How’s the old joke go? Oh, yes: Man visits a lunatic asylum, sees one of the inmates repeatedly hitting himself on the head with a hammer. “Why are you doing that?” he asks. The lunatic replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
That’s a surprisingly on-point description of what it’s like to watch “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Two and a half hours of being hit on the head with a hammer and it feels really good when it stops. Also, you’d have to be a lunatic to pay for the experience. But since the first four “Transformer” movies have racked up $3.7 billion in worldwide grosses, and since a sizeable portion of the audience erupted into applause at the screening I attended, crazy’s a relative thing.
You don’t have to have seen the previous four action stompathons based on the popular 1980s Hasbro line of toys; all directed by Michael Bay, they are incomprehensible nearly to the point of conscious Dada. Mark Wahlberg is the star these days: He’s Cade Yeager, a kindhearted lug protecting the “good” Autobots — giant alien robots that turn into cars ’n’ stuff — from us angry humans in a junkyard out in the desert.
Deliriously enough, the movie starts way back in the Dark Ages, where King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) is holding off the Saxon hordes with a three-headed Transformer-dragon courtesy of the wizard Merlin. The latter is played with a fright wig and a hilariously twee British accent by Stanley Tucci; I could have watched him gassing away for the whole 150 minutes and gone home happy.
In fact, the most intriguing aspect of “The Last Knight” is the way it casts talented actors in smallish roles and encourages them to ham it up. John Goodman and Steve Buscemi voice, respectively, a beer-bellied Army-bot named Hound and a wheedling shyster-bot named Daytrader. Ken Watanabe and Omar Sy voice ethnic caricature-bots. John Turturro is some kind of mad scientist literally phoning in his performance from Havana, Cuba.
The biggest ham of them all — he’s practically honey-baked — is Anthony Hopkins, who seems to have wandered over from “The Da Vinci Code” as Sir Edmund Burton, head of an Arthurian secret society that knows the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) and his mecha-queen Quintessa (Gemma Chan) need Merlin’s spear so planet Earth can collide with the alien Cybertron. Or something. This is what happens when a director lets a great actor do whatever he wants, and what Hopkins does is mug and mince dreadfully.
The plot is a canvas on which to bludgeon the audience with action sequences that have been shot for maximum overstimulation. When seen in 3-D, in fact, with Bay matching extreme close-ups to jittery, caffeinated camerawork, “Transformers: The Last Knight” prompts actual physical nausea. The series represents the ultimate infantilization of American entertainment, so it’s probably fitting that the individual movies feel made by and for hyperactive 10-year-olds.
(And is it ugly. The look of the “Transformer” films is as if an industrial magnet had been hoisted over a junkyard; they’re all rebar and shredded insulation.)
The rock ’em sock ’em finale of “Last Knight” finally comes after over two hours of raucous humor, strained sentimentality, and pulverizing noise, and it features, once again, the threat of Earth’s complete destruction. If it means they’ll stop making “Transformer” movies, I’m starting to think that’s not such a bad deal.
Transformers: The Last Knight
Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan, and Akiva Goldsman. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, and the voices of John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Steve Buscemi. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 150 minutes. PG-13 (violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.