TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014) is director Jonathan Liebesman (BATTLE LOS ANGELES, WRATH OF THE TITANS, TEXAS CHAINSAW BEGINNINGS: THE FINDING OF THE SAW) and the Platinum Dunes company’s modernized retelling of the classic tale of Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donatello, the humanoid turtle monsters who are discovered by a human reporter living in a giant underground sewer home and are trained in ninjitsu by a talking rat so they enjoy pizza but at night they sneak out to fight crime and there’s this Japanese guy with armour who wants to kill them because–
You know what, on second thought this is not a story, this is a half-assed explanation for a joke title some guys came up with in the ’80s that, through some bizarre series of mishaps and coincidences, accidentally became a multi-million dollar pop culture/merchandising juggernaut. Nobody knows why or ever will. It was even on Unsolved Mysteries.
Seriously, I saw part of a documentary on these turtles, and it explained how the hugely popular cartoon show was built around the toys they wanted to sell. The people who made the cartoon seemed totally surprised and confused that it was something that people liked so much. It’s funny to see them try to explain in retrospect that historic moment when a voice actor said “Cowabunga!” and they decided to use it. It seems like they figure it must’ve been brilliant, but I don’t think they get it any more than I do.
This new version is pretty much a simplified rehash of the previous movie version, from what I can remember. You still got TV reporter April O’Neil (like the porn star), now played by Megan Fox, and she discovers that “a vigilante” stopped an attempted chemical robbery by “The Foot Clan,” who are masked paramilitary guys now instead of ninjas, except for Shredder and a couple other people at the top. Here’s the thing though: she keeps trying to take pictures and video on her phone. That’s why they had to do a remake. THIS IS HOW WE LIVE TODAY.
It’s 20 minutes in before we see the turtles’ faces, so be ready for some bullshit about April being an anchor of fluffy Today Show type segments trying to be taken seriously as a journalist and her cameraman/van driver played by Will Arnett (and insultingly named Vern) lamely trying to make moves on her. Whoopi Goldberg shows up as her producer and does that requisite, lazy comedy scene where April tries to explain that she saw teenage mutant turtle ninjas and everybody makes fun of how stupid that is, ha ha what a ridiculous idea, we would never believe such a thing, let’s keep laughing about what a terrible idea that is, you must be stupid to even come up with that lie to tell, because why would that even be a thing, it makes no sense. (There is probly a deleted subplot about all the psychological and drug testing she has to do to keep her job.)
Poor Megan Fox finally gets to play a character who’s supposed to be smart, but they still make her seem like an idiot by not having her understand that people won’t believe her when she tells them that she figured out her childhood pets were experimented on and now talk and wear armor and fight crime.
Turtles must just have a natural affinity for martial arts, because they were trained by the rat, who just learned by reading a book about it. And he seems to mostly do moves involving his tail, which I doubt was even in the book. (Humans don’t have tails.) But they’re good. They really know how to wail on some guys.
These turtles are much uglier and more frog-like now that they’re digital creations by Industrial Light and/or Magic instead of rubber suits. They have different body types from each other and kind of a post-apocalyptic fashion sense with all kinds of crap attached to them: beat up pieces of armor, sticks, beads, pins, tools. One has taped together glasses and various goggles and gadgets and shit, to show he’s the tech guy.
They should be easier to tell apart now, because they actually do look different from each other, but to be honest I could only remember that one guy had Johnny Knoxville’s voice and one had bigger shoulders. The red one. He’s like a macho coach or something, he wears a doo rag, chews a toothpick, yells angry commands at the stupid humans, flexes his pecs to return bullets to their senders and grunts “cowabunga” like it’s a badass one-liner. Best detail: his douchey sunglasses, only ever worn on the top of his head, I believe. So accurate. It’s true, these are the exact sunglasses that this fuckin turtle would wear.
As characters they aren’t any more compelling to me than the old ones, with the same kind of dialogue where I can tell it’s supposed to be funny but I’m not totally sure why. I’m happy to say, though, that there’s only one fart. I don’t remember if there were any in the original, but you know. There was lots of room here, you could expect them to put in more than one.
There’s one kind of cool character moment that I enjoyed: when the guy with the wooden staff manages to wedge it under a truck and somehow pole vault the vehicle into the air, Liebesman switches to slow motion to take in the gleeful pride on his face. I also have to admit I like the scene where they’re going up an elevator and one of them starts nervously beat boxing, then they one by one decide to join in banging their weapons together and adding noises and basically doing their own little STOMP! number until they get to their floor to fight some guys. That was cute.
Here’s how this is like the old movie to me: it’s shitty and dumb and I don’t get the appeal and then there are a couple of elaborate action sequences that are technically impressive enough to drag me into the spirit of the thing. In fact, the big showstopper set piece, a chase and battle down a mountain almost as tall as the FURIOUS 6 runway is long, was so legitimately cool that I went back and re-watched that whole section as soon as the movie was over. The turtles are inside a semi that’s sliding down the slope, then some of them jump out and use their shells as sleds, or stand up to sort of snowboard on their feet, or jump and flip around, on and off and through the windshields of various vehicles. The bad guys shoot electrified cables at them, they knock some of them off their trucks into trees, get hit by them and bounce off, spraying snow everywhere, having conversations all the while. It’s photorealistic, with very naturalistic lighting and camerawork (sorry, lens flare-phobes). It’s ridiculously detailed and completely hyperkinetic and chaotic, but not confusing like a TRANSFORMERS – it’s lots of really long shots and just enough bumpiness to feel real, not too much.
And the thing is I don’t even know for sure if this is all animation or if there’s some actual stunt work involved in some of it. Because I know they had guys going around with motion capture costumes (shells included) to play the turtles for other scenes, and that veteran second unit director Dan Bradley is credited as “Director: snow unit.” I guess it’s possible that just means he did the fight scene at the top of the mountain, which is also pretty cool, and definitely seems based on real human movements. Or maybe he just filmed those trucks driving around in the snow and added turtles in later. It must’ve been weird jumping a truck and looking at a tennis ball to know where the turtleman you’re running over is supposed to be.
I don’t know man, I don’t consider this a good movie overall, but I cannot in good conscience pass judgment on a movie with a section that I enjoyed as much as that mountain part there. If that on its own was a short film I think it would be widely praised. So the kids could do worse. Also I’m glad Platinum Dunes just wants to remake toy cartoons now and not whichever of my favorite horror movies are still standing. They will not be missed.
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.