Loud, flashy and imbecilic, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON is almost everything one could want from a Michael Bay film. It's a money-on-the-screen triumph of Hollywood excess: each frame holds enough production value to finance ten Whit Stillman films, while the screenplay scrambles from one set piece to the next as if the writer (Ehren Kruger) were getting paid by the complication. In terms of sheer spectacle, nothing this summer comes close to the colossal scale of TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. It's the Old 96er of tentpole filmmaking.
So what's missing?
Well, how about that extra dollop of sleaze and amorality that made BAD BOYS II: VICE CITY a masterpiece of bad taste. I mean, it's all well and good to have Patrick Dempsey praise, in crassly automotive terms, the blinding beauty of Jason Statham's girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whitley) while the camera ogles every last inch of her factory-built frame, but I miss the transgressiveness of Nice Guy Movie Star Will Smith getting aroused by the perfect breasts of a supermodel's morgue-chilled corpse, or the fuck-your-shitty country bravado of a massive Hummer plowing through a populous Cuban shantytown because America is awesome and poor people suck. When Michael Bay is unfettered by the ratings board, you get sensational, mega-budget trash; when he's at the helm of a four-quadrant-skewing toy commercial... you actually get something legitimately abhorrent.
On a purely technical level, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON represents a return to coherent form for Bay. As the filmmaker has noted in interviews, shooting in 3D forced him to alter his editing style, resulting in action sequences that unfold with a little more clarity than the disorganized half-IMAX/half-35mm finale of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. Everything in the lengthy Battle of Chicago that closes out DARK OF THE MOON makes perfect geographical sense; there may not always be a sturdy logical reason as to why people are jumping out of buildings (or seeking shelter near the top of a crippled skyscraper), but you at least know where the danger-seeking characters - and their enemies - are at all times. So enough with the criticism that Bay is lazily throwing a barrage of coverage onto the screen (which, until ROTF, was never the case); if you can't make out the action in DARK OF THE MOON, you just aren't paying close enough attention.
Not that I'd blame you for checking out early on this film. After an intriguingly silly, alternate-history opening depicting the Apollo 11 crew's discovery of something alien buried beneath the surface of the moon, Bay abruptly cuts to the panty-clad ass of Statham's Girlfriend as she's ascending a flight of stairs. Not quite bone-to-spaceship stuff, but it gets the job done. Then comes the buzzkill: Statham's Girlfriend is the property of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the most punch-worthy protagonist in American cinema since Andrew McCarthy's oozed his way through the WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S films.
And a punishing hour of setup ensues.
In the first two movies, Sam plays the reluctant hero; in DARK OF THE MOON, he opts into the action after discovering some Decepticon-doins at his new Washington D.C. job. This nonsense would be fine if dispensed with quickly, but Bay and Kruger have fiendishly decided that Sam's employment woes are the hilariously surreal stuff of a scatological Coen Bros. movie (Bay is on record as loving the Coens' sense of humor; it is not so fond of him). So we get John Malkovich dishing out bizarro line readings as Sam's tyrannical boss, and, lamentably, Ken Jeong scurrying about as a nutjob coworker with wild conspiracy theories literally stuffed down his trousers - and you better believe there's a zany men's-room confrontation that results in Malkovich believing he's interrupted a rough bout of toilet-stall sex between LaBeouf and Jeong!
Bay may possess the sensibility of an over-caffeinated twelve-year-old, but he really shouldn't be making movies for kids - who, let's not forget, are the intended audience for the TRANSFORMERS films. While kids will obviously love every destructive second of the film, the violence, which should be cartoony, turns surprisingly savage as the Decepticons descend upon Chicago for the climactic massacre. It starts with scores of innocent civilians being vaporized (an effect borrowed from Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS), and concludes with a fight to the death between Optimus Prime and Sentinel Prime (voiced by our beloved Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy) that plays like the rock 'em, sock 'em version of the Dan Dority/Captain Turner fracas from the final season of DEADWOOD. Limbs are torn from their sockets, heads (and spinal columns) yanked clean off - all with a surfeit of spurting fluid standing in for blood. Worse, Optimus, for the third movie in a row, can't seem to win a one-on-one fight on his own; this time, he needs Megatron and Sentinel to weaken each other in battle before jumping in and finishing off the both of them (he actually makes Sentinel beg for his life before putting one in the brain). I'd sooner sit my seven-year-old nephew down with THE DEER HUNTER.
And then there's Bay's treatment of women, which is yet another reason to keep the young ones away. It's one thing for Bay to shoot Statham's Girlfriend as the lingerie model she incandescently is in real life, but quite another to have Sam's mom blurt out "What a nice box!" the minute her son lays eyes on his true love for the first time (this really happens). There's a nasty misogynistic streak running through all of Bay's films - which is why he was the ideal director to relaunch the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer brand sixteen years ago with BAD BOYS. Like those Reagan-era warhorses, Bay views women as either trophies or impediments. Sometimes they're both. Rarely are they useful. When I saw TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN theatrically, the audience roared with delight when Bumblebee slammed Isabel Lucas's face into his dashboard (this was before they learned she was a Decepticon). I can't decide if that's worse than John Ashton muttering "Women" after he guns down Brigitte Nielsen in BEVERLY HILLS COP II. At least in his R-rated efforts, Bay amplifies this hatred/fear to the point where you're laughing at him; when he smuggles it into a family movie, it's just flat-out repugnant.
As I walked out of TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, a friend asked me "Where does Michael Bay go from here?" Six years ago, I thought he was ready to tone down the histrionics and become the next James Cameron. That didn't work. Then he tried to become the next Spielberg. That really didn't work. Now he's threatening to direct a Coen Brothers-inspired dark comedy about sadistic gym rats. Please, no.
Bay's an immensely talented filmmaker, but he can't be trusted with material that plays to children or aspires to be more than a conscience-free night out at the movies. He needs to let that inner-twelve-year-old loose on a big-budget, hard-R-rated grindhouse flick. He needs to get back to being Michael Fucking Bay. In other words, he needs BAD BOYS 3. Fortunately, that's where he's headed.