Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (PG-13) **½

 

The effects are smashing, but the story wears thin the second time around.

Transformers 2

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Just how enormous is the scale of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Big enough that the movie has a prologue set in the year 17,000 B.C. Big enough that the film's opening setpiece, in which the good robots (i.e. the Autobots) suss out a bad robot (i.e. a Decepticon) in their midst in modern-day Shanghai, is awesome enough to make practically any other summer spectacular wish they could have it for their climactic finish.

Just how slight is the plot of Fallen, which was written by Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman? Slight enough to take up maybe 45 minutes of screen time, if Ingmar Bergman had directed it. Slight enough that there are long chunks in the film during which you could leave the theater, take a leisurely stroll to stretch your legs, catch up on your e-mail, and rejoin the movie in progress without having missed a thing.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Fallen, which is probably the most anticipated movie of the summer, and will undoubtedly be the biggest at the box office, is the same problem that afflicts most sequels: The freshness and sense of discovery of the first film, which depicted mankind's discovery of giant robots living among us disguised as cars, is gone.

Instead, the Autobots are now an established (albeit secret) branch of the U.S. military, fighting to make sure the bad machines vanquished in the 2007 original stay vanquished.

Meanwhile, the teenaged Sam (Shia LaBeouf), who is preparing to go away to college at Princeton, and his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), who suddenly seems at least five years too old for her role, and has managed to get worse as an actress since the last film, are planning to keep their relationship going long-distance.

The two are not kept apart long, though, since soon after Sam arrives on campus, he and Mikaela must reunite to help their mechanical giant pal Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) fend off his deadliest foe yet. Director Michael Bay, reluctant to mess with what worked the first time around, increases the unexpected humor and slapstick of the original film going, devoting lots of screen time -- arguably too much -- to the antics of Sam's manic college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez), Sam's goofy parents (Kevin Dunne and Julie White), and a pair of smart-mouthed Autobots named Mudflap and Skids.

But all the humorous hijinks in the world cannot counteract the terminal case of bloat that afflicts Fallen, which runs at least 40 minutes too long, a common problem among Bay's films. You could, for example, excise all the scenes featuring Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as elite Army soldiers and not lose a thing. The needlessly long running time also helps to obfuscate the story, which, despite essentially being an exercise in villain-of-the-week formulas, often borders on the incomprehensible.

What saves Fallen, aside from La Beouf's undeniable charisma (he's a natural born star, that kid), is that Bay continues to tamp down his worst instincts as an action filmmaker. The movie may be nonsense, but it's dazzling, visually striking nonsense, be it a free-for-all battle between a badly outnumbered Optimus Prime and a squad of baddies in the forest; a sequence in which a giant mass of shiny ball bearings coalesces into a robot; or the sight of a gigantic Decepticon comprised of construction cranes climbing one of Egypt's Great Pyramids, the ancient stone crumbling beneath its weight.

How and why a robot is running around Egypt is one of the problems with Fallen, which often seems to intentionally take good ideas -- like the concept of a vintage fighter jet at the Smithsonian as a slumbering Decepticon -- and then do the least interesting things imaginable with them, such as sending it in search of a key unwisely named the matrix.

At least the special effects in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are remarkable: You never tire of the endless variations of robots Bay and his computer-generated effects crew come up with, and there are only a couple of shots in the film in which those effects don't meld seamlessly with the flesh-and-blood actors. In its climactic half-hour, the picture degenerates into an endless procession of explosions, as every movie Bay directs is contractually bound to do, but at least the thing looks astounding. More substance would have been nice, but in the thick of the summer movie season, sometimes that is all you need.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Ramon Rodriguez, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Kevin Dunne, Julie White, Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving.

Director: Michael Bay.

Screenwriters: Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman.

Producers: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Allegra Clegg.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 150 minutes. Intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material.

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