Release Date: August 8th, 2014 (US); October 17th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett
Despite never holding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in any sort of nostalgic regard, one of the most enduring memories I have of my school-morning television-gorging is the theme song to the original 1987 cartoon. The lyrics “when the evil Shredder attacks” have outlasted many a childhood theme song (I can’t even remember the Batman intro), to the point where I now wonder whether I actually watched the show or simply tuned in for the music and then retreated into a cereal paradise. I’m sure I did watch though; I remember being entertained even on gloomy weekday mornings — surrounding content notwithstanding, what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t be entranced by a quartet of giant green turtles doing karate?
Now that I’m a bit older, I guess the surrounding content does matter more. A great deal more. And while Jonathan Liebesman’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a movie devoid of everything except computerised action, there is quite of lot the giant-green-turtles-doing-karate shtick going on. Liebesman has procured an action portfolio in his time as a director, especially in recent years via films such as Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans. This isn’t as gritty as Battle: Los Angeles but it does employ the same kinetic ground-level tact: snappy panning shots, often incomprehensible. CG also plays a significant part, the movie’s visuals echoing those in Transformers of big beasts thumping each other in not-so-engrossing waves of manufactured pixelation (Michael Bay serves as an executive producer). It’s certainly not on that franchise’s level of abomination though, and Megan Fox is a bit better here than she was there.
She plays April O’Neil, a puff piece reporter with eyes set on bigger things. To its credit the film initially disposes of origin story tendencies and invites us into a world with pre-established goodies and baddies: the latter, the Foot Clan, a tyrannical body of fighters ravaging New York City. During one of their raids (or something) April spots a vigilante fighting back. Four, in fact. Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard). Such an unfettered invitation suggests boredom with the narrative norm and injects immediate urgency. On the flip side, it does feel like there’s a first act missing. Characters don’t get a proper introduction as much as they are coloured with broad brush strokes — heroes, villains, corporate leaders, roving reporters, deceased family members.
This pacy open also sets a shallow tone long-term as the piece swaps the fleshing out of these characters for splurges of exposition. We hear Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) bemoan society’s attempt to “reduce the Foot Clan to a myth,” which seems to be the driving force behind he and his troupe’s antagonistic relationship with the city. The turtles’ basic lineage is also revealed via extended chatter; some combination of breakthrough science and mystical hijinks. The screenplay’s avoidance of setup also means the stakes are low — we spend very little time getting to know those on-screen therefore when the inevitable happens (self-sacrifice), it does so without any emotional clout.
And despite the origin-dumping opening, the inevitable does happen quite a lot. Writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty give in to clichés on purpose: scattered journals and tapes decorate the floor of April’s room because she is a journalist reaching for the brass ring; there is a grandmaster rat in the sewers who guides the turtles, which means long, pointed facial hair and a wise gown; and, of course, the usual nefarious backstabbing is abound. The turtles don’t escape conventionality either, which is quite something given they are, well, giant green turtles doing karate. All four act like goofy teenagers unaware of what they’re doing but aware that they’re fairly good at doing it. They are supposed to be witty and a bit erratic: one of them makes a Star Wars joke because that’s what cool teens do, though I couldn’t tell you which one. I do know that Raphael seems angrier than the other three. He wears a red bandanna for metaphorical purposes.
Michelangelo, orange, develops a romantic soft spot for April that the piece plays on with some comedic success. His feelings are nothing compared to those Will Arnett holds for his broadcast partner though. Arnett is quite likeable as Vern Fenwick, the everyday cameraman pining for the pretty girl. As such, every second line he speaks manifests as an attempt at light satire: “Nothing better than dropping off a pretty girl at a rich guy’s house.” The rich guy in question is old enough to be April’s father — in fact, before tragedy struck he worked closely with her father — but that is beside the point. Arnett’s misplaced hope adds some human energy in places human energy is otherwise lacking, such as the aftermath of a sewer fight sequence.
There are some amusing moments, mainly when the film pokes fun at itself for being so absurd. An impromptu elevator beatbox, for instance, eliminates any potentially serious edge from the fight sequence that follows. Which is how it should be. We never feel like we’re watching something buoyed by any sense of its own self-importance, desperate to shine a light on the criminal underworld or the state of NYC pizza. But then that’s all it can be: a frothy action romp. And unfortunately this romp doesn’t have characters worth investing in, or enough funny gags to hide the weightlessness. When all is said and done, it really is just giant green turtles doing karate.
Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures