As a man who makes movies about giant robots throwing each other through skyscrapers, Michael Bay has never been a director who leads with his themes. Action set-pieces have long been his primary concern, from his debut with Bad Boys to his most recent opus, Transformers: The Last Knight. But as I settled into a weekend showing of the fifth Transformer film (despite the warnings of my colleague Chris Orr), I was very quickly struck by a strange thought. First: Is that really Stanley Tucci playing Merlin? And second: Wait, is this a Michael Bay film where the U.S. military ... are the bad guys?
Transformers: The Last Knight has other villains, of course. The robotic goddess Quintessa, who seeks to rebuild her ruined planet Cybertron by draining Earth’s energies. Megatron, the evil Decepticon whom she enlists to do her bidding. But those CGI creations aren’t on screen for too long; for much of the movie, especially in its first (interminable) hour, our heroes (including Mark Wahlberg and a bunch of his robot friends) are being hunted by a black-clad special-ops unit, a wing of the military called the “Transformers Reaction Force,” which trips right off the tongue.
Yes, yes, I already know what you may be thinking: that Bay has made a film where U.S. soldiers are the bad guys before. His 1996 masterwork The Rock, certainly his greatest movie, sees a rogue force of Marines led by the disenchanted Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) seize Alcatraz Island and threaten to attack San Francisco unless the government compensates them for the deaths they suffered while running clandestine black-ops missions. But that film is sympathetic to the soldiers, even if they’ve gone too far; like many a Bay film, it portrays the civilian government as incompetent liars, a sentiment rooted in the post-Vietnam era he came of age in.