Even by the often-baffling standards of Bay’s previous Transformers pictures, The Last Knight is a weird, weird, WEIRD movie. Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), the series’ ostensible hero, spends most of the movie getting tortured and/or brainwashed until he turns into the evil Nemesis Prime (complete with an evil brand that looks more like Prime cut himself shaving than the mark of a wicked goddess), a transformation that is reversed within five minutes of his appearing to menace the heroes. Anthony Hopkins is a perpetually amused exposition device with an explicitly sociopathic robot butler named Cogman (voice of Jim Carter). Series co-mascot and friend to all children Bumblebee (voice of Erik Aadahl) blows up some Nazis during World War II for no reason other than that Michael Bay wanted to blow up some Nazis. And, of course, there’s the slight matter of King Arthur and his court appearing in a Transformers movie. None of this meshes together well. The Last Knight is two hours and twenty minutes of incoherence and chaos. There are numerous moments where the only options for the audience are to throw up their hands in despair or roll with it and wait for the next wave of flummoxing nonsense to hit.
Yet, for all that, there are pieces of The Last Knight that I either find amusing or outright like. Wahlberg’s costume during one of the film’s many, many climaxes makes him look like the most ripped medieval serf ever. Anthony Hopkins is having such a ball strolling (sometimes literally) through the hurricane of whatthehecks that composes the film around him that it’s hard not to have a ball too. Cogman is, shockingly, pretty funny. There are a number of things in The Last Knight I could have written a Say Something Nice about. But Tucci’s Drunk Merlin? Nothing tops Tucci’s Drunk Merlin and The Last Knight’s Arthurian sequence.
First of all, there’s the novelty of seeing Bayhem-style action with swords, shields and siege weaponry rather than guns, missiles and other instruments of modern warfare. Maybe it’s just the fact that it looks weird to have Bay’s quick cuts and scrambled in-camera geography with plate armor and trebuchets, but the result is a battle that feels genuinely frenzied and apocalyptic.
Enter Merlin, introduced with Arthur’s absolute faith and his knights’ doubts and dismissals. He rides in this desperate hour in search of a weapon that could turn the tide against the seemingly unbreakable Saxon hordes. His first line? “Oh, god, I’m sozzled.” To screw up his courage, he decides to take “one last nip” and downs half his bottle in one gulp. It’s a bawdy, broad joke, but Tucci warbles his speech and struggles to keep balanced on his horse so well that it lands. He proceeds to the ruins of the Transformer knight’s crashed ship, does some more drunk wizard slapstick and promptly gets slammed against a wall by an angered Knight.
It’s here that Tucci takes his Merlin and makes the scene something special. Merlin humbles himself before the knights and admits that he’s spent his life lying and cheating, that he is a charlatan, a fraud. Moreover, he acknowledges that others are right to call him such. But now, faced with the very real possibility of the Saxons destroying everything he knows and loves, and burdened with the responsibility of Arthur’s trust, Merlin cannot keep lying. He knows the Knights have the power to push back the Saxons, and so he beseeches them: “If I could for one moment change this world for the better, I would give up everything! Everything! I’d give up drink, money, wo… Drink and money! Look, good men will die without your help. Women, children. I know your world was destroyed, I’m sorry. But please, don’t let ours die too. I beg of you.” The Knight, moved, commands his brethren to transform into their combined dragon form and follow Merlin into battle. As Steve Jablonsky’s score swells, the con man wizard and the giant space robot dragon break the Saxon charge and give Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table the opening they need to rout their foes.
Acting opposite a giant CGI character, Tucci delivers a stirring monologue, layering his Merlin with a lifetime’s worth of regrets, fears and hopes. And his apology to the Knights for the destruction of Cybertron is so sincere that it gives the Transformers some actual grandeur. Merlin isn’t talking to a gaggle of infamously ugly, notoriously sadistic CGI robots designed to sell toys first and foremost. He’s talking to the survivors of an alien race, supposedly noble, powerful and enigmatic, pleading for their help in saving his people. It’s a superb piece of acting, one that has stuck with me and stayed crystal clear even as the rest of the movie smears into a very, very loud fever dream.