By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist June 28, 2011 at 2:01AM
Before everyone accuses us of drinking the Haterade, allow this writer to make a couple of facts known. I thought the first "Transformers" was a decent enough (though brainless) bit of summer popcorn entertainment, while I nearly walked out of "Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen." The problems with the second entry in the franchise have been well documented as even Michael Bay himself admitted it was awful and promised this time, things will be better. With much being made about the work that has gone into the special effects, with Bay writing a letter to the pimply teenagers who will be playing this for the majority of America to make sure they project it properly and star Shia LaBeouf proclaiming it to be the "greatest 3D film ever," expectations are very high. Well, "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" finds Michael Bay at both his best and worst, and you will have to endure a lot of tedium, before you get to the admittedly pretty righteous closing forty minutes that is pretty much wall-to-wall action.
While many fanboys will proclaim that that if you're going to 'Dark Of The Moon' expecting a good story, you're in it for the wrong reasons, we think that's a lousy excuse and even they would be hard pressed to explain just why so much time is devoted to such a simplistic plot that isn't "important." The film opens with an extended flashback sequence to the '60s where we learn -- in case it wasn't clearly spelled out already in the trailers -- that Sentinel Prime crash landed on the Moon many years ago and the secret reason for the Moon landing was to gather intelligence about what was there. The knowledge of what they found was kept secret from the Autobots up until the present day when some strange incidents involving the Decepticons allow Optimus Prime to put the pieces together and finally confront the National Security Agency, topped by the prissy Mearing (Frances McDormand), telling her that not only must she disclose what she knows but that he is going back to the Moon to see what else may be there.
As for Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf), he's currently living Transformers-free in Washington, D.C. with his hottie Brit girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) who is introduced -- no joke -- by an ass-shot as she walks up a flight of stairs wearing nothing but panties and button up shirt in a scene that looks like it was lifted right out of one of Bay's Victoria's Secret ads. The absence of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) is explained by two tiny Autobots living with Sam -- Brains and Wheelie -- who say that she was "mean" and that Carly is nicer, with Sam also telling his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) that finally he's with a girl who loves him for who he is. Anyway, Sam is feeling bitter that even after saving the world twice and getting a medal from President Obama (leading to one of the biggest laughs of the film), he is still having trouble finding a job. After a slew of interviews, he finally lands a job in the mailroom at a company headed up by the eccentric Bruce Brazos (a very game John Malkovich). But before his first day on the job is over, super nerd Jerry "Deep" Wang (played by Ken Jeong in an unfortunate cameo that borders on Mickey-Rooney-in-"Breakfast-At-Tiffany's" stereotyping) corners Sam and gives him details on what the Decepticons are really up to. This lights a fire under Sam who suddenly feels like he can make a difference again and off he races to the government with his findings but this is only the first step in a plot that eventually serves up numerous, spot-'em-a-mile-away "twists" that we we won't spoil here but that anyone over the age of 9 will be able to figure out.
As we mentioned before, everyone proclaims the story to be secondary but 'Dark Of The Moon' spends so much lead-footed time on going through the motions of every beat of Ehren Kruger's overly long script; you could easily condense/edit a half hour out of this movie and not miss a thing. Suffice to say it takes over an hour and half to get through all these machinations for an ultimately pretty silly and straightforward story that basically amounts to this: there are a bunch of powerful "pillars" that the Decepticons are going to use to build a space/time bridge to bring Cybertron to Earth. The Autobots and the humans have to stop them. Why the movie had to pause every fifteen to twenty minutes for one character or another to summarize exactly what was happening and get into the lore and history that ultimately has no bearing or emotional resonance is beyond us. 'Dark Of The Moon' tries hard to make us empathize with CGI robots and care about the fate of the Autobots or wonder if Sam and Carly's relationship will ever work, but sorry, that is not ever gonna happen, so let's get to the action then, shall we?
Finally, when we get to the last 40-or-so minutes of the film, it's like Michael Bay woke up in a candy store. Freed from fulfilling product placements to Chevrolet, Lenovo, Maybach and Mercedes among others and from having finished delivering the Hasbro storyline for every robot the toy company wants to sell by Christmas, Bay gleefully lays waste to metropolitan Chicago and then pits a rag-tag bunch of Autobots and humans against a powerful and huge group of Decepticons in a closed off city. The result is what everyone will be paying their hard earned bucks for, a steroid infused, full on assault of non-stop action that yes, definitely delivers the goods. No matter his many faults, Bay is a supreme visualist and action choreographer and he puts those talents to use in two stunning segments. The first is a skydiving sequence as Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team glide into the downtown Chicago warzone in suits not unlike what Banshee uses in "X-Men: First Class." It's a pretty thrilling sequence as the soldiers avoid Decepticon fire and weave between destroyed buildings, trying to make it to the ground alive from their dangerous free fall. The next is an extended setpiece set in a slowly collapsing office tower, as Sam, Carly, Epps and their entourage of fighters are trapped way up in skyscraper that the Decepticons are doing their best to knock over; any wrong move will send them flying out a window to their death. Bay makes the robot battles and survival scenarios visceral, real and easy to follow. Instead of a blur of shaky CGI, these action scenes are well thought out and executed with panache and are ongoing proof that no one can make shit explode quite like Bay. It's just too bad the director can't apply those skills to things like story, character or even editing.
And while those forty minutes will probably be the most action packed stuff you'll see this year, it's not enough to give the film anything close to something resembling a passing grade. While Bay's immature and teenage mindset serves him well for the explosions, for everything else, it stunts the film. Bay continues to use different ethnicities for the purposes of laughs that might've been hot in the Catskills comedy circuit of 1950s, but are woefully dated now. In addition to Jeong's embarrassing turn, Alan Tudyk is cast for some reason as Dutch, Simmons' (John Turturro) European and fey sidekick who, the movie makes painstakingly clear, is not gay. His role mostly involves him sporting an accent with all the class of Nick Swardson's "German" tongue in Adam Sandler's "Just Go With It" earlier this year. Meanwhile, the African American characters, Tyrese Gibson included, are mostly reduced to spitting standard action clichés not out of place from a 1980s movie, but never are they crucially involved in the plot. Meanwhile, the women fare even worse, and as usual are afterthoughts with only two roles here: Carly, the love interest who Bay ogles and leers at with the camera for most of her screentime and Mearing, whose refusal to listen to the men around her nearly causes everyone on the planet Earth to die. Great stuff.
So what about that 3D? We frankly could have done without it. Given that the first 2/3rds of the film is mostly given to lots and lots and lots of plotting with intermittent bursts of action (a highway chase sequence is a highlight that elicited a cheer from the audience we were with) we didn't find the three dimensions added anything to the experience, and we would have loved to enjoy the final act without those clunky glasses. The 3D is well rendered, but as soon as the credits began to roll, we didn't remember a thing about it. And a word about the soundtrack -- it's awful, as you might expect. Bay has always had atrocious taste in music, but his prevalence for the most milquetoast, generic, MOR, FM-radio crap is tough to stomach. Meanwhile, Steve Jablonsky's score is efficient, though during the big finale he rips far too hard from Hans Zimmer's "Half Remembered Dream" from "Inception."
While 'Dark Of The Moon' is a step up from 'Revenge Of The Fallen,' that's not exactly an accomplishment. The action scenes are easily the best the franchise has seen, and the final chunk of the movie is everything a big, dumb popcorn movie should deliver. But as for the rest? It's almost as bad as 'Revenge Of The Fallen' -- a forgettable, fairly ludicrous story, with thinly drawn characters that merely serve in a rather longwinded fashion, to get everyone in Chicago for the finale. When our final recommendation is that you skip the first hour and a half of the movie, and then head into the theater for the explosive final act, that's hardly a ringing endorsement. A film worth watching needs to have all of its parts working together, and excusing Bay for making good on the spectacle while overlooking the story is lazy and a disservice to both the director and the audience -- the former can do better and the latter deserves better. Undoubtedly, 'Dark Of The Moon' will be a massive hit but we wish it had spent more time in the shadows, giving us a plot worth investing in, before coming back into the orbit of multiplexes nationwide. [C-]