Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Rated PG-13

I highly doubt that, at the end of the year, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is going to be anywhere near my list of the best films of 2014. It's not even the best movie of its kind I've seen all year. Still, it's hardly the disastrous turd that critics and Ninja Turtles fans have been calling it. Yes, it has some problems in the acting and plot department, and yes, maybe my standards have been lowered by a string of bad movies, but at the end of the day, I liked this movie. Did I love it like my brother did (please don't kill me)? Nah, but it was a fun, breezy time at the movies that kids and parents alike can enjoy.

If you're a child of the '90s who remembers watching Ninja Turtles on Saturday morning, then you already know the plot to this. The Turtles -- named Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Donatello after famed Renaissance artists -- are four mutant turtles with teenage sensibilities living in the New York sewers with their ninja sensei, a wise mutant rat named Splinter. On the surface, the Foot Clan, a gang of evil bastards led by the samurai Shredder who exist to cause mayhem for power and profit, are on a rampage, and News 6 journalist April O'Neil is trying to crack the case of who they are and what they're up to. April and the Turtles meet, and after some wacky misunderstandings, come together to try and take down Shredder and his Foot Clan. The plot diverges from the cartoon and the comic book in changing the Turtles' origin story, creating a past connection between them and April. While the Turtles and Splinter were originally the result of a chemical spill, here they were test subjects for medical experiments by April's father, and April rescued and freed them after the Foot Clan destroyed the lab and killed her father. While April went on and assumed that they were lost, they survived and grew up in the sewers, the mutagen causing them to grow into humanoid form. Splinter taught himself and then the Turtles ninjutsu as a way to build discipline and fraternal bonds in his "sons", all the while revering April as the angel who rescued them.

What makes this film work so much better than people give it credit for is its sense of humor about itself. Maybe I've been beaten down by the fact that every blockbuster action movie not made by Marvel or Michael Bay (who produced this) nowadays seems to have an utterly dour, super-serious, self-important attitude, but the light tone of this movie was a breath of fresh air. The Ninja Turtles aren't just brothers, they're bros, with all the wisecracks, one-liners, and juvenile humor one would expect, while at the same time the film's clearly family-friendly pretensions keep the humor from getting as low-brow as the Transformers movies did. (Except for the fact that Michelangelo is a horny bastard who constantly hits on April, but even that was tolerable.) They joke about Christian Bale's Batman voice, the ending to Lost, cat videos, and more, and they happily indulge in slapstick. Even the gratuitous product placement was used to hilarious effect in one scene; if you're gonna shill Pizza Hut in a movie, you might as well do it in a movie where the main characters are famously addicted to pizza. The four guys playing the Turtles bounced off one another hilariously, and made for a great team-up. Given that sequels to this are inevitable (though the film wisely avoided descending into world-building that only served to tease sequels), they're the one thing in this movie that, more than anything, I'd keep for the next one.

I can't say the same for the human cast, though. Let me make this clear to every casting director in Hollywood: Megan Fox can't act. She's proven time and again that, while she's great in eye-candy roles like Mikaela in the first two Transformers films, she does not in the slightest have what it takes to be a leading lady. And unfortunately for this film, she plays the human protagonist April O'Neil, and gets outshined by virtually everybody around her thanks to her flat, dull-eyed performance. Look, she tried, but that's no excuse for her speaking in a flat monotone with barely a hint of emotion when she's running for her life. I liked what the writers tried to do with April by making her a more substantive character, but Fox did not have what it took to pull that character off. Someone, anyone else should've been cast as April. Apart from her, the rest of the human cast was serviceable, if unspectacular in underwritten roles, from Will Arnett as April's love interest to William Fitchner as the corporate executive Eric Sachs who's obviously the bad guy even before the big reveal thirty minutes in. The exception, though, was Tohoru Masamune as Shredder, an imposing, badass figure who only gets more badass when he gets his suit of powered samurai armor. He himself spent most of his screen time under that armor, but with or without it, he was a tough, imposing presence who looked ready to enjoy a nice big bowl of Turtle soup.

The action wasn't the best, but still far from the worst. As much as I dislike the money-driven 3-D movie craze (like most movies, I saw this in 2-D), I will give it credit for one thing: shooting in 3-D forces directors to tone down their worst tendencies and shoot action scenes in a coherent fashion that audiences can follow without suffering motion sickness. This happened to Michael Bay with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and while director Jonathan Liebesman clearly comes from the Bay school of hyper-kinetic cinematography, he likewise avoids going off the deep end. Only the first two action scenes are hard to follow, and with them it makes sense, as you're watching them from the perspective of people who have no clue what's going on before the Turtles have their proper reveal. After that, the fights are fun, reasonably well-shot, and very much entertaining, with lots of hand-to-hand ninja combat that's a thrill to watch. The special effects? Again, not the best I've seen all year, and a number of key scenes look suspiciously similar to scenes in other recent blockbusters, but they do the job well enough that I was able to not pay attention to that. Hey, I don't give Marvel much flak for the fact that they've done "bad guy launches a death-from-above aerial assault on a city" as the climax of three of their movies now (the only difference being the platform used to carry it out), so I'm not gonna rag on this movie recycling the big final set-piece of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Score: 3 out of 5

Go into this movie with the right mindset, and you'll come out with a smile on your face. I still can't call this a great movie (again, please don't hurt me James), but it's better than many people give it credit for. After so many bad movies this summer, we needed something light and refreshing to wash away the taste, and this is like a nice, cold can of Sprite that does the job perfectly.

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