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When Transformers is going strong early on, it's the grandest—in every sense of the word—entertainment in years. But during the second half it either burns out or burns us out, an amnesia only Michael Bay can induce.


Remember when you were younger and you would hold one Transformer action figure in each hand, maybe have Optimus Prime square off against the sinister Megatron? Well, each of them could now hold your entire body with the curl of their mechanical pinkies—that's the scale on which Michael Bay operates in every movie, not just Transformers. Our first glimpse of the 'bots comes in the deserts of Qatar, where a shape-shifting helicopter makes quick work of defenseless U.S. soldiers. But what they're really after is a keepsake held by an unsuspecting teenager, Sam (Shia LaBeouf), who is actually trying to unload the item on eBay. Sam, however, soon finds out that this family heirloom is the key to Earth's survival—and that his seemingly beat-up jalopy of a car is Bumblebee, a member of the well-intentioned Autobot Transformers. Bumblebee repeatedly saves his life and that of his high school crush (Megan Fox) before the evil Decepticons descend upon our planet to take matters into their own "hands." But they'll have to contend with the likes of all Autobots to win the war—as well as some pissed-off humanoids, like the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) and a couple of soldiers (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson).


In Transformers, there seems to be a hierarchy of strength of performance—by order of age, starting with the youngest. In such an uber-CGI extravaganza, one might expect the older actors to have a better handle on the blue screen-as-a-costar dynamic, but that's not the case. Take Shia LaBeouf, hottest 'it' boy since the last one. The fact that his 'it' predecessor is already forgotten doesn't bode well for Shia; then again, that person didn't have Indiana Jones IV lined up. Despite being the youngest, LaBeouf has as much experience as anyone not named Jon Voight, and it shows. He blows away every other actor, and when he's not merely coexisting with Optimus Prime and co., he steals their thunder, too. LaBeouf's comedic timing is so astounding and infectious that even his eager-to-hate generation of viewers will cheer instead of jeer, but it's his overall energy that gets us in the mood before the Transformers make their proper entrance. Megan Fox will also get people in the mood, for slightly different reasons. Most male viewers will have to mop up their drool after watching the Angelina Jolie wannabe in action—if not for her looks then for her mechanical proficiency—but her and LaBeouf's elders are, well, outdated. Duhamel, there for sex appeal to the chaperone set, is just so damn lucky he doesn't look like Paul Giamatti, but he and a seldom-seen Tyrese aren't as off-key as John Turturro (as a government agent) and Voight. Voight's age, to put it bluntly, prevents him from keeping up with the action and its breakneck pace. Luckily, no actor has a long take without Transformers intervening.


Call Michael Bay Grandmaster Cinema—cinema's master of grand. To him, quality in film is apparently measured by size and decibels, and it has always been the reason for his movies' death (and, to his credit, financial successes). At least Transformers' demise takes a while to surface. Bay, the director responsible for making anyone born circa 2001 think that Pearl Harbor is a theme park, fancies his special effects more integral than the actors or story. But Transformers has a first half that is among the most entertaining in years, thanks to its balance of all three of those elements. The story—a near masterpiece in kitsch screenwriting from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman—is for a while cohesive and so genuinely funny that it's sustenance for the audience whenever Transformers aren't present. And Bay shows the 30-foot-tall robots sparingly at first, great foreplay for an unforgettable scene involving their official chase-sequence intro. The Transformers are groundbreaking, not only in the literal sense but insofar as a new special-effects bar has been set, with a mix of live action and CGI. The movie is clicking on all cylinders at this point. But somewhere along the way, albeit subtly, the story ceases that coherence—or rather, ceases altogether, as the Bay of old takes over and cuts loose. It's as if his disease was in remission for much of the movie and then he had an action relapse. The overlong ending features, nay, is his trademark special-effects orgy, and Transformers flying through buildings and ripping apart a city is suddenly uninteresting. What was once exciting and controlled is now mundane, as Pearl Harbor has come to the metropolis—with robots.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.