‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ review: Amid the banging and Optimus Priming, a pretty zippy movie

Tribune Content Agency

You know what’s not bad? “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” Dumber than a box of lugnuts, but superior to the Michael Bay-directed schlocktaculars that ran as long as 165 minutes. The new “Transformers” movie clocks in at 117 minutes, a lot of them pretty zippy.

The year is 1994. Anthony Ramos of “In the Heights” portrays Noah Diaz, an Army vet and electronics expert whose little brother (Dean Scott Vazquez) copes with sickle cell disease. Money’s tight. Their mother (Luna Lauren Vélez) works hard to keep the family afloat. This time Noah’s the one who discovers: that car he just stole? It’s an Autobot, from the planet Cybertron, reporting to noble interstellar warrior Optimus Prime, who’s about to face Earth’s latest nonpolitical calamity: the planet-sucking Unicron.

In “Rise of the Beasts” the Autobots have been stranded on Earth for seven years and seven films. This one’s a time-traveling movie, kind of, thrown in the wash with fragments of Indiana Jones (referenced by name); a sliver of a “Fast & Furious” headbanger (some nimble digital and practical chase footage); plus a hint of a “King Kong” movie. The good-guy Maximals, whose planet got et by Unicron, end up in Peru, where they befriend the locals. The Maximal leader is the gorrilla-esque leader Optimus Primal. In other words he’s a large, furry pun.

Alongside Ramos’ Noah, Dominique Fishback plays the other significant human character introduced here, an unappreciated but brilliant museum factotum Elena. She and Ramos mellow out the movie’s inevitable mechanical vibe; they’re good company. Elena’s discovery of the ancient, all-powerful “Transwarp Key”becomes the thing everyone’s chasing after, including giant and speedy mechanical spiders, aka Terrorcons, marshaled by the vicious Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage).

It took five credited screenwriters to craft, lovingly, lines such as: “Get the key!” “Many more will perish … if the key falls into the wrong hands.” “Who are you? (Pause) And why are you hunting for the key?” And my favorite: “The Autobots are moving. (Pause) (Pause) They must have found the key.”

I kid the script, but it does some things well. The cross-cutting (both as written and filmed, by director Steven Caple Jr.) in the early Manhattan scenes between Noah’s and Elena’s lives disarms the audience into thinking it’s getting two other movies — a heist film, inside “Night at the Museum: Who Invited These Jerks from Space?”

My eyes may be playing tricks on me, but the filmmaking itself boasts an upgraded level of digital effects, which affects nearly every scene. To be sure, much of the action constitutes the usual Enormous Toaster Vs. Outsized Blender chaos, leading to a full complement of spinal cord tear-outs and beheadings and dismemberings. It’s a “Transformers” movie! It’s not “An Affair to Remember.” The whole point of these movies is to desensitize us to the brutality, and to spend a couple hundred million dollars playing with Hasbro’s toys for us.

“Rise of the Beasts,” at least, has some buoyancy, with little of the reactionary American exceptionalism (the Bay “Transformers” movies’ trademark) of its predecessors. The Peruvian location work helps. Also, Bumbleblee’s back, referred to simply as “Bee” by Optimus Prime. Two more “Transformers” movies with these new characters are lining up on Paramount’s runway, ready to go depending on the box office and the writers’ strike. And you know? If they’re this pretty-good, bring ‘em on.



2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language)

Running time: 1:57

How to watch: In theaters Friday