed transformium, the source of the transformers’ power to—well, transform. Attinger will turn over the seed to his other colleague in malfeasance, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), the head of KSI Industries, who will employ the material to assemble an army of earth-controlled transformers to serve as a defense against alien invaders (as making lots of moolah off its other potential uses). The prototype, Galvatron (Frank Welker), is already operational, cobbled together from bits and pieces of the defeated Megatron—not a good sign if one’s seen all the Frankenstein movies in which the monster is ruined by having the brain of a killer implanted in it.

Anyway, Attinger sends his henchman Savoy (Titus Welliver) to retrieve Optimus, which he attempts via heavy-handed threats to Yeager, his nubile seventeen-year old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and his doofus, surf-obsessed partner Lucas (T.J. Miller). They escape, due to the intervention of Tessa’s secret boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), who just happens to be a race-car driver, but in doing so become as big a target for Attinger and his minions as Optimus and the surviving Autobots he calls out of hiding—Ratchet (Robert Foxworth), Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe), Crosshairs (John DiMaggio), and the voiceless Bumblebee—to make up a dirty half-dozen. (Later little Brains, voiced by Reno Wilson, will be freed from Joyce’s lab to join the group.)

It would take laborious effort to disentangle the narrative chaos of the rest of the movie. Suffice it to say that it first involves humans and Autobots staging a raid on Joyce’s stateside building in Chicago, which leads to much over-the-top action, to a battle inside and outside Lockdown’s massive spaceship, with humans dangling from cords attached to the old Sears Tower, to a final showdown in Hong Kong, where Joyce, realizing the error of his ways, has joined forces with the Yeagers against Attinger and Savoy while Optimus and his fellow Autobots—with the aid of those legendary warriors, which can transform into mechanical dinosaurs—take on Galvatron, Lockdown and their myriad bots. Frankly it’s difficult to tell what’s happening and why for much of the running-time, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s all just an excuse for a constant stream of CGI set-pieces filled with frantic chases, innumerable hair’s-breadth escapes, gargantuan-scaled fights, massive explosions and endless collapsing buildings, all delivered with in-your face 3D effects by cinematographer Amir Mokri (debuting the new Imax digital 3D camera) and ear-pulverizing audio, the latter courtesy not only of Steve Jablonsky’s bellowing score but Peter J. Devlin’s Dolby Atmos/Datasat ratcheted-up sound design.

The latter, unfortunately, also allows one to hear the painful dialogue, not only the stentorian pronouncements by Optimus, Galvatron and Lockdown and the unfunny banter of the other Autobots (with Goodman’s Hound especially irritating) but the snarling banalities delivered by Grammer and Welliver, as well as the pompous directives—and later screaming hysterics—assigned to Tucci’s master-of-the-universe-turned-cowardly–good-guy Joyce.

Worst of all, however, is the juvenile badinage among the other human characters. All that Kruger has been able to think of to give Wahlberg’s hero any character is to have him be an obsessively protective dad, which sets up a stream of supposedly humorous zingers between him and Shane (whom he calls “Lucky Charms”) that are beneath the standards of any respectable sitcom writer. Reynor’s responses are equally vapid. As for Peltz, she’s given little to say apart from damsel-in-distress banalities. But talk isn’t her major function: wearing short-shorts that would have made Daisy Duke blush, she’s there merely to provide eye-candy for the drooling adolescent boys who represent a big chunk of Bay’s target audience—in other words, she’s the new Megan Fox. Happily, one has to endure the witless surfer-dude ramblings of Miller’s Lucas relatively briefly. His abrupt disappearance is meant to be a crushing blow, but given how annoying the character is (not the talented Miller’s fault), what happens to him is more likely to cause relief rather than regret.

Obviously in such circumstances acting is a secondary concern, but it must be said that Wahlberg, as usual, handles the physical demands of his part well. Grammer and Welliver are terrible in every sense, and there’s an especially bad turn by Thomas Lennon as a nervous White House Chief of Staff, which doesn’t bode well for the new “Odd Couple” series in which he’ll play Felix Unger against Matthew Perry’s Oscar Madison. Coming off best is Tucci, simply because he’s one of those actors one can admire for trying even when he’s mired in complete schlock.

One can appreciate “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” as far as that’s possible, for doing in spades what Michael Bay does best: blowing things up real good and filling the screen with endless, overwrought action, enhanced in this instance by the Imax 3D format (used with absolute abandon, since subtlety in any respect is not part of Bay’s vocabulary), and ear-splitting sound system. (The picture is scheduled for release in 2D and regular 3D as well, though it would be a shame to forgo the really big screen option in this instance, since the visual and aural overkill—which extends to the brutal 165-minute running-time—is really all the movie has going for it.) You also have to give the project some back-handed credit for realizing that a big portion in gross potential will come from the Asian market and deciding to pander to that audience by setting the final confrontation in China, where viewers will probably leap at the chance to see their locales smashed to smithereens as much as U.S. ones enjoyed watching the White House blown up in “Independence Day”—a sad commentary on the mentality of today’s worldwide moviegoers.

Except for those who desire for some reason to immerse themselves in such brainless bombast, or fans who, whatever their chronological age, still play with the dolls that inspired the series (or remember them with nostalgia), it’s hard to imagine that anybody will glean much enjoyment from this fourth installment in a franchise that should have been relegated to the scrap heap long ago but, given the realities of today’s Hollywood, will probably go rumbling on indefinitely, raking in billions. Go figure.

SABOTAGE

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Those who go to “Sabotage” expecting an enjoyably old-fashioned Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle will be very unpleasantly surprised, though the fact that it was co-written and directed by David Ayer (who wrote “Training Day” and both wrote and directed “End of Watch”) should serve as a forewarning. Like his previous pictures this is a grim, blood-soaked, very ugly exercise in mayhem and macho action, in which the Governator broods sullenly throughout. It’s one of those movies you come out of feeling the need for a shower—and not because you’ve been sweating with excitement.

Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the head of a DEA Special Ops team composed of agents so buffed up and grubby looking that they can go undercover on the seamiest missions. Among the crew are James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington) and his wacked-out, spitfire wife Lizzy (Mireille Enos); Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello); Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway); Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard); Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini); Bryce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance); and “Smoke” Jennings (Mark Schlegel). The lucky ones in this collection are Enos, the only woman, Howard, the sole African-American, and Worthington, who gets to sport a goatee that at least distinguishes him from the other guys, who all seem pretty interchangeable in their hard-ass biker gear. But on the other hand it’s doubtful one would particularly want to be recognizable in this context.

Anyway, we don’t get to know Jennings at all because he’s literally smoked in the opening sequence, a bloody incursion into a cartel-controlled mansion that the team uses as a diversion for them to swipe a sizable portion of the cash on hand even as their boss Demel (Martin Donovan) watches from afar before blowing up the remainder to conceal the theft. That prologue introduces what become Ayer’s motifs for the rest of the picture. First, there’s lots of explicit violence and gore. Second, there’s an abundance of scatological humor, from constant would-be jokes about flatulence and body parts to an extended bit of business involving a toilet overflowing with excrement that he and cinematographer Bruce McCleery push into our faces repeatedly. These become the two refrains that punctuate the picture, but Ayer refines them as he proceeds, showing a particular fondness for torture scenes (Wharton’s wife and son were abducted and brutally murdered by Mexican drug lords, who were kind enough to film the procedure for his obsessive viewing), blood-splattered corpses (sometimes in CSI examining rooms) and close-range shootings, most of them directly to the head. A scene toward the close in which a body has been put in deep freeze is particularly vile.

The team’s elaborate theft comes to naught, anyway, because when they go to retrieve the loot from the sewer where they’d stashed it (an ironically appropriate venue), it’s gone. The DEA suspects them of being dirty but can’t prove it (we get lots of dumb interrogation scenes), and must put them back on the street. And the cartel doesn’t much care whether they have the dough or not—the fact that they stole it is quite enough—and sends out a squad of hit men to knock them all off, one by one. We get to witness three of the assassinations in grisly detail, lucky us.

By now a cute but determined Atlanta police detective, Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau) are on the case, and almost before you know it, she and Wharton are—quite implausibly—getting romantically involved. What follows is an increasingly twisty, but persistently brutal and overwrought, plot that casts suspicion not only on the cartel hit squad but on members of the team itself. A car chase and an old West-style shootout bring things to a conclusion smeared with blood and awash in dead bodies.

“Sabotage”—like Ayer’s previous film—is a grotesquely nasty piece of work that’s meant to provide exhilaratingly over-the-top action but ends up a rancid, nihilistic wallow in cynicism and gore. Schwarzenegger is apparently trying to act the part of a damaged man on a mission, but his performance basically consists of little more than generic sullenness and the ability to chomp on an apparently inexhaustible supply of cigars. Most of other actors in his team are wasted (especially Howard, who’s capable of good work), but Enos certainly takes scenery-chewing honors. Williams, on the other hand, brings a nicely starched dignity to her role, and Perrineau is genial and loose. Of course as mere cops they’re always several steps behind the curve, but the audience is meant to be, too. (We’re not.) On the technical side the picture isn’t much, either, though admittedly Ayer, McCleery and editor Dody Dorn wring some visceral tension out of sequences like one in which the crew invade an apartment building to capture—or preferably kill—the assassins who are out to get them. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen done better before.

Even the title is off. Who’s the saboteur and what does he sabotage? One presumes the authors just needed a catchy one-word moniker that would promise something dark and nefarious. If so, they’ve succeeded in a certain sense, because this movie is very dark indeed, and nefarious in claiming to be entertainment when it offers none.