For a good hour, there's finally more than meets the eye to a Michael Bay film.
So the director — whose numbing progeny includes "Armageddon" and "The Rock"— packs the 1980s favorite "Transformers" (opening tomorrow) with fine action, lovable characters and even a plot that holds together despite its primitive source material.
But the much-derided filmmaker just can't help himself. Soon, the Bay formula snaps into place. Take a respected actor — here, it's John Turturro — and introduce him in such a buffoonish manner that the entire picture stalls. Then, jam the screen with so much action, smoke and razzmatazz that it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, er, robots.
That's when the leaden, worse-than-a-kiddie-cartoon, dialogue comes in to update the scoreboard.
What? No paint-by-numbers kit for every ticket holder?
Ah, but for a while it's as if Mr. Bay's penchant for excess finally works in our favor.
Young Sam Witwicky (current "it" boy Shia LaBeouf) cowers in the shadow cast by the cool jocks and cheerleaders at school. He gets a break when his dad buys him a used Camaro, and he leverages it to woo his high school crush, Mikaela (Megan Fox, so stunning here she must be a special effect). Meanwhile, a U.S. Army base in Qatar is attacked by a powerful robot trying to steal military secrets, sending the government led by the secretary of defense (Oscar winner Jon Voight) into war mode. Turns out Sam's great-grandfather discovered the first evidence of a robot alien civilization, which eventually leads both the good and bad robots to Sam's door.
At this point, Mr. Bay is pushing our pleasure buttons like Liberace working a room full of blue-haired ladies. We've got Bernie Mac riffing as a used car salesman (there's a movie we'd like to see), a brave Chihuahua with a broken leg and Mr. LaBeouf proving he's worthy of all the hype. Screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman even pull off a fine bit poking fun at the Transformers tagline, more than meets the eye.
Then, the Transformers reveal themselves and all the humor and good cheer start to seep out of the production. Case in point: a belabored sequence in which the good robots hide from Sam's nosy parents and trash the family's back yard in the process. Yawn.
Granted, the Transformers themselves are astounding, a dream for any kid who ever held those Hasbro toys in his pudgy fingers. But once the gee-whiz factor rubs off, we're left with poor Josh Duhamel (NBC's "Las Vegas") playing one of the soldiers attacked in Qatar. The handsome actor wants oh so much to be a movie star, but he sounds like a G.I. Joe with a string you pull to hear him speak.
"Transformers" occasionally stops to deliver some rather un-PC diatribes. Soldiers tease one of their own for speaking Spanish in their midst. Optimus Prime, leader of the good robots, tells the audience the necessity of freedom for the human and robot condition. Is that Tony Snow feeding him lines?
Ultimately, "Transformers" regresses to its child-like roots. But for a good spell it's the kind of popcorn cinema kids of all ages can wolf down.
RATING: Rated PG-13: Action violence, some adult language and sexual humor.
CREDITS:Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Special effects by Industrial Light & Magic
RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes
WEB SITE: www.transformersmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS