"Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the third installment of director Michael "Boom Boom" Bay's clash of the mechanized morphing Cybertron titans, is surprisingly minimalist in an ear-splitting, bone-rattling maximus way. Don't get me wrong, the franchise remains as much an endurance test as a movie, but at least a better Bay has delivered a leaner, meaner, cleaner 3-D rage against the machines.
By showing a measure of restraint and using 3-D to excellent effect, Bay finally enables the Transformers to emerge as players in their own right, with hopes and dreams, declaiming their philosophies of fate, humankind and the universe in grand Shakespearean style.
There are other upgrades as well. Shia LaBeouf is back as Autobots confidant Sam Witwicky, though that smoking yellow classic Camaro that hid Bumblebee has mostly deserted him. It's been interesting to watch LaBeouf, as well as Sam, kind of grow up in the role. The actor's toughened up nicely as a recently minted college grad with a "but I saved mankind" chip on his job-hunting shoulder.
Even with the added edge and all the jams Sam and the rest of the cast get themselves into, there's a sense that everyone is having a lot more fun in "Moon." Frances McDormand, as the prickly head of national security, and John Turturro, reprising his crazed former intelligence agent, seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves as former colleagues who possibly did a little "undercover" spying back in the day. All of which makes "Dark of the Moon" considerably more watchable than the last "Transformers" outing — which is the very definition of a low bar.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger, flying solo this time around, plants a flag in the conspiracy theories swirling around the first moon landing in '69 throwing in a NASA cover-up. There is a clever cameo by elder astronaut statesman Buzz Aldrin to give credence to what happened, and the whole "event" provides a reason to introduce another ancient warrior, this one with Cybertron mettle, in Sentinel Prime (voiced by an unmistakable Leonard Nimoy). It also sets up the showdown between Optimus and the Autobot good guys and those devilish Decepticons, which is the spine of the plot and "Transformers" raison d'etre, always.
To lead that charge, the filmmakers have brought back most of the Transformers' fighting front line led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen's booming baritone), special-forces hunk Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and righteous renegade Epps (Tyrese Gibson). Of course the guy with the really big guns is Bay. He's armed to the teeth, but stripping down his battles between the metal giants to more one-on-one action that even non-Transformer fanatics can follow.
There are wars to wage and cities (mainly Chicago) to destroy, but let's not forget the love story, which provides the necessary eye candy for fanboys' piece of the equation. Sam's current girlfriend Carly is played by British up-and-stunner Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who delivers just as convincing a pillowy pout as Megan Fox did (the actress unable or unwilling to rebound from her spat with the filmmaker). Patrick Dempsey, more McDreary than McDreamy here, shows up as a too-slick mogul with a penchant for fast cars and Carly's curves.
Driving the mayhem, as usual, are the Decepticons with Megatron (Hugo Weaving sounding as ominous as ever) plotting a comeback coup after that embarrassing setback in 2009's "Revenge of the Fallen." That the world is once again under siege, is good news for Sam, who's already bored working for a tanning salon-toasted John Malkovich, funny and nearly orange in the split second of screen time he's given.
It's also good news for us because you don't go to "Transformers" for the character or the plot, you go for metal-crushing, sensory-overloading action. Between Bay's obsession to make his 3-D matter and the artistry of the special effects legions amassed for the project, the visual payoff is striking. The individual character articulation is so finely rendered we can actually see the complexity of the robots' construction as they morph from the ordinary — car, plane or whatever — into their towering mechanized essence.
But the action sequences, while cutting a spectacular path of destruction, go on far too long (an ongoing "Transformers" issue), including the final pitched battle, which displays dazzling firepower but extends for roughly an hour.
As always, the heart of the film is in the hands of Sam and the machines, while Bay mans the battering ram. And for anyone who makes it through to the bitter end, really, I think certificates of completion are in order.
'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo
Running time: 2 hours, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release