In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott
Fitzgerald describes Tom Buchanan’s size as “cruel.” Before we
meet the character, the narrative tells us that his physicality is brutish and
unpleasant, undermining Buchanan’s desire for others to
bask in his own Übermensch status. The bodies and faces of the title characters in Jonathan
Liebesman‘s nonsensical “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” can be
described in a similar way. Their shoulders are blocky, their biceps
bulging. It’s unclear where their chests end and their heads begin.
Just seeing them in motion feels oppressive.
Fortunately, “Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles” isn’t necessarily about the titular mutant turtles (insofar as it’s about
anything, which is doubtful). Instead, the film begins with intrepid
reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) investigating a series of crimes leading back to a mysterious group known as the Foot Clan. While
she’s meant to cover insignificant stories, she instead drags along
harried, horny cameraman Vernon (an intolerable Will Arnett) on wild
goose chases so as to determine the connective thread between each heist
and every criminal activity. At one point, Vernon stops her to extoll the
virtues of her lightweight reporting as “foam” in a speech
subtextually underlining why movies like “Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles” exist. You’re making a mass-market blockbuster for kids, guys.
No need to be defensive about it.
O’Neil soon learns that several of the
crimes are being stopped by a mysterious crew in the shadows that she
calls “the vigilantes.” After a couple of incidents where she’s in
the right place and the right time, she’s able to follow the shadowy
figures and discover that they’re in fact six foot tall turtles who
practice martial arts and get involved in stopping militarized street
gangs because… it’s not clear why, only that they’re sneaking away from
their master Splinter (Tony Shalhoub, impersonating John Hurt) to do so. Diehard ‘Turtles’ fans will just
accept that there’s a rivalry between the Turtles and the Foot Clan,
though viewers unfamiliar with the the franchise might leave the film wondering exactly why.
From that point on, the film, produced by Michael Bay‘s Platinum Dunes production shingle, opts for
“mythology” and “world building” over plot. We find out that
the Foot Clan is under the rule of a villain named Shredder, who we soon see is more or less a set of steak knives. Together with businessman Eric
Sachs (William Fichtner), the Clan is behind a biological
warfare scheme that would allow them to hold New York City hostage. Sachs is
a slick businessman raised in Japan who has pioneered studies in the
field of genetics —why he can’t actually just be Shredder or the primary antagonist for
story purposes is a mystery. Sachs is introduced as an intriguing media personality who clearly controls a large block of the city’s
infrastructure, while Shredder is an ominous head boss in the
shadows. By the film’s end, the Shredder is a menace in a giant
free-for-all brawl, while Sachs is reduced to firing a gun and
screaming threats. This could have made a little more sense.
But sense is overrated, right? The
film’s highlights (and there are some, which is surprising
considering Liebesman’s filmography) occur when the action takes
over. The final brawl on top of a skyscraper benefits from several
helicopter shots allowing us to fully see the combatants in motion.
An earlier battle in a sewer is well-lit, and benefits from
some creative CGI choreography. And a fight sequence occurring while the Turtles are sliding down a snowy mountain lasts a
good five to ten minutes and completely, gleefully gives up on
gravity and logic altogether. The camera (or computer?) follows the
Turtles as they boomerang around, several sliding vehicles in midair
and in the snow, underneath falling trucks, over jeeps and through
trees. There are little touches here and there, like team leader Leonardo
using his swords as skis, that show wit and invention.
You do feel a little bad for Ms. Fox.
As she slowly loses grip of the film to the heroes in a
half-shell, she becomes marginalized, and you feel every unwanted
sexual advance, every uncomfortable come-on, and every brutal threat that Fox surely has undergone through most of her life.
There’s not a single scene where someone’s not trying to stick
something inside this woman: her moments with the Turtles are
especially uncomfortable, as they turn thuggish, crowding the frame with their
physiques and forcing Fox to shrink. Every other line out of
Michelangelo’s mouth references bestiality. It’s ultimately
innocuous – no one calls her a “bitch” like they did in the
“Transformers” films. But at this point, this sort of thing is
beneath even her.
It can’t be overstated what kind of a
marvel these Turtles are onscreen, however. As crude and unpleasant as their design might be, they feel like living, breathing beings, not
special effects. Liebesman’s camera rarely slows down, but when it
does, you can watch these beasts breathe, sigh, and chit-chat. Facially, they haven’t gone beyond the DreamWorks
Animation smirk, but that’s to be expected, as they are
underdeveloped and possibly malnourished turtles. A late moment
finds the Turtles riding an elevator in mid-battle, breaking a bit of
tension as they slowly improv a scatting/rapping session. If you’re a
child, or a particularly undemanding adult with an inexplicable weakness for fluke popular culture of the 1980s, you’ll be delighted. [C-]