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Heavy Metal Showdown The 'Transformers' return for another round of good vs. evil in a battle to save the world

We Americans love our cars. We even personify them and give them names. When my daughter was very little, she began calling our drab old Chevy station wagon "Julie" for some reason no one ever understood.

If you go to a monster truck rally, one of the first things that hits you is that every one of them has a dramatic name -- and so do many cars in the rally parking lot, if you look at the paint-sprayed logos.

Some of that may explain why, at the "Transformers" promotional screening, a good part of the audience began whooping and applauding as soon as the house lights went out and they started showing previews -- previews, for pity's sake. There's a big audience out there for "Transformers" -- mostly boys, former boys and fan boys -- chomping at the bit for this heavy metal extravaganza about warring extraterrestrials who came to earth and now pretend to be cars and trucks.

Who all have names and personalities -- like Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and Megatron, the evil leader of the Decepticons, the bad transformers who are up to no good wherever they happen to land in the cosmos. (None, sadly, are named Julie.)

Sometimes, the Decepticons masquerade as helicopters flying over military bases in Qatar. Sometimes the littler ones pretend to be simple boom boxes no one would ever think twice about, not even aboard Air Force One. But usually they hide among us as beat-up Chevy Camaros, shiny tractor trailers, SUVs, you name it. Call them Autobots, which translated from the language of the Hasbro Company means "toys your kids will probably want very soon if they don't already."

All this goes back to the '80s syndicated cartoon and ensuing animated movie, which good old Leonard Maltin's movie guide dismisses as just a long toy commercial.

The movie opening today and directed by rev-up, dumb-down heavy metal specialist Michael Bay is all of the following things: huge, loud, hyperactively belligerent, puerile, entertaining, and, if you ask me, not half as much fun as "Live Free Or Die Hard," my candidate for the bird-flipping monarch of Independence Day action fantasy.

I bring that movie up because these two movies have weirdly similar plot themes, both involving ultra-evil computer hacking (stealing data, planting viruses) that threatens America itself until someone contacts a mega-geek hacker who lives in the basement with his Mom (or, in this case, Grandma.)

In "Transformers," we're talking about a "DNA-based computer."

Here's why major world conflict looms: bad transformer Megatron is temporarily on ice; so is the giant cube from the planet Cybertron whose energy can imbue all these animate/inanimate creatures with enough force to conquer the world. Or just the July 4th movie box office, whichever Hollywood thinks more important (after checking with Paris Hilton, that is.)

Before the final Transformer battle -- the good Autobots vs. the nasty Decepticons -- rages on the streets of Manhattan and levels buildings, those arrayed on the side of the good, nurturing Autobots are:

*A couple of horny teens: one smoking "hot" as the kids might say (Megan Fox, aptly named), one very crass, clumsy and dweeby (Shia LaBeouf, of "Disturbia" fame.)

*A squad of American soldiers from Qatar (led by Josh Duhamel), who were the first earthlings to engage them in combat. The one that made the biggest trouble for them looked like a giant metal scorpion.

*Jon Voight, our junk movie Olivier, as the U. S. Secretary of Defense. When push comes to shove, he's a fellow who knows what to do with an automatic weapon in his hands.

*John Turturro, as a comically fatuous official with something called Sector 7, the government's extra special Top Secret team that's been on the Transformers' case since, yes, Herbert Hoover built the Hoover Dam.

A notable drawback to "Transformers," if you ask me, is the teen, tween, sub-tween silliness quotient, which is stratospherically high. Whatever it does to make the movie "family friendly" (and, in truth, there was applause at the end of the screening), it just undermines the rest and engineers a wartime finale which is too loud, too long, and too incoherent (sorry, I couldn't always tell who was an Autobot and who a Decepticon.)

Because director Bay ("Pearl Harbor"), in life, is widely known as a man who has seldom met a Playboy Playmate or porn star he couldn't spend time with, you'll notice that every woman under 35 in his movie is a hot babe right out of the pages of a magazine a teen boy might hide under the bed.

That's more than a little ridiculous when Bay is just momentarily showing you a carful of girls who happen to be tossed around a little during the final battle.

But, I must say, it also contributes to my favorite scene in what is otherwise a very expensive, metal-bending, junkyard rattletrap of a movie.

It's like this: the horny teen boy hero (LaBeouf) and the mega-babe teen siren he just met (Fox), at one point, have to find a very important pair of glasses squirreled away in his chaotic teen boy bedroom (don't ask.) They lock the door as they search.

His parents hear the noise and the talking. They bang on his door. Finally, the kid has to let them in, as the girl hides. When the parent/teen boy conversation gets just too intense and too gross, the girl thinks it's time to own up to her presence and emerge from the shadows.

The "Oh my God" look on the boy's parents' faces as they see this teen goddess suddenly appear from the corner of the bedroom of their idiot, hopelessly ineffectual son is worth the entire rest of the movie.

Which, believe me, is no "Die Hard."




Three stars (out of four)

Josh Duhamel, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Megan Fox and John Turturro in Michael Bay's new action fantasy about vehicles and gadgets that transform themselves into giant monsters and heroes.

Rated PG-13, opening today in area theaters.

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