Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer Cinema: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Arriving 7 years after their last theatrical outing and nearly 25 since their first onscreen adaptation, Paramount's reported $125 million dollar update of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits screens this weekend to challenge box office breaking Guardians of the Galaxy.  While it won't scale the financial heights of Marvel's sci-fi action flick, Turtles is looking to clean up $40 million bucks worth of ninjitsu fighting, pizza loving, heroes in a half shell nostalgia.  Since being announced, the new TMNT film has faced an uphill battle against naysaying fanboys who would boycott the project based on producer Michael Bay and leading lady Megan Fox's involvement alone.  I myself love Bay's work from Bad Boys to The Rock to Armageddon, parts of Bad Boys II and of course 2013's greatest film, Pain & Gain.  His Transformers films might be bloated examples but the dude knows how to make shit look good, casts familiar faces and delivers awe inspiring destruction and Bay-hem that's hard to top.  I'm pretty indifferent to Megan Fox, I don't think she's any better or worse an actress than whichever would be starlet Hollywood publicists try to push on the public. 

The production encountered an early online brouhaha with rumors of the turtles being aliens which is actually derived from the comic books (created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird) since it was revealed the mutagenic ooze came from beyond our planet.  The first images from the design stage had the turtles looking more realistic with angled features and nearly grotesque appearances, far from the cute and cuddly rounded faces of 1990's Jim Henson Creature Shop creations.  Casting wise, joining Fox as reporter April O'Neil would be funny guy Will Arnett as cameraman Vernon, Whoopi Goldberg (?!) as their boss and Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer regular William Fichtner as businessman and scientist Eric Sacks.  The turtles themselves would be played by actors utilizing performance capture and CGI.  In modern day New York City, paramilitary group The Foot Clan terrorizes the population via an unchallenged crime spree.  Wanna be reporter April O'Neil catches them in the act stealing stuff down at the docks but being stopped by a mysterious vigilante who leaves a Japanese symbol graffiti tag as a calling card that nobody notices except for her.  The Foot Clan then take hostages in a subway station to draw the vigilante out for a confrontation and are soundly thumped by what turns out to be 4 mysterious fighters.  Of course, those four are our Ninja Turtles.  This go around, April O'Neil's history is intertwined with the Turtles thus giving them a quick connection and convenient story beats.  After that it's action scene on top of action scene mixed with brotherly banter as the Turtles face off against the formidable new age Shredder whose oversized suit is like the scary offspring of Iron Man, Megatron and a Swiss Army knife.

Not expecting much, I was surprised at how at easily digestible and enjoyable Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was.  It's slick, fun and extremely fast paced with many laughs and lots and lots of action.  Director Jonathan Liebesman had previously given us the light and entertaining Wrath of the Titans, a flick that you enjoy watching and then don't think much about after.  With TMNT, once the movie gets going, it's set piece into set piece into final showdown so we're talking shadowy fisticuffs, lots of jump spinning multiple kicks, machine gun fire, hands behind your back karate, a downhill Hummer and big rig chase scene in the snow, magnetic knife launching, toppling buildings and a whole lot more set to a big, exciting score by Brian Tyler.  Oh yeah and there's pizza of course, courtesy of Pizza Hut in 2014 versus Domino's in 1990.  The Turtles look a little funny with their noses, nostrils and inhuman size but it works to give them each distinctive looks and personality.  You know you're watching a computer generated image but it's not like watching a cartoon.  The subjects of genetic experimentation by way of alien world ooze, the half shells grow up in the sewer watching television and absorbing popular culture.  The Turtles are quick witted, wise cracking and reference spewing along with their kind of lame explanation of acquiring ninja skills.  If you'll remember from the first film, Splinter watches his master Hamato Yoshi practice ninjitsu from his cage and hilariously mimics the movements.  In this version, there is no Hamato Yoshi and the crew is self taught.  Splinter is badass here though, a physical force who punishes the young Turtles with hours long physical and mental tests, has a nimble, whip like tail and knuckles up and throws down when the occasion arises. 

Moving so quickly, there isn't much time to dwell on rich character development but you get enough sense of the Turtles, April, Splinter and Sacks that you're not exactly clamoring for more.  Leo is still the calm/serious leader, Donatello the gadget guy, Raphael the insecure/macho one with Michelangelo bringing up goofball/stoner dude duties. They're all painted in broad strokes which suits the story just fine.  I was actually surprised at the economy of the script by Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty as everything is tied up pretty cleanly without being overly complicated or diluted.  Sure some of Fichtner's dialog is generic and delivered laughably while Megan Fox exclaiming "Shredder!" had the theater howling from it's awkward, shrieking delivery.  All in all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might not have the heart and charm of the original film but still delivers an enjoyable 100 minutes with enough laughs and flash for 13 and 30 year olds.  Plus, the end credits of splash pages and rap jam Shell Shocked bumping made you want to get up and do some Ninja Rap style dancing.

Interestingly enough, Paramount now holds the rights to 80's cartoon classics G.I. Joe, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I wonder if they'll do a Marvel/DC style universe team up...

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