The machineries of joy - NOT!

Last week, I twice had to fight to keep from being pummeled senseless by thunderous sound, nonstop explosions, epic battles and looming apocalypse, thanks to "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Transformers."

It is, after all, summer, the season that demands Big Action Flicks, built to tickle the testosterone of lads and their dads. (Lest I be accused of sexism, I will stipulate that there are liberated ladies - me among them - who love a good summer action-thriller as much as the next man.)

Funny thing, machines figure largely in both films, as both bane and saviors of civilization. "Die Hard" takes off from a minatory story published in 1997 in Wired magazine about war waged virtually, in cyberspace, with the death of data causing the collapse of society. Kinda chilling, post 9/11, what with "Die Hard"'s computer genius Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant, late of "Deadwood") bugging Homeland Security to grasp how easily terrorists could hack into the country's computer systems.

Ridiculed and pink-slipped, this brilliant bad boy, aided by a cohort of cyber-nerds and French toughs, starts blanking out all the computer screens that keep civilization up and running- and stealing bank account data, 'cause Gabriel's way past just providing a painful object lesson in national security.

So, NORAD's down, traffic lights fail, Wall Street panics and the lights are going out all over the Eastern Seaboard. Suavely clad in black, his handsome features frozen into a mad-scientist glare, Gabriel orchestrates mayhem from his "bunker," a huge dead-black tractor trailer, while his Frog hitmen take out the kid hackers who unwittingly helped to bring down all the cyber connections. (Query for know-it-all John Hodgman: Why must all super-savvy computer dweebs live in Mother's/Gram's basement? See Kevin Smith's Warlock in "Die Hard," Anthony Anderson in "Transformers.")

Enter John McClane (Bruce Willis), veteran of three previous "Die Hard" scenarios in 1988, 1990 and 1995. Older, chicly bald, the no-nonsense New Jersey cop seems to have entered a state of "Zen machismo," to use Time critic Richard Corliss' apt phrase. Not much in evidence: the pursed-lipped, smart-aleck smirk and yippee-kay-ay Willis bravado. This action-hero "caveman" can still wield the killer double-take/glare and has the wherewithal to put martial arts and Parkour masters down with old-fashioned muscle.

But most of McClane's deadpan wisecracks reference how long he's been in the business of hard knocks; his weary acceptance of reality, from getting divorced to getting shot at; the mundane inevitability of getting tapped to save the world one more time.

It's as though, somewhere along the way, this most-human of good guys armored up in angst and started running on automatic - like a computer programmed to do good, forget the cost. No matter how bunged up he gets - and by film's end, he's a bloody mess - McClane overrides pain, age, fear and just keeps coming ... like the Energizer Bunny. Sure, that's the action-thriller formula, but in "Live Free or Die Hard" both hero and villain could be mistaken for single-function androids or cyber-warriors in a videogame. Ironic, since "Die Hard"'s hero is supposed to be a "Timex watch in a digital age."

Playing the obligatory sidekick, Justin Long ("I'm a Mac" foil to John Hodgman's "I'm a PC" in Apple Computer ads) manages to make his hacker-slacker both sweet and shellshocked as he's dragged along in McClane's ultraviolent wake. Still, the chemistry between this odd couple can't measure up to the sparks that flew between Willis and Mos Deaf in "16 Blocks," a smaller and much better film than this latest "Die Hard" juggernaut.

But "Die Hard"'s stunts (mostly actual, rather than CGI'd) are so outrageous you'll laugh out loud at the sheer chutzpah of those who mounted them: McClane's inventive takedown of a helicopter, a prolonged battle between McClane and a lethal Asian beauty (Maggie Q) in an elevator shaft, a tractor trailer careening down freeways pursued by a fighter jet, etc. The violence is extreme, but flesh comes apart off-screen, so that, except for McClane's and Long's artfully applied gashes and scratches, nothing disturbs the pervasive sense of cheerful mayhem.

"Die Hard"'s loud, slick, totally implausible, an efficient entertainment-machine built to kill time. But believe me, those who tout this clunky toy as a glorious example of what American movies have always done best are dead wrong.

SPEAKING OF CLUNKY TOYs, how many of you remember the Transformers - Hasbro's 1980s toy line, TV show, comic book series, animated feature film? Well, they're baaack: an alien race of mechanical goliaths that shape-change at will into hot cars, 18-wheelers, super-tanks, fighter jets and boom boxes.

Cobbled together by that razzle-dazzle director Michael "Armageddon" Bay, "The Transformers" grabs your attention with a slam-bang start: at an American base in the Saudi Arabian desert, an unknown helicopter gunship suddenly metamorphoses into a giant killing machine that leaves only a few soldiers alive to tell the tale. After that, things pretty much drift all over the map, in a rickety effort to congeal wildly diverse plot elements into something like a coherent adventure. Occasionally slowing down to register authentic human life amid Industrial Light & Magic's hotshot CGI, "The Transformers" soon devolves into narrative and visual chaos, just another Bay blast-off to nowhere.

Our primary anchor in the world of humans is Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBoeuf), a nondescript high-schooler who's just bought his first car, a battered yellow Chevy Camaro, enabling him to offer a ride to gorgeous Mikaela (Megan Fox), a classmate who's spent many years looking straight through him. Sam's car plays mood music to woo his crush, pimps out its rent-a-wreck disguise when Mikaela's disses it, and occasionally rearranges itself into Bumble Bee, a towering Autobot who serves under Optimus Prime, the Decepticons' greatest adversary.

Have I lost you? Suffice it to say that bad 'bots - led by Megatron (voiced by Hugo "Mr. Smith" Weaving of the "Matrix" franchise) - want to take over the world by turning all machines into sentient killers. Only the noble Autobots, who have a soft spot for humans, can stop them.

Bay tries to milk some humor from Sam's relations with his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), idiot refugees from a 1950s sitcom, and the kids' encounter with the head of an ultra-secret government agency, played with bug-eyed hysteria by John Turturro, a perennial good-sport participant in these big-budget mishmashes. As a Secretary of Defense with a deep Southern drawl who's not above picking up a carbine when necessary, Jon Voight could be anyone from Central Casting. Feisty Ozzie Rachel Taylor and funnyman Anthony Anderson, playing computer nerds, are entirely wasted.

The robots - even Optimus Prime - lack idiosyncratic character or personality, and Shia LeBoeuf's Sam has only two or three expressions in his acting repertoire, so it's hard to bond with anyone as the world almost comes to an end. Tears might be jerked when Bumble Bee is captured and frozen, if you could actually see what's going on - the camera's up and down, cryo-steam wafts thither and yon, and the big yellow guy just looks like a big yellow junk-pile. Same goes for the climactic 'bot battle: the action's so messy and confused, you simply can't distinguish one machine from another, so it's hard to cheer when the home team scores or boo when the nasties win one for Megatron.

"The Transformers" matches "Live Free and Die Hard" on the noise scale. Sequels are bound to eventuate.

WATCHING THESE SUMMER-FUN FLICKS BACK TO BACK, I recalled the wonderfully evocative title of one of Ray Bradbury's short-story collections: "The Machineries of Joy." Old master of sci-fi strange and everyday enchantment, Bradbury would surely have loved "The Iron Giant," Brad Bird's marvelous 1999 parable about a boy and his 50-foot mechanical E.T. "Giant" generated true cinematic joy - full of real magic, breathtaking images and storyline, wisdom. Badly built contraptions like "Live Free or Die Hard" and "The Transformers" produce short-lived pleasure, addictive jolts of adrenaline and instant amnesia. And the worst of it is, audiences can't see the difference.

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