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Review: ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ manages to outpace its predecessor

By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

The “Pacific Rim” action franchise has a relatively simple premise – giant robots and alien monsters clobber each other to smithereens – but surprisingly, it’s driven by a supremely radical embrace of collectivism, teamwork and empathy. This isn’t necessarily a surprise, because it comes from the big, beating heart of Guillermo del Toro, who has always seen opportunities to focus on love and connection in moments of horror. Del Toro directed the first “Pacific Rim,” and produced its sequel, “Pacific Rim Uprising,” which he has left in the hands of director and co-writer Stephen S. DeKnight, who brings a singularly frenetic energy to his feature directorial debut that manages to outpace the first film.

John Boyega stars as Jake Pentecost, the son of the legendary Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba in the first film), who sacrificed himself in the great war against the kaiju. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Pacific Rim” lore, all you need to know is giant alien monsters came out of the sea to destroy everything on earth, and humans hit back with enormous fighting robots called jaegers. Piloted in pairs, the jaeger pilots have to sync up their brains, or “drift,” via a “neural handshake,” that allows them to be inside each other’s brains, swimming around in their memories, emotions and thoughts. Empathetic connection is required to be a good robot fighter pilot.

A decade after the first war with the kaiju, the ocean breaches are sealed, and all seems at peace – for now. Jake, a former Ranger pilot who flamed out and now spends his time partying and bartering on the black market, is pressed to re-enlist as a get-out-of-jail-free card, along with a scrappy young girl, Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who’s been cobbling her own homemade jaeger together.

Like a kaiju, DeKnight has a relentless, propulsive and often bonkers style. “Pacific Rim Uprising” moves at breakneck clip, so just try to keep up. You may catch snippets about “kaiju blood,” “precursors,” “toxic gas” and the names of all the various jaegers like “Gypsy Avenger,” “November Ajax,” “Saber Athena,” “Bracer Phoenix” and the like. The script by DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin strikes a tone that is at once self-aware and open-hearted, and it’s also simply a tornado of dialogue. Boyega doesn’t let a scene go by without a sidebar, quip or joke.

Spaeny shines in her first film role, and casting director Sarah Halley Finn has stacked the cast with a roster of interesting, magnetic newcomers. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman do truly loopy character work as a pair of mad scientists. However, “Pacific Rim Uprising” is propelled by the powerful gravitational pull of John Boyega’s charisma. As Jake, there are dashes of the street smart Moses from “Attack the Block,” and comparisons to the heroic Finn from “Star Wars,” but Boyega feels unleashed, having fun with his natural humor and charm, delivering one-liners as well as he does motivational speeches.

In terms of monsters and robots, “Pacific Rim Uprising” ups the ante – how about rogue jaegers? Drone jaegers? Kaiju jaegers? These pilots will fight them all. But despite all these advancements, the clashes are rather generic and forgettable, and a couple of these characters are too – Nate (Scott Eastwood) and Jules (Adria Arjona) are only there to offer Jake some friction.

But when Jake and Amara get their moment to try and save the world, it’s profoundly affecting, even if the context of an over-the-top monster movie is also profoundly outlandish and silly. We know them, we care about them, and they want to save the world. That personal element is why, underneath all that crashing chaos and cacophony, you can find something rather soft and beautiful, if you care to look.

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