Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Cast:
Shia LaBouf as Sam Witwicky
Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes
Ramon Rodriguez as the voice of Leo
Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime
Mark Ryan as the voice of Bumblebee
John Turturro as Agent Simmons
Tom Kenny as the voice of The Twins
Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox
Tyrese Gibson as USAF Tech Sergeant Epps
Hugo Weaving as the voice of Megatron
Kevin Dunn as Ron Witwicky
Julie White as Judy Witwicky
Isabel Lucas as Alice
Tony Todd as the voice of The Fallen
John Benjamin Hickey as Galloway
Frank Welker as the voice of Soundwave

Review:
It’s better than the first “Transformers,” for whatever that’s worth.

Among the myriad problems director Michael Bay’s first shot at the franchise had, the big one seemed to be a fear, or at least lack of understanding, of how to fit his robots into his story. For the most part they were sidelined in favor of several different groups of human characters–most of them not relevant to the main story–and an extended trip down clich├ęd storyline lane.

It’s two years on and Bay and his screenwriters have learned some of their lessons and had something of a rethink about how to conceptualize the Transformers and integrate them into the world at large.

Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and his Autobots now work with the military, instead of being hunted by them, in order to root out the remaining pockets of Decepticons on Earth. Meanwhile, young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBouf) is preparing for college, which means leaving everything from his old life behind, including his girl (Megan Fox), his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White) and his transforming car.

But some things, it turns out, you just can’t leave behind, as a shard from the previous film’s MacGuffin fills Sam with alien knowledge. Knowledge the Decepticons and their leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving) need to destroy the planet and conquer the galaxy.

This new and improved “Transformers” iteration benefits from both a greater scope and tighter focus. Gone are the myriad different, unconnected plot lines. The soldiers of the first film (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) are still around, but they serve a similar purpose to the Autobots–engaging in the action sequences–and not much else. Which is generally for the best. The bulk of the film’s story centers on Sam and his attempt to first dodge and then embrace his place in the robot war going on around him.

The Transformers still come second in their own film, but at least it’s to just one character’s story this time. It doesn’t stop the Transformers from often being put into storage while “Revenge of the Fallen” meanders through several generally meaningless bits of ‘entertainment’ like Sam’s mom eating pot-brownies and wandering around campus stoned.

Of course, this is Michael Bay we’re talking about; as a director at least he’s a 13-year-old boy trapped in a 40-year-old’s body.

That does mean you can expect giant, mind-numbing action sequences filled with state-of-the-art effects and massive pyrotechnics. As good as they were in the first “Transformers,” the ante has been raised quite a few notches in “Revenge of the Fallen.” It helps that he’s dropped the low angle, shaky, hand held camera look that made the first film often painful to watch.

At its best, “Revenge of the Fallen” briefly manages to reach a level of epic grandeur, particularly during a woodland fight as Optimus Prime takes on all of the Decepticons single-handedly to protect Sam. It’s one of the few moments where all of the films pieces come together into a working whole, and where the effort to make an actual emotional connection with one of the Transformers pays off tremendously.

But this is Michael Bay we’re talking about.

It hits its high point about halfway through and never really makes it back again, as its director’s attention wanders about from Mikaela’s garage to a college dorm to Egypt and the moons of Saturn.

It also offers up a plethora of new Transformery-ideas, including a particularly inventive two-dimensional machine made up of thousands of tiny, transforming ball bearings. More than a few nods to the decades of Transformers mythology are included as well, from N.E.S.T. to space bridges to Pretenders (Transformers that pretend to be human).

Ultimately, though, the film’s scale begins to work against it. At two hours and twenty minutes “Revenge of the Fallen” covers a lot of ground and loses its way more than a few times, such as when John Turturro’s old secret agent returns and the group goes off lucking for an ancient Transformer called Jetfire. By the end it suffers quite a bit from “X-Men: The Last Stand” disease as a gaggle of unknown, uncharacterized robots show up just to wail on each other. You also end up with characters like Devastator who seem to only exist to please fans, but offer nothing worth while to the story itself. They’re just there to be there.

That’s one of the few areas where “Revenge of the Fallen” comes in second to its predecessor. Outside of Optimus Prime and Megatron and few others, most of the Transformers themselves are interchangeable. They exist to fight with each other and not much else, undoubtedly because someone decided that’s all the core audience was really interested in. And who knows, they may be right, but that doesn’t make it particularly fun to watch.

All things considered, though, that might have been for the best. Outside of Optimus, (who carries a great deal of natural gravitas, thanks to Peter Cullen’s voice, which seems immune to Bay’s worst impulses) any Transformer Bay does turn his attention to is almost certain to be fingers-on-a-chalkboard irritating.

It’s a guarantee that any small Transformer will gibber incessantly, because it’s supposed to be funny. Bay has worked a minor miracle there, as his reimagined version of Wheelie is even more annoying than the original which honestly didn’t seem possible. What’s really scary is that he isn’t the worst part of the film.

That honor goes to the Twins, a pair of immature, borderline racist stereotypes who jabber incessantly (in a sort of Chris Tucker manner) and fight with each other. I’ll give you three guesses who’s idea The Twins were.

Bay and his screenwriters obviously want to aim the film at younger audiences through the tried and true method of making the characters as stupid and irritating as possible. At the same time, they still want their teenagers, too. It’s all very cynical in the way that only Hollywood summer event films can be.

The sad thing is, I’m pretty sure there’s a good film in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The real bummer is, Michael Bay might even have been able to make it. On the other hand, if he did he probably wouldn’t be Michael Bay anymore.

The people the film was made for won’t notice; they’ll like it for what it is. Which, on consideration, is probably the saddest thing of all. As long as you’re willing to accept crap, you’re not likely to get anything better.

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