Monday, October 20, 2014

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014)

Michael Bay’s much-dreaded reboot is finally here … and to be honest, it’s not all that bad.

There’s really not a whole lot of depth to be found within the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mythos, so it was certainly wise of  the 10-headed production team behind the latest re-do to completely skip over the tedious melodrama that seems to be a linchpin of modern genre films.

Of course, it is possible to make a great comic-booky popcorn film with pathos -- “Spider-Man 2” is the sterling example -- but more often than not, all of that tacked on “humanity” is just boring exposition in the form of clunky dialogue and stilted moments of "meaningful" silence and/or grimacing. In that sense, 2014’s “TMNT” is sort of the anti-”Dark Knight Rises,” a film that doesn’t even remotely buy into its own highfalutin stuffiness. It knows it’s just a stupid popcorn movie, designed to sell toys and video games: the closest it ever gets to legitimate art is in the sound department, where 90 percent of the film’s nigh post-modern soundtrack consists of stuff exploding, cars flipping over or sharp metal hurtling through the air like whistling lawn darts. I’ve always said it was only a matter of time until Michael Bay helms a dialogue-less blockbuster, with only the Merzbow-like sound of scraping and fiery mayhem emanating from the projection box.

Yes, the Internet nerds were aghast when Bay was named one of the producers of the remake/redo/reheat/rehash, particularly, over a plot device that posited the turtles as space aliens. Amidst a million cries of “raped childhood,” apparently the suits at Platinum Dunes went back to the drawing board, and the film here follows the traditional “TMNT” timeline pretty well. Our protagonist is Channel 6 reporter April O’Neil, a yellow raincoat-bedecked eye candy reporter played by Megan Fox (whose toe-thumbs, fittingly enough, are lacquered shell-green throughout the duration of the film.) Tired of doing “Good Morning America” fluffy bullshit, she pursues a crime wave kicked off by a mysterious terrorist network called the Foot Clan, which in our post 9/11 world, more closely resembles ISIS than the easily-dispatched bug-eyed ninja doofuses of yore. One night, she goes down to the docks to investigate some shady shenanigans, and what do you know, somebody -- or something -- shows up and beats the ever-loving shit out of the predominantly Asian crime cartel. I really love how the evil syndicates in movies like these are multinational, omni-investment criminal enterprises, dabbling in every kind of illicit trade you can think of.  Not only are these guys smuggling weapons and drugs, they’re running mutant DNA, too -- though one has to wonder just how many buyers are on the genetic juice black market these days.

So back at the office, O’Neil pitches a story about the city’s new vigilante protectors to her boss, who is played by Whoopi Goldberg, who coincidentally, already looks like a motherfucking Ninja Turtle. Then, she gets held hostage in the subway system (see what happens when we don’t have Homeland Security tanks patrolling every other city block?) and the Turtles show up and kick more ass. She follows them to the roof of a building, snaps their picture, and we’re formally introduced to the team.

Leonardo is the goody-two shoes who always pays heed to his papa. Raphael is the wannabe badass who tries to sound like Batman all the time (in fact, other characters in the movie routinely bring this up.) Donatello is the maximus-dorkus genius inventor, and Michelangelo is the class clown who kinda’ sounds like he has Aspergers. Needless to say, this quartet of personalities lends itself to pizza marketing campaigns astoundingly well.

Now here’s where the producers take some liberties with the source material. As it turns out, this isn’t the first time O’Neil has seen the turtles. In fact, those turtles are the very same turtles she loved, cared for and gave pizza to back when her daddy worked at some mysterious underground chemistry lab that still allowed nine year old girls to run around with a Sony camcorder and record everything. But then, a mysterious fire happened, O’Neil and her lab specimens got separated, and somebody wound up murdering her paw.

And from there, it’s exposition city. You see, whatever mutagen those baby turtles were given, it turned them into humanoid beings that inexplicably understood English. For the last 15 years, they’ve been hanging out in New York’s sewer system, where their similarly humanoid rat sensei has been teaching them from birth to be crime fighters (apparently, Splinter learned everything he needed to know about the art of ninja-ing from a book that washed its way into the poop soup one evening.) Using a really complex computer monitoring system, the Turtles then patrol crime hot spots where they just show up and beat the hell out of whoever they want, because I think that’s some kind of esoteric Buddhist principle or something. And oh yeah, they periodically like to stop ass kicking to dance to Gwen Stefani.

So back to April’s story. You see, her dad worked alongside this multi-billionaire guy named Sacks, whom she promptly tells all about the Turtles. But whoops! He’s not an altruistic billionaire, he’s an evil homicidal subservient to Master Shredder, with the goal of poisoning all of New York so he can sell the government an experimental serum (made out of Turtle blood, naturally)  for top dollar. And I’m sure all of the conspiracy theorist folks are crying “predictive programming,” right now, without question.

And so, three of the four Turtles get captured in a Foot Clan ambush, with Shredder (imagine, a walking knife show combined with the Silver Samurai from “X-Men”) nearly killing Splinter in battle. By the way, if you’ve missed “bullet time” action sequences, you’re in luck -- this film has so many “Matrix”-like shots that you’ll swear this thing was made in 2003.

With all of the good guys captured, the lone escapee Raphael hatches a plan to free his brothers. Nearly killed by Shredder himself, April facilitates the save by pumping the almost bleed dry captured Turtles with mega-huge-doses of adrenaline. Such a great lesson for the kids, too -- in tumultuous times, the best course of action to take is usually a huge amount of stimulants.

After a lengthy snowy mountain pre-finale, we come to our dénouement: Sacks plans on using his skyscraper to unleash a deadly virus on NYC (in essence, the exact same scheme from “The Amazing Spider-Man”) so while April and her cameraman not-a-love interest try to stop that from happening, the Turtles go four-on-one against Shredder and still get their asses kicked. Of course, the Turtles learn to work together and eventually defeat their foe and unplug the deadly poison machine -- and somehow, they manage to not be seen by a single soul during the very, very public scene.

After the Turtles unveil their all new ride (a nice ode to the cartoon) and blow up a dude’s new car, they ride off into the moonlight … no doubt awaiting a string of worsening sequels, each more boisterous and unnecessary than the last.

As a child of the late 1980s, I was totally onboard with the Turtle marketing wehrmacht, but even then, I knew it was nothing more than mass market pandering. By the time “X-Men” and “Batman: The Animated Series” were on TV, I realized just how corny and commercial the property was … go back and watch some of those old shows and you’ll realize those things don’t stand up a bit. Alas, it does still have some nostalgic appeal, and all in all, this re-start really isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Yeah, you can complain about the movie being nothing more than a product-placement strewn toy advertisement, but that’s pretty much what the first wave of movies were, anyway. Probably my favorite scene in the entire film is a sequence where Splinter temps Michelangelo with a “99-cheese pizza” from Pizza Hut -- it’s such a shameless, goofy moment that really embodies everything the license represents, which is virtually nothing.

As idea deprived and sequel-hungry modern Hollywood is, it’s practically a given that we’re going to be seeing at least four or five more “TMNT” movies before yet another franchise reboot. And who knows? We may finally get a live action feature film starring such illustrious characters as Pizza Face, Muck Man and my personal favorite, Mutagen Man -- a guy who’s basically a bunch of organs floating around in a fish tank.

If you don’t want to think, then “TMNT” is your kind of movie. And as far as brain dead, big budget cinema goes nowadays, “TMNT” is certainly one of the least offensive offerings to come out this year.

My Score:

Two and half tofu dogs out of four

Jimbo says check it out … especially if you remember who the fuck “Baxter Stockman” is.


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