“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
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
- 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…
… 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.
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.