Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) – Jonathan Liebesman

Look, I know that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) is a bad movie. You know that it’s a bad movie. Everybody knows that it’s a bad movie. When Wesley Morris at Grantland.com calls it “spectacularly dumb,” he’s spot on. When Felix Vasquez, Jr. writes at Cinema-Crazed.com that the movie is “Another loud, obnoxious, ninety minute commercial,” he couldn’t be more right. When Dave White witheringly writes at Movies.com that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is “a non-essential children’s film about anthropomorphic animals, where there is no other agenda than to jumpstart a dormant franchise and reestablish a global brand. No second meaning for adults. No complications. It meets the minimum requirements,” it’s hard not to congratulate him for so succinctly nailing it. But I, despite having seen the same movie with much the same reaction, am going to write today in praise of the minimum requirements. I enjoyed this movie, this big, spectacularly dumb movie, in spite of myself, in spite of the movie sometimes, because I think it knew what it was, knew that I knew too, and therefore didn’t insult me. We were on the same, spectacularly dumb page.

New York City is being terrorized by a mysterious group called the Foot Clan. What they are doing and even how they are terrorizing the city (they just appear to steal industrial material, hardly the stuff of civilian panic) remain unexplained (hold on to that thought, as dangling motivations will prove themselves to be the movie’s most central leitmotif). However, intrepid TV reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) is on the case and discovers that a group of vigilantes have begun to stand up against the Foot Clan and their terrifying wave of commercial larceny. Those vigilantes are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a combination of adjectives and nouns that, when uttered allowed for the first time, even the Turtles themselves must admit sounds ridiculous.

The Turtles are the creation of Eric Sacks (William Fichtner), a millionaire CEO who was working on a genetics project when he and his partner discovered a mutagen that made the Turtles grow into 8-foot-tall, bulletproof, fast-healing super beings while infusing them with human qualities, like the tendency to goof off between the ages of 13 and 19, which is how Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, our computer-generated heroes, have retained varying levels of slacker casualness (except for Raphael, who’s a bit of a jerk). Because the millionaire CEO is played by William Fichtner, I’m sure you have already assumed that his partner in the genetics project was April’s father, who was betrayed and murdered by Sacks so he could claim the mutagen for himself. I’m also sure you’ve surmised by now that Sacks was actually raised by the fearsome samurai Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) and together they control the Foot Clan. Their plan is simple, they are going to release a deadly toxin on the city, then Sacks’ pharmaceutical company will rake in the dough when they release the antidote, weaned from the mutagen in the blood of the turtles.

Why did Sacks murder his partner, who was the only one who could create this mutagen? Beats me. What is Shredder’s motivation to go along with this plan, as he apparently has no desire for money or anything really? No earthly idea. Why does Sacks go to the great risk of committing mass murder and treason in a plan that is sure to be found out when he’s already insanely wealthy? What a wonderful question. Sacks defends himself by claiming that he will soon become “stupid rich” and, if this were a different movie, J.J. Gittes’  wonderful question inChinatown (1974) to the greedy Noah Cross, “How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?” would come easily to mind. But this movie isn’t about motivation or even recognizable human behavior. It’s about sensation and good and bad in the most simple terms. Sacks’ maniacal laugh at his own evilness is more than enough justification for his actions in a movie like this. As for Shredder and his part in all this? He wants to control the city for reasons that are absolutely unexplained and undefined. The future, Mr. Gittes. The future.

There’s not a single fleshed-out character in this movie, there isn’t a single original thought, there were storytelling lapses so lazy that I should have demanded my money back (how about the Turtles rushing to get the healing mutagen to a colleague who, being a 7-foot talking rat,already has the mutagen in his body). It centered its story around CGI creatures so unappealing they inspired neither a rooting interest nor pity. The single moment that could be conceivably described as clever was when Michelangelo, the cut-up in the group, broke out in a rendition of “Happy Together,” which is, you know, by the Turtles.  At no point was I awed, engrossed or challenged. But neither was I bored. Is that faint praise? Absolutely. This is a faint movie. It is a testament against seriousness, a bulwark against intellect, a wall erected against originality. It stands on the bridge in front of creativity and defiantly announces, “You shall not pass.”

And yet, I was tickled by it. Bemused. I chuckled frequently. I’m thinking about it right now and smiling. Film criticism is a lot about expectations. What can I reasonably expect from a movie titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? What am I going to this movie for? My first reaction is that I shouldn’t be, that this movie shouldn’t exist and I should be spending all this time doing something else. But as we live in this world, this is the movie that this franchise deserves. It’s dumb, it’s frantic, it’s lazy. It has the energy of a clever teenager slapping together a last-minute project and I found that to be quite appropriate for the material, so I let go of the things that would normally bother me and let the movie happen. The handling of the April O’Neil character, who is given the impression of being the protagonist, is problematic as she hardly drives her own experiences, has questionable competency and is alternately in need of saving or screwing things up for the Turtles so that they need to save themselves. But I couldn’t even let that gnaw at me for long because there isn’t even enough maturity here to have a mature discussion. When Shredder made his big entrance in his deadly metal samurai suit and kept comically revealing larger and larger knives, I finally recognized that words like “problematic” aren’t even in this movie’s vocabulary.

The appearance of Michael Bay in the credits as a producer has drawn a lot of fire from critics but, though Bay’s dubious influence can be seen (the design of the Turtles has the same dreary, unimaginative banality as Bay’s Transformers), the action, while not groundbreaking, was easily to follow, with some shots lasting a glacial 5 or 6 seconds, twice Bay’s average time. The final confrontation came graciously in full daylight and during that final confrontation, the civilian death count stayed well south of a million. No, I felt the movie was much more akin to a different maligned popcorn director Bay: Roland Emmerich. To pile on faint praise, the movie worked for me the way that Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) did. Both were about giant reptiles and both were cotton-brained as can be. Having seen this year’s darker and infinitely less satisfying Godzilla, I have to praise Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for not going that route. When you say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a stupid movie about mutated terrapins that know karate, ask yourself this: Would you have preferred a brooding, dark, super-serious movie about mutated terrapins that know karate? What kind of mutated terrapins that know karate movie would be a good mutated terrapins that know karate movie?

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