Trassformers: Dark of the MoonTRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

As long as Transformers: Dark of the Moon didn't come off as the worst movie of the year - or rather, the worst movie of several years - it would stand as a notable improvement on 2009's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I'm greatly relieved, then, to say that Michael Bay's latest, ultra-loud toy story is not the foul, nightmarish, jaw-dropping travesty that its predecessor was. Only half of it is.

That's a pleasant surprise, but the bigger surprise of Dark of the Moon is that so much of it manages to entertain and even, on occasion, exhilarate, which is no mean feat considering that almost none of it makes a lick of sense. Sure, the film is awful in the expected Michael Bay ways: The storyline is all but completely incoherent; characters switch allegiances and locales shift with no rhyme or reason; the comedic routines - at least the routines that appear comedic - seem to have been thought up by a particularly slow-witted fourth-grader. (Was Ehren Kruger's script, by any chance, written in crayon?) Still, I've endured less amusing sights this year than Dark of the Moon's image of an enormous, slithering, metallic worm tearing up Chicago's Wacker Drive. And its team of soldiers sliding down a toppling skyscraper like passengers on the Titanic. And Alan Tudyk, as a vaguely fey German named Dutch, breezing across the screen in a floral-patterned suit jacket. Bay's movie may be crummy in big ways, but it's kind of great in lots of little ones.

Do you even care about the plot? There are good transformers, the Autobots, and bad transformers, the Decepticons, and they fight. A lot. There's a narrative thread involving the 'bots home planet of Cybertron being pulled into the Earth's atmosphere. Every so often, Shia LaBeouf throws a hissy fit about not being appreciated for saving the planet - twice! - while not recognizing that he might be getting the brush-off for being an obnoxious, dithering ass. (Has any other screen actor degenerated from entertaining to excruciating quite as thoroughly, or quickly, as Shia LaBeouf? Does anyone still enjoy watching this guy?) And it all ends with a thunderous battle royale above and within the Windy City. You'll know when Dark of the Moon's last scene is starting, because it arrives at roughly the movie's 90-minute mark ... which would be awesome if the movie weren't 150 minutes long. Seriously, the final hour is one extended action sequence, albeit one occasionally interrupted by lame jokes.

Shia LaBeouf in Transformers: Dark of the MoonWhich is, of course, just what the film's fan base wants, and heaven knows Bay delivers as much Transformers-ness in Dark of the Moon as anyone could possibly want. From the cheeky revisionist history of the opening moon-landing to the bowel-loosening explosions of the finale, Bay's movie feels like an attempt to outdo everything the director has previously attempted in terms of scale and visual audacity, and there are moments when he succeeds rather spectacularly. That steel-covered slithery thing - which is called Shockwave, and which is like a more menacing and destructive version of Dune's sandworm - is pretty breathtaking, and the Decepticons' casual annihilation of Chicago's citizenry is pretty horrific; terrified onlookers are zapped by lasers (or something) and burst into poofs of smoke, shredded clothing, and bone. While the protracted climax eventually turns into too much of a fine thing, the effects are mostly outstanding, and some scenes feature unexpectedly potent imagery: paratroopers falling from the sky like flying squirrels, a building's slow collapse suggested through the unbalanced water level in a glass pitcher.

As usual, the banter between the transformers, good and evil, vacillates between humorless exposition and humorless wisecracks, and the dialogue is occasionally obvious to the point of stupefaction. (When a tiff among a trio of 'bots leads to a Mexican standoff, did we really need one of them to say, "It's a Mexican standoff!"?) But while no one could conceivably be going to this second sequel for the wit, you might be in shock at just how much wit the movie actually contains, especially since the screenwriter doesn't appear to have provided any himself.

To be sure, LaBeouf is consistently dreadful, Ken Jeong (must he be in everything?!) briefly matches him, and while arm candy Rosie Huntington-Whiteley improves on Megan Fox, that was hardly a tough assignment. (Huntington-Whiteley is an amazing camera specimen, though; her lips seem to encompass half her face.) Still, while you're waiting for the next bit of mind-blowing action spectacle in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, take a moment to thank the gods of eccentricity for John Turturro, Frances McDormand, Julie White, Kevin Dunn, Patrick Dempsey, the great Alan Tudyk, and - gulp! - John Malkovich, all of whose sly-comic contributions help make the wait a relatively painless one. Reacting to the unfathomable presence of LaBeouf in his building, Malkovich's uppity business magnate asks, "WTF to that?" I asked the same thing about Malkovich's presence but couldn't have been happier to see him.

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