Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Over the past 14 years, Michael Bay has directed eight features, including Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and the original Transformers. Their average length has been 145 minutes. Even notorious super-size director James Cameron has released only one movie as long — a little number called Titanic. Peter Jackson sports a shorter career average, and that's counting his Lord of the Rings films. No filmmaker of the 21st century appears to be more in love with the sound of his cinematic voice.
So there's an almost sublime irony to the scene in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in which disgraced ex-agent Simmons (John Turturro) chastises an Autobot for his rambling exposition: "Beginning, middle, end ... Plot. Condense. Tell it."
Had Bay taken this advice, offered by screenwriters Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, he might have finally turned out a film as devoted to efficient storytelling as it is to big kabooms. Instead, he presides over another bloated back-story connecting kick-ass fights between giant robots.
Since the last film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has finished high school while the remaining Autobots, including Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), work with the American military to root out lingering Decepticons. What keeps the Decepticons hanging around Earth? What long-held grudge motivates their leader referred to only as The Fallen (Tony Todd, erstwhile Candyman)? What secrets of their civilization does Sam carry in his head after touching a shard of the All-Spark? Will Mikaela (Megan Fox) finally get Sam to say the "L" word?
I'm going suggest that for the average viewer who whooped it up at the original Transformers, the answer to these questions might be a rousing, "Who cares?" They come to see rockin', sockin' robots, and at times Bay knows exactly how to deliver them. There's a great early sequence in which the All-Spark splinter turns kitchen appliances into critters that look suspiciously like electronic Gremlins (thanks, executive producer Steven Spielberg). Individual fight and chase sequences actually feel more cohesive than they generally have in Bay films. There's cool stuff here, if you're prepared to wait for it.
But you have to wait. Bay and company pack the story with distracting sub-plots, including a pot-brownie trip-out by Sam's mom (Julie White) and a pair of comic-relief Autobot "twins" (voiced by Tom Kenny) that come off as insulting caricatures of "streetwise" hip-hop youngsters. Autobot military liaison Lennox (Josh Duhamel) deals with a rude government overseer (John Benjamin Hickey). Sam's college roommate (Ramon Rodriguez) tags along to provide shrieking reactions.
It feels as though no one had the nerve to tell Bay that his every idea does not belong on screen. To make matters more confusing, it sometimes feels as though Bay is taking the opportunity to pay tribute to every cool action movie he ever loved (see Gremlins sequence above).
It's a shame that Bay doesn't give ample time to the ideas that do work: Turturro's ferociously determined Simmons; the notion of dormant Autobot "Primes" scattered over North America as vintage vehicles; watching Megan Fox run in slow-motion as though auditioning for a Baywatch reboot. It doesn't take narrative subtlety to make a Transformers movie work. It just takes common sense, a little self-discipline and a few simple words: Plot. Condense. Tell it.
At 3 a.m. inside the Cinemark 16 IMAX Theater, what hits you first are two smells: unwashed bodies and movie popcorn. Then, as the voices hush and the colossal screen lights up, the theater fills with sounds so cacophonous, every pulse reverberates through your gut.
Welcome, fans, to the giant alien-robot firefight Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
This crowd is dedicated. Lining up 257 strong in the wee hours of the night are guys eagerly anticipating a larger-than-life Megan Fox; parents with sleepy-eyed, but excited, pajama-clad youngsters; late-night bar-hoppers looking for someone to heckle; and some kids so stoned it seems uncertain whether they will actually stand again.
But amid this motley demographic are the diehard fans, some of whom grew up manipulating plastic vans and helicopters into robot form, and now cherish the cinematic rebirth of their childhood heroes.
Matt Dickey spent $9,000-plus morphing his 1977 Camaro into the Bumblebee from the first Transformers film — skid marks and air freshener included. Asked why, he replies, "Why not?" The classic muscle car, parked on the plaza, serves to point the crowd toward the IMAX doors and becomes the background for dozens of cell phone photos.
And then there's Jeannatte Lopez, whose devotion to being a "cool mom" led her to rouse her two sons — one of whom, at 7, is the youngest in the theater — out of bed around 1 to take them to see the sequel to the film they loved so much.
Topping them all is Nick Lott of fanboyz.net, a movie review site. He's been camped out in front of the theater, in a setup complete with tents, carpet, coolers and couches, for six nights. To his credit, he and his colleagues have handed out movie paraphernalia in exchange for non-perishable food donations to Care and Share.
Yes, even in unwashed bodies and movie popcorn, some people find the sweet smell of success.