Transformers: Age of Extinction review: They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

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Transformers: Age of extinction (12a). Dir. Michael Bay. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor, TJ Miller, Nicola Peltz. 166 mins

Michael Bay is back to bludgeon us with the fourth instalment of the Transformers franchise. The film (released in British cinemas next Thursday) has a reported budget of more than $200m but still turns out to be a spectacularly incoherent and clunky affair.

Bay is one of contemporary US cinema's greatest choreographers of car crashes, chases and gunfights. If you want meaningless mayhem on screen, he can serve it up in abundance. His flaw, as evident now as when he made Pearl Harbor in 2001 (the closest he has come to a grown-up movie), is that he is a lousy storyteller. His films tend to judder and lurch forward with all the grace and subtlety of the giant "Autobots" and "Decepticons" who trample everything before them in Age of Extinction. Unlike his executive producer Steven Spielberg, he simply doesn't have a knack for finding the still, small voice of calm amid the din.

Whenever the plot threatens to stall, Bay simply throws in another random shot of a sports car speeding along a freeway or turning into a robot. The film is almost three hours long – and it's hard to work out why he needs so much time to say so little.

As is to be expected, some of the visual effects in Age of Extinction are astonishing. If Bay was British rather than American and made an abstract video installation out of all the imagery here of fires, slow-motion explosions and metallic filings magically coalescing to take the shape of Transformers, he might stand a chance of being nominated for the Turner Prize. The problem is that the ideas, dialogue and characterisation here limp along behind the spectacle.

There's a poignant moment early on in Age of Extinction in which the struggling hero/inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) visits a movie theatre. He is not there to see a film. The place is abandoned and cobwebbed. He is looking for scraps and bric-a-brac for his inventions. The scene is reminiscent of Paul Schrader's ill-fated recent Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, which opened with a montage of closed and derelict cinemas. This seems to be Bay's in-joke. He is part of the resistance, still fighting on behalf of the cinema experience. The box-office performance of the Transformers films, including Age of Extinction, is evidence that Schrader's gloomy predictions about the death of movies have not yet been fulfilled. Besides, Bay's work would make even less sense on a tablet. It needs to be seen big.

Cade is an intriguing and contradictory character. He lives in, of all places, Paris, Texas. (You can't imagine that Bay is a fan of elegiac Wim Wenders movies about love and loss in the desert.) Wahlberg plays Cade as a muscular, blue-collar everyman, even if he is an inventor who spends every spare moment tinkering with mechanical contraptions in his barn. His farm is threatened with foreclosure but he is ready to chase away his creditors with guns and baseball bats. A single dad, he has no money with which to pay his business partner Lucas Flannery (TJ Miller) or to send his beautiful teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) to college.

Bay makes at least a token attempt to depict the plight of a hard-working, all-American family, struggling to cope at a time of economic downturn. It just so happens that the old truck Cade has bought for spare parts is, underneath its rust, the badly injured Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen with a gravitas worthy of Liam Neeson). Cade helps crank the ailing Autobot back to life.

Ruthless CIA agents commanded by Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer playing a "serious" role after all those years goofing it up in Frasier) are trying to destroy Optimus as part of their war against all robots. "Our world will never be truly safe until all of them are gone," he declaims in one of the many sententious one-liners which litter the script. There is a tremendous shoot-out in the farmyard followed by a car chase – at which point all logic seems to evaporate and the narrative becomes as tangled as the wirings in Cade's inventions.

Cade enlists the help of Optimus and the other Autobots (who behave like robot versions of the outlaws in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch) in their bid to save humanity. They are pitted against the mighty and ruthless extraterrestrial robot, Lockdown. We are not quite sure about the motivation of billionaire financier/scientist Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a Steve Jobs-like visionary who has set up his own lab/factory to mass produce Transformers.

Even as he tries to save humanity, Cade remains preoccupied with the behaviour of his teenage daughter. He tries to chaperone her and expresses paternal outrage when he discovers that she already has a boyfriend. This is rally driver Shane (Jack Reynor), whose prowess behind the wheel saves them all from certain death – not that this is enough to earn Cade's approval.

In the final reel, which takes place in Hong Kong and China, dinosaur Transformers ("Dinobots'), gigantic spaceships and strange references to Arthurian legend feature amid the usual orgy of destruction.

For all its sturm und drang and cosmic references, Age of Extinction is a curiously naive affair. It offers the pleasures you could find in the most basic silent slapstick or adventure movies – chases, fights, explosions, characters hanging from precipices.

It doesn't help that Bay has no flair for comedy. Even the most playful scenes – Tucci stuck in a malfunctioning lift with the enemy after him and still finding time to flirt with his glamorous, high-kicking Chinese associate (Li Bingbing) – are handled in leaden fashion.

Bay has made it clear that he doesn't care in the slightest what his detractors say about the film. Thanks to the franchise's continuing success, he is as blithely resistant to their barbs as the armour-plated robots are to bullets and missiles. Despite the title, there is no sign the Transformers are anywhere near extinction quite yet.

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