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REVIEW: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" not any better than last sequel

In this publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Optimus Prime is shown in a scene from "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures) 

In this publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Optimus Prime is shown in a scene from "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures) 

TRANSFORMERS DARK OF THE MOON

(PG-13)

*1/2

To say that “Dark of the Moon” is better than the first “Transformers” sequel (“Revenge of the Fallen”) is misleading. If one thing stinks less than another, it still stinks. Sitting through the new one is tantamount to Chinese water torture; the previous one water-boarding.

As the franchise has progressed or rather, gotten older, it’s only grown bigger, louder, dumber and longer. “DOTM” runs for two hours and 34 minutes. That’s war-epic length. Sadly, some people will consider “DOTM” to be both an actual war epic and a fine piece of art.

Let’s start with the positives — both of them. In a manner almost identical to that seen in the recent “X-Men” prequel, “DOTM” goes back in time, takes a factual event that originated with the Kennedy administration, fictionalizes it and makes it halfway plausible. For that, the movie gets one solid star. It gets a half a star for not being as racist, misogynistic, misanthropic or unfunny as its predecessor. It’s reaching when you have to reward a movie for not including scenes showing robots dry humping.

The rest is everything that was in the first two, only more of it. Let’s call it the Michael Bay/aspirin/value meal rationale. If two robots fighting works well, 50 robots fighting will work better. If 2,000 jump edits look cool, 4,000 will look cooler. If 110 decibels of noise sounds good, 125 will sound better, and so on. Director Bay is to filmmaking what McDonald’s is to fine dining. Quality means nothing to him, only unbridled and unchecked quantity.

Here’s an analogy you probably never thought you’d see in print: compared to her replacement, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, former accessory/eye-candy babe Megan Fox has the talent of Meryl Streep. With bee-stung lips that would make Angelina Jolie envious, a size 0 figure that disappears in profile and the acting range of a small soap dish, Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is actually perfect for the part of vacant, leggy romantic interest to returning lead Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf). It’s tough to determine which is sillier, LeBeouf’s real or his character’s last name.

Having received $750,000 for the first, $5M for the second and $15M for this installment, the talent-challenged LeBeouf might just be the luckiest guy in the movie industry. Where else can such an average-looking guy get paid that much just to run around, sweat a little, kiss and grope beautiful women and scream incoherently at the camera.

After 90 minutes of trying to tie together writer Ehren Kruger’s overly intricate nonsense plot, Bay jettisons the script all together and begins doing what he gets paid far too much to do: blow stuff up. In Bay’s defense, the action-packed final hour is not as sensory-assaulting as what was in “ROTF” but it’s a razor-thin call. It probably won’t make your ears and eyes bleed.

Not since “The Dark Knight” has the city of Chicago been laid to waste so completely, and it’s somewhat refreshing that Bay chose it over the overexposed New York or L.A. Although he’ll probably take credit for it, it’s more than likely that gargantuan, soul-swapping paychecks allowed Bay to rope in three Coen Brothers regulars to flesh out the supporting cast and a ragged-voiced former “Star Trek” Vulcan to provide the voice of the lead villain robot.

The most ironic thing about the “Transformers” franchise is that is started out with such promise. To the surprise of the studio and some audiences, most critics loved it. It was new, it was fresh, it didn’t take itself so seriously and it was different.

But with like so many past franchises, the studio didn’t want to mess with The Winning Formula, which probably suited Bay just fine. It took that bothersome task of having to come up with another original thought out of the equation. It’s always easier and less taxing to coast downhill than it is to pedal uphill. (Paramount)