The big news about the new Transformers movie (not a sentence I envisioned writing while attending journalism school) is that this seventh installment features the first appearance of the Maximals on the big screen. Whether that information means anything to you or not will determine if you’re the target audience for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, a de facto sequel to 2018’s Bumblebee that features enough rock ‘em, sock ‘em robot action to thrill the faithful while showcasing appealing performances by Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as the token humans on hand.
The story begins in New York City circa 1994, providing plenty of opportunity for the soundtrack inclusion of classic ‘90s-era hip-hop cuts to complement the thundering score by Jongnic “JB” Bontemps. We’re introduced to Noah (Ramos, In the Heights), a former Army private and tech wiz trying to make ends meet by setting up illegal cable boxes for his friends. Noah is desperately in need of money to help support his hard-working mom (Luna Lauren Velez, Dexter) and to pay for the extensive medical needs of his devoted kid brother (Dean Scott Vazquez), who suffers from sickle cell anemia.
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The other major non-robot character is Elena (Fishback, Judas and the Black Messiah), a talented researcher working at an archaeological museum on Ellis Island who attempts to discover the lineage of a recently discovered ancient artifact resembling the Maltese Falcon. She gets more than she bargained for when her late-night examination of the piece virtually destroys it, revealing a mysterious object inside.
Meanwhile, Noah, during a botched attempt at minor criminality, winds up hiding in a Porsche 911 that soon reveals itself to be Mirage (the ubiquitous Pete Davidson), an Autobot laying low in the city along with his fellow Transformers, including Optimus Prime (series stalwart and MVP Peter Cullen), Bumblebee and Arcee (Liza Koshy).
It turns out that the object Elena discovered is an interplanetary beacon capable of summoning the fearsome planet-sized Unicron (Colman Domingo), the leader of the Terrorcons who are intent on destroying both the Autobots’ home world and Earth. Needless to say, it all leads to a tremendous amount of violent mayhem as the Autobots team up with the Maximals to defeat the Terrorcons, who are led in battle by the very cranky Scourge (Peter Dinklage). Noah and Elena get caught up in the conflict as well, accompanying the Autobots to Peru to help save the world.
The Maximals, for those not in the know, stem from a syndicated animated television series that ran from 1996 to 1999, featuring Transformers who take animal shapes. The fan-favorite robot beasts include Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), a gorilla; Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), a peregrine falcon; Rhinox (David Sobolov), which you can guess; and Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), ditto. This breed of Transformers who sport genuine-seeming fur, skin and wings represents a nice contrast from the vehicular brand to which we’ve become accustomed.
The film benefits greatly from its locations, including New York City (and Montreal subbing for same) and especially Peru, including the gorgeous historic city of Cusco and the ruins of Machu Picchu, which haven’t received this kind of exposure since, well, virtually everyone’s dating site profile.
Director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) steps up to the plate nicely, with this massive production representing a major departure from the smaller-scale films he’s previously helmed. (Of course, it helps to have Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg among the producers.) The many, many action sequences are spectacularly conceived and executed, including a car chase on the Williamsburg Bridge that’s probably still tying up downtown traffic.
Let’s face it, watching those Transformers transform themselves never gets old. These Hasbro action figures, and their onscreen incarnations, are capable of reducing even the most mature, jaded adult into an awestruck child who just wants to get down on the floor and play with them. Late in the film, Ramos’ character becomes a Transformer himself, and you can practically feel the toy manufacturers trying to figure out a way to get a home version in stores by the holiday season.
As for the story, well, that proves less interesting, although the five, count ‘em, five screenwriters attempt to invest the proceedings with genuine human emotion. While the subplot involving Noah’s kid brother battling illness feels like something that even Pat O’Brien would have deemed too corny in a ‘30s melodrama, the growing friendship between Noah and Elena — fueled by their shared Brooklyn roots and desire to save the world without dying in the process — proves effectively sweet. Ramos invests his performance with a dynamic enthusiasm that will certainly work for younger viewers, while Fishback, so impressive in the recent Prime Video series Swarm, proves equally relatable.
The voice talents are also impressive, with Perlman and Dinklage using their stentorian delivery in suitably imposing fashion and Yeoh proving perfect as the falcon Maximal because, as everyone knows, she can actually fly in real life. The only misstep is Davidson as the wisecracking Mirage; the comedian-actor’s voice is distractingly recognizable delivering lame Marky Mark jokes and groaners like “Cojones muy grande!”
The film ends with a teaser hinting that the Transformers franchise will next be conjoined with another. No spoilers, but if you’re thinking corporate synergy, you wouldn’t be far off.
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