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Pacific Rim cranks up the action without dumbing down

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is a wholly original talent (see Pan's Labyrinth and his two Hellboys), but one can't help assume his new movie Pacific Rim was generated from the success of the Transformers movies.

One imagines del Toro witnessing those Michael Bay money-spinners and thinking: Say, what a good idea it would be to make a giant robot movie that delivered action and spectacle, but was also, um, not painfully stupid.

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim could be described as Transformers vs. Godzilla -- except it's not painfully stupid.

WARNER BROS.

Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim could be described as Transformers vs. Godzilla -- except it's not painfully stupid.

Charlie Humman, left, and Rinko Kikuchi must join forces and minds to operate a Jaeger.

WARNER BROS.

Charlie Humman, left, and Rinko Kikuchi must join forces and minds to operate a Jaeger.

Voil: del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beachem offer up a relatively streamlined, easily pitched concept: Transformers vs. Godzilla.

In the year 2020, Earth has been under attack from gigantic reptilian monsters rising from a dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean. The creatures -- dubbed Kaiju -- don't seem to have any purpose other than smashing coastal cities, so the combined nations of the world put aside their differences and pool their resources for a military response. This takes the form of gigantic war-bots -- dubbed Jaegers -- so massive, they need to be piloted by two individuals psychically conjoined to create a single big warrior brain.

Rock stars among these chosen few Jaeger-meisters are Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother, whose successful run of Kaiju takedowns is tragically cut short in the movie's first few minutes.

The bereft Raleigh spends subsequent years eking out a living in Alaska before he is brought back into the Jaeger program by its head honcho, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), as world leaders have basically decided the best remaining course of action, given more frequent invasions by ever larger Kaiju, is to give up.

Stacker is not inclined to go quietly and he gathers the best remaining pilots for one last assault on the aforementioned dimensional rift.

Jockeying to take the place of Raleigh's brother is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young woman orphaned by a Kaiju assault years earlier and looking for a little payback.

Meanwhile, an off-centre scientist named Newton (Charlie Day) attempts to gather intelligence on the Kaiju via mind-meld with a still-living Kaiju brain, a mission that takes him into the company of a sleazy Hong Kong-based Kaiju-parts black marketeer named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman).

Please note Hannibal's gold-plated shoes.

A movie about robots vs. monsters is obviously going for the broad strokes when it comes to entertainment value. And del Toro delivers this, especially in the film's colossal battle scenes at sea and on the rainy cityscapes of Hong Kong.

But the devilish joy of the film is in its details, whether it's Hannibal's rakish style choices, the steampunk fixtures of a Russian-made Jaeger, or the increasingly fiendish biological defence mechanisms of those demonic Kaiju.

More importantly, del Toro gets the tone right. In the Transformers movies, when Michael Bay wanted to evoke some kind of emotional response in his audience, he inevitably defaulted to cheap patriotism: soldiers marching forward in slow motion while a tattered American flag waved somewhere in the background and an insistent military drumbeat tat-tatted on the soundtrack.

Compare that to the flashback scene in Pacific Rim, in which a traumatized young Mako (Mana Ashida, offering up probably the best performance in the film), clutching one of her red shoes amid the devastated streets of Tokyo, is awestruck as she looks up to see her saviour emerging from a Jaeger.

As he demonstrated in Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro respects the power of myth. He uses that wisely, mixed with a sense of fun, to make the best summer movie of 2013.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 D1

History

Updated on Friday, July 12, 2013 at 7:14 AM CDT: changes headline, replaces photo, adds fact box

10:08 AM: adds missing word

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