TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990) is a martial arts fantasy produced by Raymond Chow and Golden Harvest (ENTER THE DRAGON), with excellent animatronic and puppet effects by Jim Henson, and impressively agile fight and stunt sequences involving people in full body rubber creature suits. It has early performances by Elias Koteas and Sam Rockwell, and stuntwork by Ernie Reyes Jr. One major problem, though: it’s about teenage mutant ninja turtles.
This is one of those weird pop culture phenomenon that, removed from its original context, turns out to make no god damn sense. The story is about a New York City (shot in North Carolina) overrun by teen pickpockets trained by ninjas in an underground lair. When four muscular humanoid talking turtle ninja stoners who live in a sewer raised by a wise human-sized talking rat take in an unconscious TV reporter, the ninjas kidnap and torture the rat. So the turtles go into hiding on the reporter’s farm for a while, then come back to where they were before and get attacked by the ninjas again.
Let me ask you this. Why should this story be about turtles? Well, because in one part they use their shells to bash a guy, and in one other part one of them ducks his head into his shell. Otherwise they could be humans or kangaroos or talking pants, it really makes no difference. Why is it cooler for it to be a turtle than for it to be any of those other things? I don’t think it is. I’m not sure. Actually I’m a little creeped out by the turtles looking like muscular humans. There’s something unnatural about it. Like Howard the Duck on human growth hormones.
From what I understand this is because the original comic book was not meant to take over the world, it was just a throw-away parody of Marvel Comics stories of the time. Ha ha, what if instead of a guy it was a turtle? Ha ha, stoopid. But it caught on, it stuck around, it was turned into a cartoon that was a surprise hit, so millions of dollars of merchandising later everybody forgot it was stupid and went along with this muscle-turtles concept as if it was actually a good idea.
I decided to watch this movie after the recent hoopla about Platinum Dunes doing a new version. Producer Michael Bay hilariously lived up to his reputation by accidentally revealing in an interview that they’re gonna change it so they’re aliens instead of mutant turtles. When nostalgic nerds got upset at the blatant disregard for title accuracy, Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman spoke publicly to assure them that everything was gonna be okay, without denying that they were gonna do that. Then Bay admitted that “Teenage Mutant” had been dropped from the title, and blamed the studio. The fuckin man, always cramping his style. Is this Hollywood, or the gulag? Give Michael Bay his freedom!
But after watching the old movie I think I see more where Bay is coming from. He knew that “ninja turtles” was a thing that had money involved so he bought it, but he failed to do the research to find out what it was. When this original movie was made the cartoon was so popular that it wasn’t necessary to make heads or tails out of it for a movie version. They just assume you already love these “characters” so they just show up as is and you gotta accept them. Until they get attacked they don’t really do much except watch TV and eat.
What are they all about? We learn from a flashback that they’re 15 years old, and we can notice other things about them throughout the movie:
foods: pizza, pork rinds
sexuality: they call the human woman April O’Neil (not the porn star) a “fox.” One of them kisses the TV screen when she’s on. But they get excited when she kisses their human friend Casey, so they must not want her for themselves.
etiquette: when a pizza deliveryman is 2 minutes late (their fault – they didn’t specify they were in the sewer) they refuse to pay full price or tip and then laugh about it like they really showed that asshole a thing or two
cultural knowledge: They are familiar with War and Peace and the movie version of Grapes of Wrath. Also Moonlighting and ROCKY. One of them goes to see CRITTERS and says “Ahch. Where do they come up with this stuff?”
They have different colored head bands so if you were going through it carefully you could probly even figure out what the differences were between the four turtles, which one was which. They are named after Renaissance painters, one of them is more into skateboarding, one has nunchakas.
Director Steve Barron (“Billy Jean” video, CONEHEADS) I think is going for an action-comedy tone as opposed to comedy-action. They take the story itself seriously, but then the characters make wiseass comments to each other that are supposed to be funny. But they don’t do enough to make me take the asinine concepts seriously and the “jokes” sure aren’t as funny as the “serious” parts like the camera rotating dramatically around a turtle screaming in anguish that his rat-dad has been kidnapped. Alot of it is the type of lines where you can tell by the timing and intonation that it’s supposed to be a funny part but you can sit there and analyze it all day and not figure out what’s supposed to be funny about it.
For example, what does it mean when one of them says “Now I know what it’s like to travel without a green card”? Is it supposed to be funny that turtles are green and green cards are called green? Maybe I missed something there.
When ninjas attack, a turtle says, “Whoah – and I thought insurance salesmen were pushy!” Think about that. Why would a mutant turtle have any experience with insurance salesmen? Or why would the kids the movie is made for be expected to hate insurance salesmen? Does this mean it was made during an era of heavy anti-insurance salesman sentiment? No, it just means it was written by a guy whose previous scripts were for Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons and Small Wonder.
Another great one: seeing a bunch of ninjas a turtle says, “What, am I behind on my Sony payments again?” Forget about the issues with a turtle raised under ancient Japanese traditions using mildly racist stereotypes against Asians. That might be a tribute to Chris Penn’s character Travis Brickley in BEST OF THE BEST. My issue is, I want to know what “Sony payments” are. Is it like car payments? A Google search tells me it’s not a common phrase, at least not in that usage. It brings up references to online Sony services that did not exist back then. Maybe the turtle predicted the future.
UPDATE/CORRECTION FROM THE COMMENTS BELOW:
The turtles’s interaction with human society isn’t very well thought out. One of the turtles likes to go around disguised in trenchcoat and fedora commiting vigilante actions, and they have to hide in the sewer. But also they can walk openly at night and nobody is ever around to see them. When humans do see them they usually don’t freak out. Maybe they should just come out of the closet.
The funniest part of the movie is the rat’s flashback to when he was a normal pet rat. He learned ninjitsu by watching his owner practice (kind of like the girl in CHOCOLATE learning muay thai by watching Tony Jaa movies). He lived inside a hanging cage and also witnessed the double murder of his owner and his owner’s woman by a jealous rival for her affections (James Saito, “Korean Proprietor,” DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE). During the murder his cage was bumped and he jumped out and scratched the guy, who swung a sword at him but only got his ear.
Later the rat was exposed to glowing green liquid in a sewer, which back then always mutated things. He turned into the size of a small human and could talk in a wise voice (Kevin Clash of Elmo fame) and found the turtles who also were mutated by the stuff. The murderer went on to become “Shredder,” leader of the “Foot Clan” ninjas and the army of homeless teen pickpockets, who he lures in with a sort of Ninja Chuck E. Cheese where they can come to smoke, play cards, pool or video games, drink unlmited Pepsi, spray paint, ride skateboard ramps, DJ and learn martial arts. He also wears a suit of spikey armor that’s sort of cool in a BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA way except (at least on the blu-ray) it looks kind of sissy when you notice the glittery purple shirt.
After having had the rat tied up for most of the movie, the rat reveals to Shredder his past, that he was a pet rat that jumped on him one time 15 years ago. This scene is odd because Shredder does remember the details of the pet rat incident, including that he chopped off its ear, and lustfully says “You! Now I will finish what I began with your ear!” Also it’s weird because it turns out he still has deep scars across his face and has always held a grudge against the pet rat that jumped on his face, even though he didn’t know it was this same humanoid rat he abducted. We gotta wonder if he would even be leading this army of crime if not for the pet rat jumping on his face 15 years ago incident. It’s like the “you made me” Batman/Joker relationship in the 1989 Batman picture by Tim Burton and Prince.
A long-haired Elias Koteas (CRASH) plays Casey Jones, a human who beats up some street thugs at the same time as one of the turtles and then decides he lives with them, and nobody questions it. The reporter falls in love with him. He argues about Gilligan’s Island with one of the turtles (that’s probly where Tarantino got the idea to have his characters talk about old TV shows) and calls him “barfaroni.” When a turtle says he’s claustrophobic he thinks they’re calling him gay and gets mad. He’s supposed to be kind of an edgy Paul Kersey type, but it’s played for laughs at the end when he crushes the incapacitated Shredder in a garbage compactor and says “oops.”
One of the disaffected teen pickpockets wears a Sid Vicious t-shirt that he never seems to change, until halfway through the movie when he changes to a shirt with both Sid and Nancy, and then he wears that for the rest of the movie. This brings up the question of how bad these fuckin kids smell. I am guessing that like some of the other subcultures such as Juggalos they do not place a high value on clean laundry. I bet all that free Pepsi in their hangout is kind of ruined by how homeless everybody smells. Anyway, the kid accidentally sees the turtles so he becomes a good guy.
When the kids grow up they can be thugs and then ninjas with bug-eyed masks. “Head Thug” is played by Sam Rockwell with a cool shaved eyebrow. It was his third movie after CLOWNHOUSE and LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN.
To seal the deal, the end credits have the most appalling rap theme I’ve heard in a while, something called “T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!” by “Partners in Kryme.” The guy has a deep voice but very simplistic lyrics and an unacceptable amount of seriousness for a dude rapping about god damn turtles. So he makes it sound very dramatic when he says:
“Since you’ve been born you’ve been willing and able /
To defeat the (sneak?), protect the weak /
Fight for rights and your freedom to speak!”
What the fuck is he talking about? He thinks these turtle ninjas are fighting for their first amendment rights? I thought Shredder was just training skateboarders to steal purses, he wasn’t censoring anybody. I don’t get it. So it’s a pretty good microcosm of the movie itself. It seems a little too confident that I’m on its wavelength.
If you like this type of shit though you should definitely watch this, since it’s pretty much the only example of this type of shit. Enjoy.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.