1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
Here's an interesting concept for a new TV reality show. Take two well-known directors with polar-opposite styles and sensibilities and challenge them to make their next film as if they were the other guy. The popcorn blockbuster dude would have to craft an art film on a shoestring budget, and the generally independently funded auteur would get more than $200 million to make an action spectacular.
Although unlikely to actually happen on TV any time soon, this scenario was played out for real on the big screen in 2013. Michael Bay, the man responsible for the "Transformers" franchise, made the not-quite-artsy-but-certainly-low-budget "Pain & Gain" and delivered his best film in 15 years, if not ever. Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican visionary behind such gems as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone," has made a movie that could easily be a Bay film and it is by far the worst offering of his career.
Although there are no Transformers as such, there are skyscraper-tall machines with human-inspired physiques called Jaegers (German for hunter) that must protect Earth from the Kaiju (Japanese for strange beast), mutant reptilian creatures that live beneath the Pacific Ocean. Think of the Kaiju as a hybrid of Godzilla, a dinosaur from "Jurassic Park" and the title creature in "Alien."
The only interesting portion of the movie occurs in the extended pre-opening title sequence where del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham ("Clash of the Titans") provide the back story with mixed live-action, found video, non-fiction news clips and ultra-economic voiceover. Set in 2020, this stretch of the film shows a united global effort battling -- without much success -- multiple attacks of the Kaiju on prominent U.S. West Coast and prominent Asian cities.
Jump ahead five years when the Jaeger program -- overseen by former pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) -- is on fiscal life-support. Part Patton, part Black Panther, Pentecost is trying to talk Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) to re-up. It was back in 2020 that Raleigh lost his brother to a Kaiju clash and now works as a pouting welder on some giant wall somewhere.
Suggesting James Franco by way of Tom Cruise-era "Top Gun," Hunnam's Raleigh is now a battle-scarred, mentally questionable, lone-wolf type brimming with bluster and a burning need to avenge his brother's death. Although we know it immediately, Pentecost dawdles and takes close to an hour before officially announcing Raleigh's replacement co-pilot to be Mako (Rinko Kikuchi).
Mousy but driven, Mako has some sort of previous connection with Pentecost that he feels would prevent her from succeeding in battle. Handled through flashback, this section of the film will singlehandedly scare the tar out of any child. Parents take note: despite the claims of the Warner Bros. marketing team, "Pacific Rim" is not in any way suitable for family viewing.
Keeping himself in check for as long as one could possibly expect, del Toro finally abandons relative subtlety, thoughtfulness and restraint and goes totally bat guano crazy. Rivaling but not quite exceeding similar fight scenes shown in "The Avengers," "Transformers" and "Man of Steel," "Pacific Rim" descends into just another generic, sensory-overload assault on the senses.
With Bay-inspired hyper-editing and sound effects that will literally thump your chest, the last hour plays out like a high-end video game or gonzo theme park ride. To ensure this experience will be as unpleasant as possible, del Toro shoots most of it at night and in the rain where blue, black and grey dominate the color palette.
Although the calendar shows it to be not even three weeks old, the summer 2013 season for Hollywood effectively ended with the July 4 release "The Lone Ranger" -- the industry's last "A" title. Beginning now with the B-grade "Pacific Rim" and continuing through Labor Day, the offerings will become steadily less bombastic, but certainly no less silly and in lieu of lousy action flicks will be mostly unfunny C-grade comedies.
If "Pacific Rim" and "Pain & Gain" prove anything, it is that with a good story and decent acting, almost any director can make a great movie, regardless of budget. It also makes clear that no amount of filmmaking talent, money or CGI can make up for just a bunch of stuff blowing up. Fall can't get here too soon. (Warner Bros.)