Sunday, August 17, 2014


Believe it or not, I saw the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie when it appeared in theaters back in 1990, and I enjoyed it for the harmless guilty pleasure that it provided.  The exploits of a quartet of anthropomorphic chelonian crime-fighters was as entertaining as its eponymous characters were bizarre.  Bandanna-clad vigilantes armed with an arsenal of feudal Japanese weaponry; these nimble turtles talked, walked, and displayed a predilection for pizza.  Creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird never imagined their mutated box turtles with the names of Renaissance painters would become a comic book sensation and would remain in print for 26 years from 1984 to 2010.  Eastman and Laird said they drew inspiration from the works of Frank Miller and Jack Kirby.  Specifically, Eastman and Laird sought to skewer not only “The New Mutants” and “Daredevil” at Marvel, but also the eccentric Canadian comic “Cerebus the Aardvark” as well as Frank Miller’s “Ronin” at DC Comics.  The Ninja Turtles have since metamorphosed into a social phenomenon, with three animated television series and a short-lived live-action series debuting a fifth turtle, a female called "Venus de Milo" skilled in the supernatural art of shinobi.  Four “TMNT” films followed from 1990 to 2007.  The first three movies were live-action while the fourth film “TMNT” (2007) was animated opus.  Almost 25 years after the original “Turtles” movie came out; Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon have rebooted “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” with bombastic “Transformers” director Michael Bay as producer and “Wrath of the Titans” director Jonathan Liebesman calling the shots.  No matter what you’ve heard about this latest adaptation, the new “Ninja Turtles” movie sticks pretty much to the basics.  Casey Jones, the human vigilante with a hockey stick who served as a romantic interest for news reporter April O’Neil, has been jettisoned by “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” scenarists Josh Appelbaum & AndrĂ© Nemec and “Divergent” scripter Evan Daugherty.  Happily, while the characters have undergone some significant changes, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (**** OUT OF ****) emerges as a derivative but exhilarating rollercoaster of a joyride that should satisfy most of the vintage fans.  
Unlike the 1990 version, this “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot revises the characters.  Channel 6 news reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox of “Jennifer’s Body”) is more than a television journalist covering a widespread crime wave engulfing New York City.  April is now the daughter of one of the scientists who toiled on Project Renaissance.  April’s father and his partner Eric Sacks (William Fichtner of “The Lone Ranger”) were conducting experiments on four turtles and a rodent to devise a new mutagen strain for its medicinal qualities.  Unfortunately, O’Neil’s father perished in a mysterious fire in their laboratory while Sacks managed to survive.  Neither April’s deceased father nor Eric Sacks knew about April’s role in rescuing the rodent Splinter and the turtles from the conflagration.  She turned them loose in the sewer.   Years later April finds herself struggling with a story about the Foot Clan, an underworld syndicate run by a notorious Asian criminal called Shredder.  Unlike the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, Shredder doesn’t use runaway adolescents to execute his evil designs.  Instead, he commands an army of deadly adult ninjas packing automatic weapons with orders to kill.  After Shredder discovers that the Ninja Turtles survived the fire, he orders his second-in-command, Karai (Minae Noji of “The Last Run”), to take hostages.  Shredder hopes the vigilante turtles will try to rescue the hostages and fall into his trap.  Naturally, Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) show up to save the hostages held at gunpoint in a subway station.  Shredder explodes with rage when the Turtles not only thwart his plan but also leave his minions trussed up like turkeys for the police.  Meantime, April shadows the Turtles and tries to photograph them, but they frustrate her efforts and delete the pictures from her cell phone.  Eventually, the Turtles escort her to their lair where Master Splinter (Danny Woodburn) reveals that she alone rescued them from the fire.  When April takes her outlandish tale to her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg of “Ghosts of Mississippi”), she loses her job.  Basically, April finds herself back at square one with nobody to help her than her father’s old partner affluent billionaire Eric Sacks.  
“Battle Los Angeles” director Jonathan Liebesman generates madcap momentum throughout the PG-rated film’s agile 101 minutes.  The new Ninja Turtles are even more differentiated than their predecessors.  Standing six feet tall, they resemble the Marvel Comics character the Hulk.  They still crave pizza, but their abilities have been ramped up far and away beyond what they could achieve before this outrageous reboot.  For example, Donatello has been transformed into a nerdy computer hacker.  Furthermore, the Turtles’ leader Splinter sports a longer tale which he deploys as if it were a bullwhip.  Shredder resembles a samurai version of Darth Vader from “Star Wars.”  He has special devices attached to his wrists that enable him to sling dozens of deadly knives. The knives behave like boomerangs so he can retrieve them if they miss their targets.  Truly, Shredder here emerges as a stronger, more contentious villain who puts the lives of our heroes in jeopardy until the last minute.  Interestingly enough, unlike most fantasy thrillers that create massive destruction but almost no collateral damage, innocent bystanders suffer from the falling debris in one scene.  Liebesman lenses the action so his cameras are constantly whirling around the various characters.  The most gripping scene occurs when our heroes are in an 18-wheeler that plunges down the snow-swept mountain.  This adrenaline-laced scene alone makes the classic chase in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” look like a spin on a tricycle!  People who suffer from motion sickness may find this scene a challenge to handle.  You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate this muscular, slam-bang, over-the-top actioneer with incomparable computer generated imagery and hilarious shenanigans to spare.


Indeed, as incredibly outlandish as fantasy thrillers go, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (*** OUT OF ****) amounts to a whole lot of far-fetched fun. The humanoid characters are pretty far out. A pet rat named Master Splinter who mimicked his Japanese master's moves and has taught himself how to be a ninja has moved to New York City where he discovers four baby turtles crawling around in a pool of radioactive slim in the sewer. Naturally, Splinter is shocked after he collects them in a coffee can, and they start talking the following day! Splinter teaches them the art of invisibility—the art of the ninja. The radioactive waste in the sewer exerts a strange, unreal effect on these turtles and they grow to ten times their size. Now, they look like over-grown midgets. Splinter names them Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo, and Donatello. Of course, music video director Steve Barron and freshman film scribes Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck have adapted Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's characters and unleashed them in a crime thriller about a renegade Japanese ninja who has assembled a small army of children to steal the island of Manhattan blind. Sure, recruiting kids as criminals to steal is reminiscent of Charles Dickens' second novel "Oliver Twist."

Channel 3 television anchor lady, April O'Neil (Judith Hoag of "Armageddon"), is determined to get to the bottom of the unsolved crime wave. As the film unfolds, these youthful thieves try to steal April's purse, but Raphael comes to her rescue. Raphael ties them up and leaves them for the police to haul off. Naturally, April cannot believe her eyes after she meets the Turtles and Splinter. Now, more than ever, she wants to expose the Foot Clan, but she gets no help from frustrated N.Y.P.D Chief Stearns (Raymond Serra of "Prizzi's Honor") who brings pressure down on April's boss, Charles Pennington (Jay Patterson of "Street Smart"), to take April off the story. Stearns has arrested Pennington's larcenous son Danny (Michael Turney of "Cost of Living") who has been nabbed for stealing. Indeed, Danny is a member of this secret underworld organization. Meanwhile, April is working with them to bring the heat down on Chief Stearns. Stearns compels Charles to fire April. Splinter's arch enemy, the Shredder--the Asian equivalent in looks and voice to "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader--dispatches his American ninjas to take care of the Turtles. Shredder's abduct Splinter while April and the Turtle quartet leave the city to hide out on a remote farm out in the country. The Turtles are at a loss as to what they can do until Splinter contacts them through telepathy despite being held in chains like the Count of Monte Cristo in an abandoned factory. Leonardo congregates the other three around a campfire, and and they meditate at length. This group meditation effort enables them to conjure up Splinter's spirit, and Splinter communicates momentarily with them. Our quartet of half-shell heroes hates the fact that Splinter has been captured. Indeed, Michaelangelo grows so emotional that he cannot help but cry. A hockey stick wielding vigilante, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas of "Shutter Island"), who clashed with Raphael earlier, joins them as they battle Shredder and his ninjas. Clearly, Barron and his writers needed a real human to give April a romantic relationship. Incidentally, Casey Jones doesn't reappear in the 2014 reboot, and the origins of the Turtles is tweaked.

"Muppets" mastermind Jim Henson created Splinter and the Turtles look amusing. Splinter looks more realistic than the Turtles with their variously colored bandannas that they wear like masks. Michaelangelo has an orange bandannas, Raphael prefers the color red, Leonardo adopts blue as his color, and Donatello dresses in purple. "Entertainment Weekly" reviewer Owen Gleiberman complained in his review of the original film that the Turtles lacked personality. According to Gleiberman, only Raphael had a shred of personality. Essentially, Gleiberman is correct. Indeed, our heroes lack differentiation aside from the difference in their weapons. Raphael wields the sai, a three-pronged weapon which resembles a fork. Leonardo carries the katana, a traditional Japanese sword used in feudal Japan. Michaelangelo prefers the nunchuks, and Donatello dazzles his adversaries with a staff.

Barron doesn't malinger for a moment aside from some obvious expository bits of dialogue. The action is swift and cool. The Turtles uses some profanity, usually the word damn. The humor shines through, and the scene in April's apartment above an antiques shop when the Turtles conceal themselves from Danny and his father are amusing. Henson complained about the dark nature of the film. Juvenile delinquents smoke stogies and gamble. The Turtles like to use the D-word. The sewer sets look genuine, and Judith Hoag makes a plucky damsel-in-distress. Incidentally, aside from some Big Apple landmark shots, such as the Twin Towers in the first scene, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was lensed largely in North Carolina by Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest studio.