The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 20, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'Pacific Rim' a perfect summer movie

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Many years ago, there was a video game called "King of Monsters," where each player would select some form of gigantic, Godzilla-esque creature with which to fight. Then they would do combat with each other, the victor the one with the strongest monster.

It was essentially professional wrestling, only the combatants were jacked up on radiation rather than steroids. It was mindless, pointless and a ton of fun.

"Pacific Rim," the latest movie from director Guillermo del Toro, is essentially "King of Monsters" blown up for the big screen.

It is an undetermined year in the future. The human race is being decimated by Kaiju, monstrous sea creatures that have been systematically attacking population centers across the world. To combat these beings, the military has developed giant robots, called Jaegers, which are controlled by two people simultaneously who must share a brain bond in order to handle the mechs.

When the government decides that vast protective walls will be more effective than the Jaegers, the program is dismantled, forcing its chief proponent Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to take the remaining machines underground to set up a last line of defense to protect the free world.

Pentecost must trust ace pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) to shake off the emotional turmoil of losing his brother in battle, all the while learning to fight alongside a new rookie partner Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who herself has to deal with her own past baggage in order to help fight alongside her compatriots.

This may all seem like a lot of plot, but it is very lightly sprinkled throughout the movie.

The film is, first and foremost, about robots and monsters wailing on each other, and that is delivered in bulk. This is Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots merged with "Godzilla." Think of it as the best parts of the three "Transformers" movies.

It is, at its core, a mindless excuse to throw as much carnage on the screen as allowed by the PG-13 rating, and as such, it is about all you could ask for in a summer movie.

That's not to discount the work done in the film. del Toro has gone from fanboy director ("Blade 2," "Hellboy") to Oscar-nominated auteur ("Pan's Labyrinth"), and here he manages to merge the two sides of his career. He has a movie that will appeal to the science-fiction crowd, yet has enough heart and message to appeal to the more mainstream audience.

The special effects are seamless, far more focused and professionally executed than the aforementioned "Transformers" series. Where director Michael Bay subscribes to the bigger-is-better philosophy, regardless of how muddled or overly busy the result on screen is, del Toro keeps a cleanness to his presentation, allowing the action to be followed without straining to discern which character is which. Even in 3-D (unnecessary, but at least not distracting) the action is clear.

The acting is a mixed bag, but this is a movie not built on acting. Hunnam plays Raleigh as a perpetually grimacing character, looking as though he needs to up the fiber content in his diet.

But Elba, who bounces back and forth from crap-tacular fare such as "The Losers" and "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" to well received roles in television's "The Wire" and "Luther," once again takes hold of the screen, commanding every scene that he's in. He is intimidating, while still being compassionate, acting as the emotional backbone of the film.

Most of the cast is there simply to propel the movie from one battle to the next, but at least del Toro throws some solid talent into the thankless roles. Charlie Day plays a variation of his "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" character or, for that matter, his "Horrible Bosses" role, but he adds a dose of humor to what could have been an overly dour film. And del Toro favorite Ron Perlman adds some intimidation as a black market Kaiju organ harvester.

Overall, "Pacific Rim" is precisely what I would expect from a summer action movie. Rather than the stupidity of "White House Down" or the uncertainty of "Man of Steel," "Rim" finds the precise balance of action and heart needed to make the film compelling. It may be light on plot, but it delivers on the mindless action, elevating it over so many summer season also-rans.