Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Tohoru Masomune, Johnny Knoxville (voice), Tony Shalhoub (voice), Whoopi Goldberg, Minae Noji, Abby Elliott
Small role: Taran Killam
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Screenplay: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Evan Daugherty
Review published August 10, 2014
Another reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this time from producer Michael Bay, sees the motion capture technology put to good use, even if the film itself is a bit of a generic letdown. Fans of the original comic book will likely be chagrined that it is the umpteenth time they've seen their favorite characters done in a manner different than their inception in the Laird/Eastman comics, but those who grew up with the TV cartoon from the 1980s, as well as the movie series of the 1990s, will find it treads familiar ground, even if it changes up the origins quite a bit.
Set in New York City, we find the Big Apple suffering from rampant crime at the hands of the vicious master named Shredder (Masomune, WarBirds) and his horde of ninja warriors known as the Foot Clan. Lately, these bad guys are starting to get some blowback in the form of a mysterious vigilante, and fluff-piece reporter April O'Neil (Fox, This is 40) is determined to get a serious scoop on who the would-be savior of the city is. Her investigation leads her to an astonishing discovery -- the vigilante is actually a quartet of 6-foot turtle ninja teens and a rat (voiced by Tony Shalhoub, Cars 2), and O'Neil just so happens to have shared in their origin. Living in the sewers, these vigilantes are all that stands between the citizens of New York and Splinter's master plan to take over the city through the use of a deadly chemical agent.
If you've seen the Ninja Turtles before, you know what to expect -- snarky attitude, pop culture references, pizza munching and skateboarding, and lots of martial arts-tinged action scenes. It's about on par with the original movie series in terms of what the aim is, but that may be the main issue. Like its predecessors, it exists in a dark city in which people do exist, but the main characters feel like they are mostly stuck in their own pocket universe where the civilians around them only matter in that they are supposed to be saved. With all of the really solid comic book superhero adaptations to come out in recent years, to put out schlock with a decidedly 1990s sensibility feels like a major regression.
The casting isn't great, but it's fine. Megan Fox certainly is adequate eye candy, and her body isn't exploited as it had been in Bay's Transformers flicks. She's not a great actress, but in a film like this, she fits, even if the flirting from the Turtles should probably have been excised (I guess she is so hot that even other species want to get some). William Fichtner's (Elysium) casting is pretty predictable as far as his character turns go, as he plays yet another smarmy guy with ulterior motives on his mind. Will Arnett (The LEGO Movie) plays April's cameraman with a crush, mostly played as some sort of comic relief, but he feels a bit too mature for the imbecile role, essentially a close cousin to his turn as Gob in "Arrested Development". The voice work is pretty good in that each character is distinct in tone and pitch to their respective personalities. It's not really an actor's showcase, so at least we can be thankful that, while not really impressive, the casting isn't really substandard either.
It's a special effects-driven movie, and while the design of the Turtles and Master Splinter is a bit grotesque, their movements are very fluid and fast, and they are injected with enough personality to tell them apart, at least by looks if not by name. The character beats often take a back seat to sheer spectacle for long durations, and while we're never quite invested enough to care when the pedal's to the metal in the action department, it does look as good, and there's enough ingenuity in how things transpire for the extended set pieces to keep most people from zoning out to Transformers: Age of Extinction proportions.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't a terrible reboot, but it definitely could have been better. It seems that Bay and company are merely content to deliver the goods and not monkey around too much with the formula, perhaps hoping that they'll get just enough fans on board to make it a lucrative franchise. Although it plays out in predictable fashion, there are a few moments when it does come to life: a lengthy set piece in which the heroes are sliding down a geographically misplaced, snowy mountain at full speed trying to save a semi is perhaps the best of the bunch, but smaller moments, such as the quartet busting a few beats of freestyle hip-hop while riding in an elevator, give the comedy a little bit of life. More of that could have gone a long way in making barely tolerable fare one of the summer's pleasant surprises.
©2014 Vince Leo