Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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April O'Neil is struggling to get away from fluff pieces as a reporter and is investigating a series of crimes caused by the evil Foot Clan.  Little does she suspect that the only hope this city has is in the gangly form of mutated turtles raised on a steady diet of pop culture and martial arts.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is directed by Jonathan Liebesman, and stars Megan Fox with Johnny Knoxville, Tohoru Masamune, and many more.

Half-shell heroesThe Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in spite of their comic origins, are one of the great self-perpetuating marketing schemes of the late 20th century, now into the new millennium.  While the immense popularity of the Turtles climaxed in the early '90s, there has scarcely been a year gone by without a new TMNT product.  The rumors that dogged Jonathan Liebesman's film seemed to go against the sacred canon of the merchandise empire.  Aliens instead of mutants?  Balderdash.  White Shredder?  A travesty.

Hilariously, it turns out none of the elements that got long-time fans so riled up made it into the finished product.  I don't particularly care whether the various leaks and advertising elements are part of some grand scheme to draw in more attention or poke fun at people obsessing over inconsequential details in advance of the final product.  But the latter does fit in with the spirit of this latest iteration of the Turtles, a disgusting, often engaging, highly kinetic, and internet-fueled quip machine of great chemistry and some surprisingly effective gender elements.

This TMNT embraces its warts and annoying characters without creating a winking distance between the audience and actions onscreen.  There is no false climax, no forced relatability, and certainly no hint that these grotesque people are engaging in an adventure that's part of some grand scheme.  It's a fun story that takes itself completely seriously, which is to say it embraces the raging hormones and absurd spectacle that is an impromptu water slide journey through the sewers or a nervous beat-boxing session, and is all the better for it.

I wish we got to see more of the man behind the armor, but

I wish we got to see more of the man behind the armor, but Tohoru Masamune still makes a threatening show of strength as Shredder.

Getting to the fun is a bit of a chore though, because we spend most of the first act of the film watching April O'Neil (Megan Fox) trying to land that big scoop.  I shifted around uncomfortably during almost all of April's wandering shenanigans, which amounted to little more than frustrating people trying to do their jobs or filming fluff pieces with her Channel 6 partner Vernon (Will Arnett).  But, bored as I was, these opening scenes ended up serving a different, hinting at April being the kind of helpless nobody who is destined to become the female hostage, and the rest of the film spends disproving.  Because soon, the Turtles arrive, and boy howdy does TMNT pick up steam.

The Turtles are a superb creation as an uncomfortable mix of recognizable human features, gangly limbs, and awkward speech patterns formed after years of absorbing nothing but pop culture and ninjutsu.  Each actor does a great job giving each turtle a distinct posture and vocal styling, giving them personalities beyond the weapons they carry.  I also love that their dialogue is a mix of long-time internet memes, catchphrases, and personality traits, with Raphael (Alan Ritchson) coming across as an increasingly shell-taped cousin to Sylvester Stallone and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) an avid fan of hip-hop and old top 40 tunes.  Instead of being vapid catchphrases to present to a broad market share, the Turtle's have become a reflection of multimedia culture instead.

This interesting construct does not apply to the villains so much, but they're not devoid of interesting features.  I love that the rumors regarding Shredder's casting ended up being completely untrue, with the extremely welcome, towering and scar-riddled Tohoru Masamune menacing his way through the film.  While I wish we got to see more of the man in action without his armor, Shredder's costume is a joyously overblown tank of knives, swords, and steel edges controlled by - why not? - a magnet.  It really is the glorious mix of martial arts and modern technology that Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) promises.  Sadly, Fichtner isn't as well served as he's saddled with a generic megalomaniac role, but still throws himself into it with glee.

The quick paced snowy chase is the high-mark of TMNT, pausing just long enough to appreciate just how much fun the Turtles are having.

The quick paced snowy chase is the high-mark of TMNT, pausing just long enough to appreciate just how much fun the Turtles are having.

TMNT's biggest surprise is how it handles April.  Fox isn't an actress who has been framed favorably in her other action roles, and Liebesman, along with the screenplay team, are conscious to avoid exploiting her.  Instead of being an annoying damsel or constant victim, she ends up being both the true driver of the plot as well as an actual partner in all the action scenes.  I like that the conflict starts partly because the Turtles, and the villains, make assumptions about her ability and safety that turn out to be completely false.  She's a parent figure without any specific gender markers, a fighter who leaps in to try and land the killing blow, and a rugged investigator.  It makes the one blatant exploitation shot, called out by the dialogue, that much more depressing, but I'll take the step back for the three leaps Fox and Liebesman make with April here.

All of the trappings are tied together with some beautifully fluid action scenes.  There are few films this year, outside of Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, that make the camera as involved a participant in the action as Liebsman does with TMNT.  Of course there's a rooftop martial-arts showdown, but the real centerpiece for this work is the snowy downhill clash between the Turtles and the Foot Clan as they slide around on their shells.  The camera leaps around with the Turtles, slides along them as they sled down the hill, and rarely stops to simply observe the action.  That movement makes us a thrilling participant of the action and not a bystander, as we're catching up with every cheesy grunt ("My shell's cracked, tape it up!") and action beat, but still not afraid to slow down and take in the rush that the Turtles are feeling.

It's that ability to stop, breathe, and just appreciate the absurdity of it all that sets TMNT apart from its peers.  The camera doesn't slow down to watch the car flip over because it's an awesome moment, but to watch Donatello as his face explodes into satisfied glee that he made something so cool happen.  TMNT starts with him and his brothers as a band of reclusive warriors trying to do some good, and ends with them as marauding vigilantes bound by nothing but their sense of justice and awkward personalities.  It's flawed, fun, unique, and goes out on its own terms.  That's a lot more than I expected from a series that started as a joke.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - TailTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman.
Screenplay written by Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Evan Daugherty.
Starring Megan Fox, Tohoru Masamune, Johnny Knoxville, and William Fichtner.

Posted by Andrew

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