Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)


When it was announced that Michael Bay was producing a new film version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the internet's reaction was not positive. Michael Bay’s films aren’t very good. They are punishingly long, carelessly written, incoherently directed, juvenile, sexist, racist, and immensely popular. The director had all-ready made mince-meat of one nostalgia property with his “Transformers” series, films I’m no fan of. However, Bay himself was not directing this newest incarnation of the Turtles. Instead, he was merely producing it under his Platinum Dunes development house, which has previously handled glossy, mall-friendly remakes of classic horror films. The chosen director, Jonathan Liesbesman, last directed “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Wrath of the Titans,” which did little to raise fans’ spirits. By the time Megan Fox had been cast as April O’Neil, it seemed like Bay was actively trolling TMNT enthusiasts. The point I’m making is that, going into 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” my expectations were very low.

April O’Neil is a fluff-piece reporter for Channel 6 News and desperate to break into serious journalism. Her big break comes when she spots four vigilantes fighting against the Foot Clan, a crime syndicate/terrorist organization that currently has New York City gripped with fear. However, as the title gives away, these super-powered vigilantes aren’t humans but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Working with the four Ninja Teens, O’Neil uncovers a conspiracy involving millionaire scientist Eric Sacks, the Foot Clan, and her late geneticist father, all of which leads back to the pizza loving, sewer dwelling, karate-trained turtle humanoids.

The internet was outraged when an early leaked script made the title characters into Teenage Alien Ninja Turtles. The final film ejected that idea. However, the new “Ninja Turtles” still makes some questionable alterations to the source material. A pet peeve I have with modern blockbusters is the insistence that the heroes and the villains have intertwined origins. The newest “TMNT” leans on this trend hard. April isn’t just a lucky reporter that stumbles on the team. Instead, her father’s experiments were directly responsible for creating Splinter and the Turtles. That’s a major change but it’s not what bothers me. Instead of learning the art of ninjitsu from Hamato Yoshi, Splinter learns martial arts from a pamphlet he finds in the sewer. This is not only stupid but a major betrayal of the source material. There’s no Asian mysticism and little focus on the Art of Invisibility. Of all the adjectives in the title, “Ninja” is the one the film seems less invested in.

Even though the teen’s ninja skills are minor plot element, the film maintains the villain of Shredder. Despite early reports, William Fichtner’s Eric Sacks never dons the armor. Oroku Saki is still the Shredder. He is, in fact, Sacks’ mentor. The two villains are working together to further their own evil schemes. This is why the Shredder is outfitted with a hi-tech suit of armor that can shoot magnetically manipulated blades, a potentially clever idea that film doesn’t fully exploit. There are some token mentions of the Shredder’s Japanese origins which the film sloppily ties Sacks in with. However, the Foot aren't ninjas anymore. Rather, they're generic modern bad guys, clad in body armor and ski masks while carrying machine guns. Karai is in the movie but merely fills the role of an important henchman. By completely removing Hamato Yoshi from the story, there is no preexisting rivalry between Splinter and the Shredder. Which means there’s no reason for the Shredder to hate the Turtles. The heroes stumble upon the scorn of their most important adversary. By downplaying the Asian elements, this “Ninja Turtles” loose most of the source material’s mythic qualities.

Michael Bay might not have directed “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” but Jonathan Liesbesman maintains his boss’ trademark look. The film has the same gritty but polished look of all previous Platinum Dunes productions. Lens-flares are employed regularly. Sea-sick green lighting crops up repeatedly. Sweeping crane shots are indulged in excessively. During several action scenes, and even a few non-action scenes, the camera jerks around spasmodically. The film does not feature a terrible lot of shaky-cam but just enough that it become difficult to follow. Liesbesman even throws in some of Bay’s most obnoxious habits. There are spinning loop-da-loop shots, lingering close-ups on cars (and Megan Fox's ass), and in-your-face product placement courtesy of Pizza Hut and Orange Crush. You’d think “Ninja Turtles” was a Michael Bay joint if it wasn’t for two things: The military has no role in the movie and the film isn’t three hours long.

Of all the previous adaptations of the source material, this “Ninja Turtles” probably has the most in common with the 1987 cartoon show. April works for Channel 6 News. Her boss, played by Whoopi Goldberg in a glorified cameo, is Bernadette Thompson instead of Burne Thompson. Her co-worker is Vernon. However, the movie even fucks that up. In the cartoon, Vernon was mostly a foil to April, constantly working to undermine her. Here, Vernon is a lonely middle-age guy who clearly has the hots for April. Will Arnett is well-cast in the role, making good use of his ability to ring laughs out of any line of dialogue. He plays her sidekick for most of the film, an unexpecting normal guy dragged along into a crazy adventure. This raises the question of why the movie bothered including the character at all.

The movie also doesn’t bother when perhaps it should have. Despite featuring the rest of the Channel 6 team, the film leaves out April’s best friend, the nerdy and perpetually dateless Irma. The film even had the opportunity to include her, since April has a disbelieving room mate played by Abbey Elliot. Aside from the Shredder, Eric Sacks is the secondary antagonist of the film. Sacks was invented for the film. Traditionally, the mad scientist in the Turtles-verse is Baxter Stockman. Why invent a new character when an established one easily could have filled the role? I was expecting some Krang-related last minute twist but… Nope. According to IMDb, Stockman is in the movie but I didn’t spot him. Fichtner is decent in the role and even brings some villainous glee to his generic lines. However, the character is ultimately forgettable, especially since he disappears before the end.

Which brings me to the Turtles. Much has been written about the newest designs, about how they’re ugly, grotesque, and even disturbing. The Turtles are ugly, there’s no doubt about that.  Their heads are small while there bodies are hulking. However, perhaps mutated humanoid turtles should be ugly. What truly pushes them into the Uncanny Valley are the additions of human-like nostrils, lips, and teeth. The Turtles are definitely over-designed and arguably hideous. Yet they grew on me. I like the decision to personalize each Turtle. Leonardo sports samurai style armor to go along with his samurai style honor. Raphael keeps sunglasses on his head and a toothpick in his mouth, along with some other biker-like decorations. Donatello sports a pair of high-tech goggles on his head, an electronic backpack on his shell, and even rigs his bo staff out with hydraulics. (He’s also been turned into something of a nerd stereotype, with his duct-tape mended glasses and snorting laughter.) Michelangelo is still a party dude but draws more from modern hip-hop culture then eighties surfer slang, which seems like a logical update. Splinter probably makes it out the best, looking like exactly what he is: A giant rat in a fancy robe.

What little bit of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” that works has to do, not with how the Turtles look but, with how they act. The film, more or less, nails the four teens’ personalities. Leonardo is the stoic leader, the rock that holds his brothers’ together. Though Johnny Knoxville was an out-of-left-field casting choice to voice the turtle, he is suitably heroic. Donatello is still the one who does machines and his technical know-how gets the gang out of a few scrapes. A cute tick they keep is his tendency to over-explain things. Raphael probably gets the most screen time which is to be expected since he has the juiciest character arc. Raph has to grapple with his anger and butt heads with his more responsible brother. Yet the four are family and Raph repeatedly puts his life on the line for them. A decent moment has him confessing how much they truly mean to him. Probably getting the most bad press is the take on Michelangelo. Mikey has an obvious crush on April and the film probably takes it too far. However, his role as the funny one is fulfilled with several genuinely amusing lines. No doubt the best scene in the film comes from Mikey. While ascending an elevator, and getting ready to face battle, Mikey starts to mindlessly beatbox. Instead of shouting him down, Raphael joins in, followed by the others. It’s a hilarious, light-hearted moment that roots the theatrical action in some sort of humanity. Or turtle-anity, if you will.

Splinter is still the Turtles’ father and the film doesn’t tip-toe around that relationship. Truthfully, a lot of what the Turtles do is motivated by saving Splinter. Casting the Lebanon Tony Shalhoub to voice a Japanese rat seemed like a weird decision. But Splinter isn’t Japanese any more, so it winds up not mattering. Surprisingly, Splinter even gets to kick some ass, whaling on Shredder during one of the film’s best action sequence. There are a few cute in-jokes here and there. Pizza falls on the rat’s head, as in the original film. Shredder utters his infamous catchphrase of “Tonight, I dine on turtle soup,” which is probably terrible but I like it. “Heroes in the half shell” and “Cowabunga” both get shouted. The Turtle Van puts in a late appearance. The film teases the possibility of Super Shredder at the very end. There’s even a possible reference to Usagi Yojimbo.

There’s still a lot of April O’Neil in the movie. Megan Fox’s acting skills have graduated from incredibly stiff to merely forgettable. Liesbesman comes close to engineering a few memorable action scenes. A car chase down a snowy hillside has one or two exciting moments even if its chaotically organized. The final fight between the Turtles and the Shredder features some decent action. The sound design is deafening, with the dialogue barely audible at times. The musical score by Tyler Bates shamelessly patterns itself after Hans Zimmer’s work, featuring much pounding noise and dissonant ringing. For every element I like about the film, there’s something else I can complain about.

Does “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” truly work? It is not terrible. It is also not particularly good. The film is not a childhood raping monstrosity, just a mediocre studio product that makes one or two major fumbles. The script stays truer to the spirit of the source material than Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films, even if it’s blatantly patterned after them. It is also not the worst Ninja Turtles movie, as it is slightly less embarrassing than “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.” These are, admittedly, low bars to clear. When future fans reach for the definitive “Ninja Turtles” experience, the original film, the original comics, and the 2003 or 2012 cartoons is what they will grab first, not Hollywood's latest attempt to make green out of the Green Machine. [5/10]

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