Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 3, 2016

Recent Watches: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)

The 2014 version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was widely despised by fans, for its hideous creature designs, crude humor, rickety direction, and compromised script. The needless rejiggering of the origin is what bothered me the most. I didn’t hate movie, found it more mediocre then anything else, but the immediate announcement of a sequel did not excite me. But then Michael Bay’s Mini-Me Jonathan Liesbesman left the project. Then Bebop and Rocksteady were added to the movie. Then they fixed the Shredder. As more images and trailers were released, it became apparent that the Party Wagon, Baxter Stockman, the Technodrome and – most important of all – motherfucking Krang were in the movie. By straight-up adapting the eighties cartoon series, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” brought a much needed course correction to the rebooted franchise. The finished movie might be the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater all summer.

A year has passed since the previous film’s events. Befitting their ninja training, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo have stayed in the shadow. April’s sidekick Vern Fenwick took credit for saving the day. This choice doesn’t sit well with all of the brothers, as Raphael longs to reveal their heroics to the public. The Shredder, confined to prison since part one, makes a daring escape with the help of scientist Baxter Stockman. Stockman’s teleportation device goes wrong, zapping Shredder into another dimension. There he meets Krang, an alien overlord with massive powers, a brain-like physique, and a desire to conquer Earth. Shredder agrees to help Krang, as long as he gets to destroy the Ninja Turtles. After recruiting two new henchmen, the villain goes to war. The Turtles recruit would-be vigilante Casey Jones but problems among the brothers threaten to tear them apart.

For all the problems I had with the 2014 feature, I was mostly satisfied with the characterization of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles themselves. The turtles are admittedly simple characters. The sequel itself realizes this, introducing each of them with two-world titles like “The Muscle” or “Pizza Lover.” Yet the Turtles are defined by a little more then their action features. Most every previous version has drawn strength from the conflict between Leonardo and Raphael. Raphael’s hot-headedness has him seeking recognition for his deeds. Leonardo is trying to let cooler heads prevail. Smartly, the sequel doesn’t show either brother as more correct then the other. Both have made mistakes, both have their strengths. A plot detail that is ridiculous on the surface – the Turtles discovering a mutagen that can transform them into humans – becomes a surprisingly interesting turn. This twist dovetails with the citizens of New York no longer fearing the teens and accepting them as human. It’s not too unusual stuff for what is essentially a kid’s movie. Yet it adds a decent layer of emotion to the standard story.

Well, there’s one problem from the last one that “Out of the Shadows” doesn’t correct. Megan Fox is still April O’Neil. Fox is just competent enough to carry the role, without bringing much personality to it. She doesn’t seem very interested in the part. Aside from an admittedly gratuitous schoolgirl sequence, at least the camera leers at her a lot less. “Out of the Shadows” could also maybe treat Casey Jones a little better. He’s a cop, instead of a vigilante. His hockey fandom becomes his primary gimmick. There are no cricket bats here. Stephen Amell plays Jones, bringing a little bit of humor to the part. Amell is best utilized during the action sequences, which he’s game for. The script is packed with new characters though, meaning Casey gets the short straw. The potential romance between Jones and O’Neil is reduced to a few shared grins and winks.

The Shredder in part one was barely a character, more of a special effect, the role reduced due to a last minute rewrite. Baxter Stockman, meanwhile, was a cameo. “Out of the Shadows” sure as hell fixes that. Instead of spending all his screen time in a robot suit, the Shredder is actually unmasked for most of the movie. Actor Brian Tee doesn’t do much more then sneer. Which is absolutely fine. All the Shredder has to do is curse the Turtles, flash his blades, and look intimidating. Mission accomplished. Tyler Perry, a divisive talent to say the least, has a good time hamming it up as Stockman. Perry defines Stockman as someone more interested in making his mark in science history then in morals or ethics. It’s a surprisingly compelling dynamic. He doesn’t turn into a fly but, otherwise, I enjoyed Perry’s performance.

2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was an uneasy mixture of the newer comics, a smattering of older stuff, and Michael Bay bullshit. “Out of the Shadows,” meanwhile, pulls direct inspiration from the Fred Wolf cartoon show. In other words, the show I watched as a kid. The sequel makes this alignment obvious by introducing Bebop and Rocksteady early. Gary Anthony Williams and pro-wrestler Sheamus are cast as the warthog and rhino, respectively. Both characters look amazing, directly out of the cartoon, with the purple Mohawk and leather jackets intact. Luckily, the movie looses the slapstick, brain-dead comedy that characterized the cartoon versions. Instead, Bebop and Rocksteady are dumb muscles, goofy but deadly. They do exactly what they should in the film.

But none of that fucking matters. Going into “Out of the Shadows,” I was ready to grade its success totally on whether or not Krang was in the movie. Krang’s not in the movie? -1/10. Krang’s in the movie? Instant 10/10! In all seriousness, I’ve been waiting to see the purple, conceited brain monster on screen since I was five. Despite only having two true scenes, Krang dominates the screen. He’s gross, slobbery, conceited, slightly obnoxious, and so very brain-like. Though his robot body isn’t a pro-wrestler Drew Carrey android lookalike, Krang still resides inside his middle abdomen. Brad Garret was a last minute replacement for Fred Armisen, who I would’ve loved to hear in the part. Garret is a little too buffoonish. Yet it barely matters. Because Krang, you guys. Krang is in the movie. 10 out of 10.

“Out of the Shadows” is also a big step-up from the previous installment as far as action sequences go. Jonathan Liesbesman’s shaky, queasy direction has been traded for the calmer hand of Dave Green. The action has an undeniable fun streak. Such as when the turtles leap into the Party Wagon – they don’t call it that but that’s what it is – and attack Shredder’s prison convoy. There’s flying man-hole covers, crushed motorcycles, giant robot nunchucks, and enemy ninjas tossed down the highway. Green’s concise direction is best illustrated when the Turtles leap from an airplane, swinging through the sky as they land on another airplane. This action sequence just keeps building, topping itself. A giant machine gun mounted on a tank goes off, tearing the airplane apart from the inside. The collapsing plane flies through the jungle, loosing more pieces as it goes. The pay-off is a battle across the raging river, where the tank continues to play an important part. Despite ten thousand new action blockbuster coming out every summer, “Out of the Shadows” manages to find some cool shit to do.

If “Out of the Shadows” has a major flaw – assuming you don’t consider Saturday morning cartoon silliness a flaw – it’s a little too long. After that delirious rain forest set piece, the film takes a while to re-establish that fleet-footed, action movie pacing. That finally happens when Shredder succeeds in gathering the McGuffins, calling Krang and the Technodrome into our dimension. The Ninja Turtles leap into action. The Technodrome assembling itself in the skies above New York provides some dynamic sequence, the heroes surfing atop the floating pieces. The movie’s proper climax is a five way battle between the TMNT and Krang. It’s pretty awesome shit, remaining goofy and exciting throughout while constantly adding more and more outrageous elements to the story. I mean, shit, the Technodrome even has an eyeball on top!

Any complaints I have about the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie can’t help but come off as nitpicks. Yeah, Casey Jones could’ve been a little more comic accurate. Yeah, the Shredder could’ve worn his helmet more. Yeah, the Turtles spend far too much time flipping, bounding, and spinning through the air. Yeah, we could have more Krang. We could always have more Krang. But how can I bitch when a movie provided me with this much pure joy? They even toss in the theme song! High art? Absolutely not. Pure pop corn entertainment? Ooooh yeah. Dare I hope a potential part three gives us Fly Stockman and more mutant enemies? God, I hope so. [9/10]

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