Friday, August 8, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: A disappointing shellacking

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for sci-fi action and violence

By Derrick Bang

I’m not persuaded the world wanted — or needed — another big-screen adaptation of this trés bizarre comic book franchise, but we critics must play the hands we’re dealt.

Having been taken to the underground lair populated by New York's rather odd vigilante
heroes, April (Megan Fox) hears their origin story from Splinter (foreground, seated) while
the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — from left, Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo and
Michelangelo — listen attentively.
While director Jonathan Liebesman’s film is a hot gonzo mess, it does benefit from giddy pacing, wacky humor and a couple of ambitious action sequences. So, yes, young viewers will have a good time, but their older companions probably will find these proceedings too weird, too dumb, and much too disorganized.

Nor does it help that the film’s primary human star, Megan Fox, still can’t act a lick.

From a purely sociological standpoint, this film demonstrates a fascinating phenomenon: the intangible nature of credibility. Avid fans who wholly embrace the frivolous sci-fi nuttiness of, say, Guardians of theGalaxy, nonetheless will be hard-pressed to forgive Liebesman’s take on the Ninja Turtles. It’s not just the concept; both properties exist in equally impossible realms, and require a massive suspension of disbelief.

It comes down to tone and execution. Liebesman’s film is sloppy, its script — credited to Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec and Evan Daugherty — clumsy and inconsistent. The core premise is an eyebrow-raiser to begin with, but then the villains, and their scheme for world domination, are just lunatic. The narrative is slapdash, details introduced or abandoned at whim.

Original creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman did a far better job with their comic books, back in the 1980s.


In a New York apparently bereft of Superman, the Avengers or any of the other run-of-the-mill champions, an über-violent army of thugs known as the Foot Clan have terrorized the city for months. Nobody seems able to stop them; even the police are helpless, with “protection” having been outsourced (?!) to a private company headed by billionaire industrialist Eric Sacks (William Fichtner).

I dunno ... if helpless citizens are being assaulted, kidnapped and killed as shown here, it seems like the NYPD might rally a bit, perhaps even request assistance from the National Guard or some other federal strike force. Doncha think?


Local TV reporter April O’Neil (Fox), wanting to move beyond the dumb, feel-good features she keeps getting from station exec Bernadette Thompson (a miscast and shamefully ill-used Whoopi Goldberg), has been prowling the docks in the hopes of spotting nefarious Foot Clan activity. She gets her wish, with an unexpected bonus: a Foot Clan robbery-in-progress is interrupted by mysterious, dark-garbed adversaries who lay waste to the baddies, and then vanish in the night.

Just in passing, this sequence takes place during a pouring rain, and yet — in her many close-ups — Fox never gets wet. Her face remains bone-dry, her hair perfectly coifed, as if awaiting the next magazine cover photo shoot. Like, what, getting damp wasn’t part of her contract?


April is left with no proof of this bizarre encounter, so of course nobody believes her, back at the station. Even her faithful cameraman, Vern (Will Arnett), rolls his eyes.

But the Foot Clan leader, known as Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), takes this assault on his troops very seriously. Upping the threat against innocent civilians in an effort to smoke out these do-gooding vigilantes, Shredder and his second-in-command, Karai (Minae Noji), succeed beyond their wildest expectations. Along the way, April gets an even better glimpse of the saviors: four 6-foot-tall turtles in ninja garb — named Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donatello — cracking wise with teenage abandon.

Cue the obligatory origin story, as revealed by the turtles’ mentor, a giant rat dubbed Splinter (a strange name left unexplained). In fairness, this back-story is rather clever, particularly as it involves April’s childhood self, years back, and her frequent visits to a lab run by her father and — oh my goodness! — the same Eric Sacks.

Oh, c’mon; we already knew Sacks was suspect. Fichtner always plays bad guys. Aside from that, Liebesman telegraphs the “big reveal” by having Sacks be overly solicitous and cheekily condescending at all times. Fichtner might as well strut about with a sign on his forehead that reads “Not To Be Trusted.”


Everything builds to several battles, melees, skirmishes and action set-pieces, the most audacious of which involves a huge truck and several pursuing all-terrain vehicles, all plunging down a snowy mountainside, the turtles and various Foot Clan goons ninja-ing each other, April and Vern hanging on for dear life. This sequence is dog-nuts, but undeniably exciting, and it goes on for a generous chunk of time; Liebesman, action director Dan Bradley, and editors Joel Negron and Glen Scantlebury deserve a bow ... even if the rest of the film pales by comparison.

The impressively athletic turtles are brought to life via a blend of CGI and motion-capture work with actors; while the results don’t have near the personality that, say, Andy Serkis brought to his performance as Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise, these “heroes on the half-shell” nonetheless have presence, dimensionality and a remarkable range of battle maneuvers. This work by visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman and animation supervisor Tim Harrington is augmented by plenty of audacious melees choreographed by stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio.

Unfortunately, all this effort lives or dies on the basis of the actual “acting” that turns each turtle into a distinct character, and that’s where this film disappoints most. It’s often difficult to distinguish one from the other, based on behavior and wisecracks. (Granted, the different-colored scarves help, but clothing isn’t personality.)

Okay, yes, Raphael is the tough-talking “bad boy,” and Donatello is the geeked-out tech whiz; Michelangelo spouts surfer lingo, loves pizza the most, and has the questionable crush on April; the quieter Leonardo broods under his responsibility as team leader. (I guess.) These superficial distinctions are ill-served by the voice talent; Johnny Knoxville brings none of his signature sass as Leonardo, and the others — Alan Ritchson (Raphael), Noel Fisher (Michelangelo) and Jeremy Howard (Donatello) — do little to flesh out their roles.

The usually enjoyable Tony Shalhoub is unrecognizable as the voice of Splinter, although he deserves credit for a level of passion absent from the other voice actors.

I’ve already commented about Fox, who couldn’t deliver a credible line if she sent it via UPS. Arnett, in great contrast, displays the appropriate blend of laid-back charm and solid comic timing; it’s a shame he couldn’t have been the turtles’ human liaison. Fichtner, as always, makes a suitably smug and arrogant villain.

Noji is a blank slate as Karai; apparently she felt that merely looking tough would be sufficient. It isn’t.

Production designer Neil Spisak has a lot of fun with the turtles’ underground sewer lair, laden with boom boxes, pizza-box furniture, a skateboard ramp and a screen-filled console room, where our heroes monitor the city.

Youthful exuberance covers some of the script’s deficiencies; as we’re repeatedly reminded, the turtles are “teenagers” in the emotional sense, and therefore can be excused their failure to take things seriously. It’s harder to overlook major issues, such as precisely what prevents all of Manhattan from being saturated with Shredder and Sacks’ ultra-poisonous gas, after the climactic, tower-top melee.

Or how April manages not to get mangled and pulped beyond recognition, during that same skirmish and subsequent multi-story fall to the street below. Which she survives with — once again — not a single hair out of place. And she doesn’t even have a protective turtle shell!

Ultimately, this kid-vid with big-screen pretensions cannot overcome its many limitations. Yes, it’s (mostly) good-natured fun, and harmless enough. (The PG-13 rating seems excessive.) But it’s also clumsy, under-developed and ultimately disappointing. Laird, Eastman and their turtles deserve better.

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