Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman || Produced by: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Galen Walker, Scott Mednick, Ian Bryce
Screenplay by: Josh Appelbuam, Andre Nemec, Evan Daugherty || Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Danny Woodburn, Abby Elliott, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Whoopi Goldberg, Taran Killiam
Music by: Brian Tyler || Cinematography: Lula Carvalho || Edited by: Joel Negron, Glen Scantlebury || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes
Let me start this review by admitting that my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is the 2007 film, simply titled TMNT. Yeah, that’s right, the cartoon one. In my opinion, the original trilogy (1990, 1991, 1993) with men in creepy rubber turtle suits were never that special, with the original movie being the only one worth taking somewhat seriously, and the latter two appropriate only for those corny “bad movie-night” get-togethers you have with friends. One viewing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991) proves that “the Turtles franchise was ridiculous way before Michael Bay got his hands on it.” The main reason I prefer the 2007 TMNT to any other feature-film rendition of the Turtle characters is that it came by the far the closest to capturing the spirit of the original dark, brooding comic. However, the Turtles brand is a weird one in that most fans nowadays have little to no memory of how it all started, instead referring back to the popular children’s cartoon (1987-1996) that watered down the mature tone of the characters’ original inception.
Despite the unwarranted fan-backlash, Michael Bay didn’t direct this newest Turtles movie, and you can tell that right away. The action is coherent and the camera pulls back for much of the on-screen ninja-action, allowing viewers to appreciate the fast-moving fight sequences. The Turtles themselves are roided up and “updated” for the modern comic book-movie craze, but I like the artists’ take on Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo because they look like actual martial arts badasses. They look like actual ninjas or, at least semi-believable anthropomorphized turtle-versions of ninjas; I thought that was the whole point of the franchise? Why is everyone complaining?
The personalities of the titular heroes are the biggest successes of the film. Alan Ritchsan, Noel Fisher, Johnny Knoxville, and Jeremy Howard all do great jobs as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Donatello, respectively, and their chemistry makes every scene with them together work.
The rest of the film is less consistent. While Transformers alumna Megan Fox (well, well, well, crawling back are we?) is competent enough as April O’Neill, the first half hour of the film drags without the presence of the charismatic turtles. The biggest disappointment of the film, however, is how uninteresting the antagonists are. The Foot Clan have been reduced from goofy ninja henchmen to generic, gun-toting terrorists who don’t pose much of a threat to Leo and the gang. Even worse, Shredder has been rewritten into oblivion after numerous casting changes, character replacements, and some notable fan uproar following rumors that white-American actor William Fichtner was cast to play the big bad. Given the way the theatrical cut is edited, it certainly seems that Fichtner was originally scheduled to play the Shredder; there are some brief cuts of a Japanese-looking actor shrouded in shadows, delivering quick lines before he’s never seen again for the rest of the movie, and the armored Shredder is digitally created in his fights with the turtles. As such, the iconic Shredder doesn’t have much of a character in this TMNT outing, and instead has to rely on cheesy armor to clumsily come across as threatening.
Unsurprisingly, the charisma and screen-presence of the eponymous heroes carries the film through its many rough patches. Fox and co-star Will Arnett offer sardonic commentary on the whole affair, as well as amusing self-aware dialogue regarding the nonstop nerd-rage that’s followed the project during its production.
No one has been a bigger critic of Bay, Fox, and the Transformers trash they have built over the past decade than me. However, just because their names are attached to an unproven project does not mean I’ll automatically hate it. Moreover, Michael Bay did not direct this film; he produced it, and you can see the difference. The film is far from perfect and could’ve been improved by simple screenwriting and directing adjustments, but as it stands now, it is not the disrespectful spit-in-the-face to cinematic artistry that most of Bay’s filmography has been. This new TMNT achieves that sacred Hollywood blockbuster status of “dumb but fun” much like Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) did last year. The only reason nerds loved the latter and are hating on the former is because Turtles is an established brand and Pacific Rim was technically an “original intellectual property.” That’s the sole difference between the two.
I don’t mean to argue that TMNT is a great or even a memorable action movie. In fact, I don’t outright recommend it to all audiences all the time (see below), but I felt I had to correct the overly biased public opinion on this particular film, especially given my past history with this franchise. The film has its weaknesses, none of them offensive from where I’m sitting, and yet those are counterbalanced by its strengths. Many folks will continue to hate on the muscled, CGI, roided-up 2014 version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I will not be one of them. As Will Arnett says at one point during the film, “Four turtles… one’s fighting a robot samurai. Why not?”
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The titular team of reptilian heroes are spot-on hilarious and entertaining as they should be. They’ve all got personality, style, and a whole case of whoop-ass to match. For their part, Fox and Arnett do their obligatory best as the human fish-out-of-water characters who guide us through the goofy story.
— However… too much of the film’s first act is missing the story’s four best characters. Shredder and his generic Foot Clan soldiers are lame, which sucks much personality out of the movie.
—> ON THE FENCE; see it if you’re in the mood for a family-friendly, FX-driven blockbuster, but don’t expect transgressive filmmaking.
? Believe it or not, this film passes the Bechdel Test easily. Did you know that? It’s true.
Pingback: How to Hate (or Love) Movies without Really Trying: Types of Film-Viewing Biases | Express Elevator to Hell - January 8, 2020