Pacific Rim Uprising (Photo: Universal)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Steven S. DeKnight
STARS John Boyega, Scott Eastwood

Before it opened in July 2013, the hype surrounding director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was at an eardrum-shattering pitch — so deafening, in fact, that one would have been forgiven for assuming the picture would end up grossing more than TitanicAvatar and The Avengers combined. Of course, online hype doesn’t always translate into real-world dollars, and this $200 million production barely cracked the $100 million mark at the U.S. box office (among summer ’13 efforts, even the now-forgotten animated yarn Epic earned more). Thankfully for Warner Bros., the international audience added another $300 million to the till, which is why we’re now receiving Pacific Rim Uprising.

While del Toro returns as a co-producer, he vacated the director’s chair for this one, allowing veteran TV writer-director-producer Steven S. DeKnight (DaredevilSpartacus) to have his first crack at the big screen. Pacific Rim Uprising really isn’t any worse than its humdrum predecessor and in some ways manages to even top it. Hence, if you enjoyed the first film, you’ll likely enjoy this one, and if you didn’t … well, you know the routine.

In my review for the 2013 original, I dismissed it as “basically a CGI circle jerk,” which admittedly might have been a tad harsh – after all, no franchise deserves that slam as much as the Transformers line. Still, despite del Toro’s efforts to make a film in the grand tradition of Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, the overwhelming clutter and drab characters skewed a little too close to the Michael Bay movies. Pacific Rim Uprising offers more of the same, with one notable exception. Instead of deadwood Charlie Hunnam as the lead, we now get John Boyega, and that’s one notch in the belt of this follow-up.

The particulars of Boyega’s role are dreary, even if his performance isn’t. Jake Pentecost is the son of Stacker Pentecost, the barking officer played by Idris Elba in the first film. (Did Stacker even mention having a son in the previous picture, or is this the lazy screenwriting device of adding a character after the fact since true inspiration was taking the day off? But I digress.) Naturally, Jake could have been the bestest pilot ever – or so he’s told by his former teammate, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Instead, he opted to leave the military-industrial world of the Jaegers, the giant robots that were created to defeat the fearsome alien monsters known as Kaiju.

With the Kaiju threat long over, Jake has opted to engage in petty larcenies involving stolen Jaeger parts — the latest of his heists puts him in contact with Amara (Cailee Spaeny), an orphan who has built her own mini-Jaeger named Scrapper (this franchise’s marketing answer to Porgs, Ewoks and Bumblebee). Both caught in the act of pilfering, Jake and Amara end up back at Jaeger HQ at just the right time, since some of the giant robots are turning rogue and there are also hints that the Kaiju might be returning to our world to wreak further havoc.

Rinko Kikuchi, one of the bright spots in the first flick, returns as Mako Mori, but her role is rather thankless this time around. Worse, her presence reminds us that, just as the heroes in Pacific Rim were a disillusioned pilot returning to the fold (Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket) and an orphaned girl who blossoms into a champion fighter (Kikuchi’s Mako Mori), this new picture also finds in Jake and Amara a disillusioned pilot returning to the fold and an orphaned girl who blossoms into a champion fighter. What was that about inspiration taking the day off? How about the entire week?

Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who provided insufferable comic relief back in ’13 as a pair of bickering Kaiju experts, return for this outing, so prepare for more suffering. On the bright side, newcomer Spaeny (in her first movie, with four more due this year alone!) shows promise, and she provides her pint-sized character with the proper measure of spunk.

As for the marquee attractions, the Jaegers and the Kaiju (yes, the latter eventually turn up; this is only a spoiler if you’ve never seen a movie before in your entire life), they engage in some battles that are sure to titillate the faithful. Like del Toro (and unlike Bay), DeKnight at least can stage action scenes that are accessible rather than incoherent, although a little of them goes a long way. There’s about as much entertainment value in watching two Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots pummel each other on the kitchen table as in watching these monoliths monotonously mutilate each other on the screen — and the battles are a lot shorter, to boot.

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