Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/08/14 12:47:41

"Terrapin Stasis"
1 stars (Sucks)

Those of you with long memories and a taste for pointless celebrity gossip will recall the skirmish that developed a few years ago when Megan Fox, who became America's sexpot du jour following her appearances in the first two "Transformers" films, gave an interview in which she compared Michael Bay, the director of said movies, to no less a figure than Adolph Hitler. I don't exactly recall what inspired this comparison--I suppose you can always Google "Michael Bay Hitler" if you are curious--but the upshot is that Bay did not take kindly to it--odd since it would seem to at least suggest that Bay did, despite all evidence to the contrary, have something resembling an ethos--and responded by firing Fox from the upcoming "Transformers 3" and replacing her with fashion model Rosie Huntington-Whitely. Over time, however, it must have eventually dawned on Bay that canning someone from what would prove to be one of the worst movies ever made--a move that also freed them from the viscous on-screen grip of Shia Labeouf--might not strike most casual observers as being especially punitive. Therefore, he has finally devised a punishment even more cruel, ruthless and vindictive--he has hired her as the human center of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," his misbegotten live-action reboot of the startlingly resilient franchise that began as a silly joke 30 years ago and which, based on the evidence supplied here, could well end in the same way.

Of course, once it was announced that Bay had gotten his hands on the property and would be producing a new feature film version, hardcore fans of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael took to the Internet to register their outrage about what grotesqueries he might impose upon their beloved terrapins--especially when a rumor leaked out that Bay's concept involved the turtles actually being aliens from another planet, in all defiance of the property's long-established history. I personally was eating lunch out one afternoon and the table next to me had a bunch of college-age guys--at least one of whom was sporting a "TMNT" shirt--grumbling about how dumb the movie looked and how he was going to totally ruin the franchise. Now I have no particular love for Bay's oeuvre--aside from "The Rock," "Armageddon" (a load but the good kind of load) and his Victoria's Secret commercials (arguably his most artistically significant work to date), I find his films to be largely unwatchable junk of the lowest order--but I wanted to point out to these kids that whatever their childhood memories might otherwise suggest, "TMNT" was not exactly the most venerated and untouchable of cinematic concerns--this new version marks no less than the third attempt by Hollywood to get a series going (following a trio of live-action films from 1990-1994 and an animated version in 2007)--and that if the property could survive the film that included a guest appearance by Vanilla Ice (for younger readers who have never heard of him, try Googling "Vanilla Ice"--just don't include "Madonna" in your search if you are looking for pictures) it could probably survive whatever depravations Bay might inflict upon it.

As it turns out, I might have been slightly hasty in that assessment because while I can't say that my memories of the previous films are particularly strong, there is a pretty good chance that "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" could be the worst of the lot. No, the alien turtle concept has been scrapped--perhaps Gamera had his lawyers get in touch with Bay--but what remains is so stupid that most people would have hardly batter an eye if it had been included. Instead, he has taken a premise that ideally should have resulted in some silly and mindless fun and has transformed it into another one of his absurdly over-scaled and dramatically malnourished cacophonies of rapid-fire edits, whirling cameras, ludicrous CGI effects and relentless product placement. The end result is such a headache that the only possible reason that any sane person would want to endure it is to get some idea of how Aeschylus must have felt in his final moments. (Again, try Google because that snarky comment was actually slightly inspired, if I do say so myself.)

As the film opens, New York City is under the terrifying grip of a shadowy criminal organization known as The Foot Clan, a group of evil ninja types led by the mysterious and fearsome Master Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). Hoping to get the scoop on their activities is April O'Neill (Fox), an ambitious TV news reporter stuck doing fluff pieces, but gets more than she bargained for when she witnesses Clan members being trounced in battle by a quartet of 6-foot-tall turtles with crack martial arts skills. Alas, she can't get anyone to believe what she has seen (though she hardly does herself any favors in this regard by inexplicably refusing to show anyone her photos of the turtles in action) but eventually gets to know both the turtles and their giant rat master, Splinter, in their elaborate sewer abode. Before long, the Foot Clan attempts to launch a diabolical and long-gestating plan to take over the city that involves draining them of their blood and it is up to them to save the city and the day. Also along for the ride is Vernon (Will Arnett), April's benignly lecherous co-worker and Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a powerful billionaire industrialist who seems so good and kind and upstanding that he couldn't possibly have any shadowy ulterior motives for world domination involving the turtles, could he?

In the broad strokes, this iteration of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is not appreciably different from any of its other permutations but it is in the details that things begin to take a turn for the ghastly. Because most superhero sagas now require overly detailed backstories in order to make them seem more complex, screenwriters Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty have decided to do the same here by adding the concept that (Spoiler Alert!) the turtles were once the pets of the younger April that were injected with a super-secret serum by her late scientist father and his former colleague, whose identity I wouldn't dream of revealing, and that she saved them from the lab fire that killed her dad and destroyed all of the research. While this addition doesn't exactly make any more of a mess of things than it already is, it is an exceptionally silly conceit that contributes nothing to the proceedings except to lend an extra-creepy element to the moments when one of the turtles--I think it is Michelangelo but cannot be certain since they exhibit fewer individual traits here than the Spice Girls--repeatedly hits on April, putting her at extreme risk of contracting salmonella the hard way.

The other idiotic move on display is the decision by Bay and director Jonathan Liebesman--the auteur of "Battle: Los Angeles" and the man you turn to when you can't find anyone else to direct your film and it would be too expensive to simply scrap the whole thing--to fuse his over-the-top aesthetic with a half-assed version of the more brooding approach that Christopher Nolan took with his reimagining of the Batman franchise. The action scenes are the usual blur of tomfoolery edited in such a rapid-fire manner that it is impossible to discern what is going on at any given time. The CGI effects are the usual collection of lackluster explosions, car crashes and crumbling buildings that even the little kids that are the film's presumed target audience will have seen before and done better to boot. At the same time, the film is way too violent for the little ones and it is so severely underlit throughout that it is difficult to even see what is going on for long stretches and I saw it in 2-D--I can't even imagine how dark it must look in its 3-D iteration. In fact, it seems as if the only times when the image is properly lit is during the moments of blatant product placement highlighting the joys of Pizza Hut and Victoria's Secret.

As I cannot think of much of anything else to say about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." a film so pointless and nonsensical that it practically defies any attempts at critical analysis, let me conclude this review in the same manner in which I began it--talking about Megan Fox. Although she seems to rub some viewers the wrong way (watch it), I kind of like her for reasons other than her obvious physical attributes--in otherwise dire comedies like "The Dictator" and "This is 40," she has demonstrated a flair for wit and an endearing willingness to spoof her sexbomb image that makes one wish that someone would give her a true comedic lead at some point down the line. Here, she is pretty much wasted in a role that asks little more of her than to stare incredulously at the chaos going on around her while virtually every male character comments on her looks. (In the most absurd example of this, the film takes a moment in the middle of an explosion-filled car chase to ogle her rear end at length. Oh well, maybe this will do enough business to allow her the chance to do a movie that shows that she is more than a pretty face. If not, I hope she has at least learned her lesson and refrains from comparing Michael Bay to any genocidal despots of note or he might get mad enough with her to make her do "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II" someday.

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