Transformers (fight 3 of 3)

In which Michael Bay gives us the titanic struggle between hero and the villain. After he’s done showing us a Mountain Dew machine come to life, of course.

3) Optimus Prime vs Megatron

The Fighters:

  • Optimus Prime, still the heroic leader of the Autobots and still voiced by Peter Cullen.
    • Armed with: Oddly, Prime’s awesome energy sword is nowhere to be found in this desperate struggle, very odd considering how it was used in his previous fight and how much action it sees in the sequels. He does produce a gun from somewhere in his fuselage, though. Alternate form is still a big truck.
  • Megatron, tyrannical leader of the Decepticons. Freshly awoken from suspended animation at the Hoover Dam (!). Voiced by an almost unrecognizable Hugo Weaving, better known as Agent Smith from the Matrix series.
    • Armed with: a powerful fusion cannon, which like Optimus he just sort of generates out of his own body. His alternate form is some kind of Cybertronian jet. In the cartoon he just turned into a big gun. Oh well.

There’s also Sam Witwicky, a smart-aleck teenager who’s holding the Allspark, played by Shia LeBeouf. Various other good & bad Transformers are battling it out in the background, along with the US military. And a bunch of civilians whose day is getting ruined.

The Setup: The pursuit of the Allspark has come to a head in downtown Mission City, a fictional burg of at least moderate size located somewhere in the American Southwest. The bad guys are there to destroy their remaining opposition, but they’re also trying to retrieve the MacGuffin from Sam’s puny flesh hands. The heroes are fighting outnumbered against the Decepticons, and things get worse when big daddy Megatron arrives. Optimus Prime pulls up in truck form not long after (but unfortunately too late to stop his nemesis from killing Black Robot Jazz), and Bay’s camera gives the virtuous Autobot a full tongue-bath, drawing out the transformation for an oddly long time and panning around him as triumphant music swells. Cheesy, but it works.

Similarly, I genuinely cherish the cliched moment when hero & villain lock eyes, and call out each other’s names: “Megatron.” “Prime!” With just one word each, the actors’ different deliveries manage to say a lot about their respective characters: Optimus’ voice is full of anger & grim determination, Megatron greets his old rival with a tone of sadistic relish. Let’s do this thing.

The Fight: Megatron opens with a bold move by turning back into his jet form (the inverse of what Barricade did) and charging forward; Prime grabs on from underneath and they crash through a building that is quite deliberately shown to be full of people. Sucks to be them. Once back on the ground the villain returns to robot form and they bash each other around while trading dialogue. Some of the lines don’t really make any sense*, but some work quite well, such as the villain punctuating a blow with “Join them in extinction!” (“Them” being humanity.)

[*Megatron: “Humans don’t deserve to live!” Optimus: “They deserve to choose for themselves!” Uh, what? We deserve to choose whether or not we live? Seems like that choice is a no-brainer. Are these two having separate discussions or is this whole exchange some kind of fumbled abortion metaphor? Because like Shia LeBeouf’s boxers, that’s not something anyone came to this movie for.]

Soon enough they both pull out their guns and start trading shots. Cybertronian guns are kind of weird and inconsistent in this film series: sometimes they are about as damaging/lethal as real guns are against real people (tearing holes through them and such), but other times they seem to just chip a few hit points off the target and push them backward. Anyway, this seems to be the latter case, because Prime’s gun only irritates Megatron whereas the bad guy’s fusion blast sends Optimus flying through the air to hit a building. He grunts and doesn’t get up; one Wiki summary says he’s knocked unconscious, but it’s kind of hard to tell with robots.

Either way he’s out of the action for the next several minutes, which are largely filled by Megatron chasing down Sam. Prime manages to rescue the boy just in time, but in a way that sends all three of them falling several hundred feet. The fight nominally resumes when the two aliens recover, but at this point it’s pretty much over, because Optimus is much weakened and mostly gets tossed around by Megatron. There’s some more decent dialogue: “Now it’s just you and me.” “No, Prime, it’s just ME!”

Eventually the hero can no longer move, and it’s up to the Air Force to carpet bomb Megatron, though that only slows him down enough so that Sam can kill the Decepticon by holding the Allspark right up the his chest plate. See, the device’s energy can bring normally inanimate machines to life, but when held close to a living Transformer’s heart, it kills them. Sure, why not.

This is not as infuriating as the movie’s first pathetic excuse for a “fight,” but it’s still very disappointing. The showdown basically happens in two different stages, the break being after Prime is flung away by Megatron’s cannon. The first part is cool but ends just as it starts to pick up steam; the second part barely registers and mostly consists of the film’s great “hero” getting his butt kicked, to the point where it’s up to humans to save the day. (This is extra strange considering how the film’s previous fight went out of its way to sell Optimus’ supreme combat abilities, as do the movie’s sequels.)

This is more evidence that in Michael Bay’s Transformers series (or at least in this movie), Optimus Prime is actually not the hero, Sam Witwicky is. Sam and the US military. The Transformers are pushed to the sideline in a franchise with their name on it. So from that angle it’s understandable that the fleshy, non-transforming characters get to steal so much of the spotlight, but I ask yet again: Did you come to a Transformers movie to see a story about a bunch of humans?

To be sure, there is a lot that’s competent and effective about this whole sequence, even if much of it trades on the characters’ established legacy. But what ought to be the centerpiece of the action here trails off quickly, and finishes unsatisfactorily. If this was Iron Man and it was their one minor stumble after a parade of successes, I’d be more charitable, but it isn’t so I’m not. I sat through over two hours of unfunny jokes and lame “romance” just to get here. I watched Optimus Prime step on a suburban mom’s flower bed and say “my bad.” I do not feel generous.

Grade: C-

Recommended Links: It’s kind of astonishing just how many errors this movie made.

Interesting AV Club essay about the works of Michael Bay.

The movie I’m counting on to succeed where Transformers failed.

Coming Attractions: Turns out a “serious” filmmaker can make a better action movie than the action filmmaker, if he puts his mind to it.

Don’t look THAT surprised.

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Transformers (fight 2 of 3)

Well it took about 5/6ths of a 2 hour+ movie, but Michael Bay was able to deliver some goods.

pew pew

2) Optimus Prime vs Bonecrusher

The Fighters:

  • Optimus Prime (whose original Japanese name was the rather uninspiring “Chief Convoy.” So… U-S-A! U-S-A!), heroic leader of the Autobots. Voiced by longtime vocal actor Peter Cullen, who also played Prime in the 1980s cartoon.
    • Armed with: Mainly, a glowing energy sword that deploys from his arm. Currently “disguised” as Peterbilt 379 truck cab, though without the character’s iconic trailer (boo!).
  • Bonecrusher, a Decepticon. Voiced by Jim Wood.
    • Armed with: His main weapon is an articulated arm with grabber claw (it comes from his vehicle form), which he uses a bit like a scorpion’s tail. Which is kind of weird because there’s already a scorpion robot in the movie, but whatever. Currently “disguised” as a Buffalo MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored vehicle.

The Setup: The heroes have the Allspark MacGuffin, but chief bad guy Megatron has been awakened and rallied all Decepticons on planet in pursuit. Bonecrusher seems to have gotten there first, and switches to robot form right there on a crowded freeway and starts smashing up civilian cars in his path. Optimus is having none of that, because “not getting crushed by a huge alien while driving to work” is the right of all sentient beings.

The Fight: Bonecrusher gets the first move with a running tackle that sends them both plummeting off road onto another freeway below. Once they both get up Optimus takes control of the fight and slow-mo uppercuts (you can see Bonecrusher’s eye rattle as the punch connects) the Decepticon so hard he falls down even further, onto the car-free underpass. The Decepticon rallies and is still down to fight, but Prime makes a canny use of a support pillar as cover– he dodges Bonecrusher’s lunging “tail” and quietly unsheathes his blade. When the villain moves in from the other side, Optimus is ready to slash him, then grabs him in a headlock and jams the energy sword through Bonecrusher’s skull. Vertically.

NEXT.

On one level, this is not much of a fight; it actually lasts slightly shorter than what we saw of the previous confrontation. But oh, what a difference a few details make.

First of all, it’s short but we see all of it. There is only the briefest of cutaways to some puny humans: a nearby child shouts “cool, Mommy!” which is mildly irritating at worst; I mean, it’s not like he’s incorrect, and it more complements the flow of the action rather than breaks it up. The brevity is also a function of the nature of this skirmish, its purpose in the plot being to establish Optimus’ toughness, as well as how this film’s version differs from the Prime most 80s kids knew– in addition to being inspiring and courageous, he’s also a ruthlessly efficient killer. Therefore, it’s less of a fight and more of a beatdown. Note that a second plot purpose has been served because between the short fight and the two-story drop, Optimus is separated from his companions, and will thus be making a fashionably late entrance to the climactic throwdown.

Speaking of that two-story drop, it plays very well on-screen and really helps sell the scope of the battle/the power of the combatants. The scene is shot in broad daylight, so all the details of the multi-level battle are perfectly clear, and while the steady concussion of Steve Jablonsky’s musical score is a bit generic, it serves the action nicely.

More would have been nicer, but more will come soon enough, and the improvement is much appreciated.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: For such a powerful character, Optimus Prime sure does die a lot.

Coming Attractions: The final battle (for this movie anyway) ensues. One shall stand, one shall fall, and one irritating human shall get to do the honors for some reason.

You’ll always be my Megatron, Frank.

Transformers (fight 1 of 3)

“I asked Michael, ‘wouldn’t it be easier for NASA to train astronauts how to drill rather than training drillers to be astronauts?’ and he told me to shut the f*** up.” – Ben Affleck, Armageddon DVD commentary

And then he made Argo.

Oh, Mister Bay. How you vex me.

These movies are famous. Infamous, really. They made zillions of dollars and absorbed just as many critical potshots, becoming practically synonymous with dumb, loud, action blockbuster filmmaking. Outside of the Star Wars prequels it’s hard to think of any film and/or franchise that’s as easy a target as Michael Bay’s Transformers.

Pretty much everyone “knows” how stupid they are, but I posit that we really do not appreciate it. The general line on them is “Yeah, they’re stupid, but at least they’re entertaining” or perhaps less generously, “they’re just a bunch of nonstop action with no real plot.” But that’s not true; in fact, either of those would be a step up from what the Transformers franchise is. The Transformers franchise is nonstop boring punctuated by occasional bits of More Boring.

Fun, stupid action would be nice. It would provide a break from the dozens of superfluous human characters, the needlessly complicated plots, the pathetically bad attempts at humor, and the shockingly overt racism. A break, in other words, from the tedium. Even the people who are inclined to like porn movies wouldn’t like them if all the sex was cut out*, and that’s basically what the Transformers movies are: big dumb action movies without the action. There is some action, to be sure, but it’s often fleeting or poorly constructed or both.

[*I guess these would be poorly-lit short films where a creepy plumber or pizza delivery man makes awkward conversation with a sad-eyed girl who remains fully clothed throughout.]

The killer is this: Michael Bay is not untalented. He is supremely competent at certain things (you think making Martin Lawrence look like a badass is easy?), and has a unique visual style that the rest of Hollywood is trying to keep up with. I even admire his unabashed, non-cynical patriotism. But he’s wildly self-indulgent, and makes bad choices– over and over. It’s painful to watch him waste his talent. And the Transformers franchise? It came ready made for him to not screw up, yet he did it anyway. It carried a couple generations of nostalgic goodwill, and a deviously simple core concept: “There are robots that transform into other things, they punch each other.” Why he felt the need to bury that concept under hours of unfunny jokes, military fetishism and lazy stereotypes, I’ll never know.

Anyway, we’ll be looking at three fights from the film. It gets a little hard to distinguish what constitutes a fight here, especially as the climax is a little chaotic and it’s tough to decide if a Special Forces squad shooting at a Decepticon is a “fight.” There are basically three distinct ones that I remember, though, and we’ll stick with those for simplicity’s sake. If I rewatched the film from beginning to end I might find more, but as it is I’m only watching the ones I remember on YouTube, because the movie’s not on Netflix and if you think I’m actually going to pay money to watch Transformers again you can kiss my Allspark.

1) Bumblebee vs Barricade

The Fighters:

  • Bumblebee, humble & heroic Autobot whose vocal cords were damaged in battle (he “talks” by somehow queuing up his radio to play appropriate song/movie clips). So, no voice actor.
    • Armed with: Cybertronians in these films are a bit unpredictable with weaponry. They use brute force a lot, but their bodies also hold varying weapons, both bladed and projectile. Currently “disguised” as a 1977 Chevrolet Camaro.
  • Barricade, an evil Decepticon we don’t ever learn much about.Voiced by Jess Harnell, who you probably recognize better as Wakko from Animaniacs.
    • Armed with: a pair (or one? It’s hard to see) of some sort of spiky-whip things. He’s also one of those Transformers who comes equipped with a smaller Transformer inside them– in his case it’s the hyperactive Frenzy, who is tiny but all sharp edges. Currently “disguised” as a police car.

Sam & Mikaela (Shia LeBeouf & Megan Fox) are also there, and even though they don’t participate in the fight, you’ll see why I included them shortly.

The Setup: Bumblebee is protecting Spike from Barricade, because Spike is in possession of his great-great-grandfather’s glasses which have on them a secret tiny map to the film’s MacGuffin. It’s all needlessly elaborate, and that’s not even involving the stuff with the Special Forces squad, the creepy CIA agent, the Defense Secretary, or the hot Australian code breaker and her nerd pals. Anyway, it takes place in what looks like some kind of factory/warehouse area– I almost said construction site but no, it’s just another place where construction tools are helpfully left out overnight. Barricade has already revealed himself to Sam and confronted him about the glasses…

“The ‘good cop’ guy stayed home today.”

… and with Bumblebee’s subtle help (he’s just acting like a weird car, not having transformed yet) they’ve escaped to an isolated place for the confrontation.

The Fight: There’s actually a pretty good build-up here, as Bumblebee dumps the humans out of the front seat and transforms into his robot form, assuming a combat stance. If there’s one thing Michael Bay gets right, it’s hero shots. Barricade goes for a different route, driving toward his foe at full speed and transforming on-the-go, using the momentum to start off with a rather acrobatic flying tackle.

After a few more follow-up blows, the Autobot rallies and smashes Barricade into a small building. They continue fighting… but we miss it. Why? Because Frenzy, who Barricade released at the start of the fight, went to chase off after Sam & Mikaela and that’s what Michael Bay decides to show us.

Frenzy chases them, ripping off Sam’s jeans in the process, and after some wrestling Mikaela saws his head off with a drill. By the time that’s over, the real fight has finished: Bumblebee’s standing there alone, and Barricade is gone. We don’t know how he was beaten, but later on there’s a quick insert shot of the villain lying in pain on the ground, because apparently Bumblebee, a veteran soldier fighting a desperate war, didn’t want to finish him off, for… some reason. He shows up in the climax later, just fine.

This barely even qualifies for grading: there are maybe forty seconds total of the two aliens actually fighting (I counted) and about half of that is one or the other of them transforming, and Barricade swinging his chains as he unleashes Frenzy. Normally I might not even consider this worthy of inclusion, but I’m stretching a bit because I find this entire incident so perfectly emblematic of how Bay dropped the ball on the franchise.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I think this scene happens somewhere close to halfway through the movie. So it takes about an hour for this movie, that is built entirely around the premise of giant robots punching each other, to get to its first scene of giant robots punching each other, and it’s over practically as soon as it starts because Bay cuts away to one of the least interesting things in the world. Did anyone walk into the theater hoping to see Shia LeBeouf’s boxer shorts and Megan Fox attacking a teddy bear-sized robot with a power tool? No, I don’t think they did, though a lot of guys might have been content if it had been the other way around. What we came for was giant robots punching each other. Michael Bay and his screenwriters cruelly denied this to us.

The only reason I can mark this as high as I’m going to is because what short glimpses we do see of the fight are really darn cool. The CGI here is actually quite convincing and “feels” weighty, like there’s real substance there, and the robots themselves move with a strange & brutal gracefulness. And of course there’s that cool intro. But in the end there’s simply no excuse for staging an action sequence this way. Heck, the fact that what we do see is so compelling is all the more reason to be upset that it gets yanked away from us in exchange for garbage.

Grade: D+

Recommended Links: The whole scene, if you want to time it yourself. Sam & Mikaela fight 20 seconds longer than Bumblebee does.

Shia LeBeouf is really kind of full of himself, apparently. But don’t let him hear you say that, because he’ll totes beat you up, brah.

Coming Attractions: The movie perks up a bit as we discover that Optimus Prime is one bad mothertrucker.

This will end badly for one of you.