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Dark of the Moon

It must be a matter of expectations. When going to see a movie based on a toy line, past experiences have set the bar pretty low, especially after the one-two punch of G.I. Joe and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

For Transformers: Dark of the Moon to succeed, it didn't really have to accomplish much, just be better than the movie before it. But let's be fair to Director Michael Bay – he's not one to do just enough to succeed. He has to go way over the top. Whatever the reasons for how bad the last Transformers movie really are, the King of Explosions has atoned for it.

If you want, you can consider this a requel. Though Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky makes passing reference to having helped the Autobots save the world twice, nothing in Dark of the Moon requires knowledge of the mess that came before it – the plot here was the evil Megatron's (Hugo Weaving) real plan all along! It's sort of like ignoring Highlander 2.

If you hadn't read any celebrity gossip over the last few months, you don't even need to know that Megan Fox once walked the halls of this franchise. She's dismissed as a mean ex-girlfriend, now replaced by a golden British girl, played by Rosie Huntington-Whitley. All curves and pouts, she seems almost as digitally created as the Transformers. But then, they work pretty seamlessly in the visuals, too.

Oh, the script by Ehren Kruger still has its share of clunkers, but the plot has something like coherence to it. To make up for how ridiculously flat the dialogue is, Bay peppers the movie with some of the funniest character actors he can find, and somehow that makes it all work. Though no one would call Bay an actor's director, he knows enough to get out of an actor's way.

For example, even though John Malkovich says nothing particularly clever, the fact that you're watching John Malkovich try to shadow box Bumblebee the transforming sports car robot is funny in itself.

Special attention, though, has to be paid to an unexpected comedy team. John Turturro has settled into his role as Agent Simmons, not working nearly so hard to be outrageous, just letting it flow. But now he has a bodyguard/personal secretary named Dutch (Alan Tudyk), who almost steals the movie away in just a handful of scenes. You have to wonder, did he attend military universities or is he just that awesome?.

And for those who consider Bay's work empty, at least here he displays a point of view and tries to lightly touch on the frustrations of his audience. Despite world-saving and a full scholarship from the U.S. government, Sam is among the ranks of the unemployed.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, the Autobots have been sneaking out and making covert strikes against the enemies of the U.S. They fight for freedom, wherever there's trouble. Though they stand for Earth, admit it, Mr. Bay – they're Real American Heroes. The man's in charge of the wrong toy franchise.

Dark of the Moon has an uneasy balance among slapstick comedy, the need to sell toys, and trying to show some actual consequences to the "evil" that the Autobots are trying to prevent. Bay and Kruger mine some violent and dark territory as Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Sam uncover a terrible secret tying the past of Cybertron into a disaster for the future of Earth.

Both robots and humans get ripped apart fairly casually. When it's one of the Decepticons, that's not so bad. Again giving Bay credit, however, this time around the Autobots have a lot more personality and, yes, humanity. Even just threatening their lives becomes unexpectedly tense.

After establishing plot and bouncing back and forth from humor to violence, the movie just goes wild. Believe it or not, the not-particularly-subtle director still hadn't gone all out. For the movie's final hour, it's one long grim siege on Chicago, with bravura action sequences that barely give you a chance to breathe. Occasionally they're lightened by an instant or two of the human actors trying to reflect, but it's clear there that Bay has gone too far for them to hold their own.

Right, that's faint praise, and I'll admit that the siege felt like it could have stood some trimming. But Bay handles it so well, especially in one section with Josh Duhamel's military team using glider suits to assault the Decepticons.

The special effects also raise the bar. Somehow, the creative team couldn't make cameos by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon look real, but not once will you question that the Transformers roam the Earth. And it works in 3-D, too, absolutely the best and brightest 3-D effects of the summer so far and so the one movie I'm recommending paying extra for IMAX 3D, if only for the sheer spectacle.

So surprise. The movie I was least excited about this summer turns out to be the most satisfying. It's true popcorn entertainment, though a little dark for the kids. And though the toy tie-ins are obvious, not once does it feel like segments are done to sell ancillary products.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just meant to be a good summer blockbuster, nothing more than meets... oh, you know.

Derek McCaw

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