By Chuck Williamson
For all its faults, the original 1990 adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at least tempered its goofy premise with its ground-level excursions through the mean streets of pre-Giuliani New York, deliberately scaling back some of the silliness until we were left with a strange skuzzbucket amalgamation of The Muppets Take Manhattan and Death Wish. It struck a delicate balance, straddling the line between its pre-televisual origins — as a grizzled, noir-infused Frank Miller pastiche that routinely indulged in Shogun Assassin-levels of splatter-gore — and the toned-down, pizza-shilling Saturday morning cartoon that sanitised much of the violence and turned this silly, somewhat disposable franchise into a massive multimedia empire. This crude synthesis eventually unravels and falls apart — by the time a bewigged Elias Koteas starts lecturing a hardscrabble gang of teenage ninjas on the importance of family, we know the jig is up — as the film does its best to anchor this ridiculous story of anthropomorphic turtle-men cracking skulls and cracking wise in the “real world.”
It’s a film of subtle compromises and real-world specificities, a pared-down slice of streetwise ninjasploitation steeped in NYC minutiae: the Turtles trudge through Times Square and Central Park like muppetised Travis Bickles, swearing, bleeding, and convalescing in old upstate farmhouses; the latex musculature and animatronic faces (courtesy of Jim Hensen’s Creature Shop) convey a tactile warmth while also soaking up all those inky noir-friendly shadows; the Shredder gets downgraded into a low-level, crypto-pederastic kingpin, April O’Neal languishes on the fringe of local television, and Splinter transforms into a sewer-dwelling Sho Kosugi figure hellbent on revenge. While still wading through the corporate-mandated muck, the film manages to carve out its own unique and discernible identity — which is more than anyone can say for Jonathan Liebesman’s muddled, terminally stupid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.
Far removed from the kid-friendly urban jungle of its low-budget predecessor, this latest iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise lacks even the smudgiest thumbprint of an identity, to say nothing of its flagrant disregard for the principles of scale, space, tone, and narrative logic. From its opening sequence, a motion comic intro where Tony Shalhoub (playing Splinter) sprints through scads of exposition as if reciting the à la carte specials from a Chinese restaurant’s dinner menu, Liebesman’s film indulges in all the worst impulses of franchise filmmaking. This is not the second coming of Turtle Power. This is the cynical and slack-jawed end product of corporate synergy, lazy and lackadaisically paint-by-numbers, a multimillion dollar garbage fart coasting on the collective fumes of our misguided nostalgia.
Treating his NYC setting less as a real place than as the nondescript backdrop for some third-act mass destruction, Liebesman churns out another bland, bloated, personality-free franchise-extender that fails to meet even the lowest of our expectations. It’s a dreary, colorless slog — but of course, anyone with functioning eyeballs could have figured that out with just a single passing glance at the Turtles themselves, who inadvertently function as grotesque externalisations of the film’s failure to elicit even the slightest modicum of joy: the flared nostrils, furled lips, tombstone teeth, and veiny John Cena torsos. Broad-chested and leprous-green, these hulking behemoths lurch into frame like a squadron of mo-capped Brundleflies, as hideous and disfigured as an Eldritch abomination plucked from the pages of Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark sketchbook. They are, like the film itself, butt-ugly and utterly charmless, the nightmare children of focus groups and corporate risk mitigation.
But what could you possibly expect from a film like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which sets up its byzantine maze of interconnected backstories and uses Michael Bay’s favorite fembot (playing April O’Neal) as our blank-faced point of entry? That needlessly hurls us into the same mechanistic universe of a Alejandro González Iñárritu film, where Everything Is Connected, Life Is A Turtle-Embossed Tapestry, and Holy Crap, Did You See Megan Fox Bouncing On That Trampoline? That temporally suspends all narrative action for a shameless mid-film Pizza Hut commercial (because I assume Sbarro wasn’t available)? Miles away from the meat-and-potatoes storytelling of the 1990 adaptation, Liebesman’s film takes a far more convoluted route that pointlessly intertwines the destinies of a low-level entertainment journalist, her scientist father, his blandly Machiavellian assistant, the paramilitary team of humanoid turtles that came about from their research, and the East Asian crime syndicate that inexplicably bankrolled this chickenshitoperation. It sacrifices all vestiges of coherence or narrative logic, all in a mad gambit to up the scale, increase the property damage, and hinge everything on William Fichtner’s city-annihilating MacGuffin Machine, a third-act whatchamafuckit fueled by plot contrivances and magic blood. The Turtles futz through this swiss cheese plot as best they can, but mostly just bide their time by trading lame quips and (in the case of Michelangelo) acting like interspecies sex predators. And then things blow up. The End. Even for a franchise that once delved into the secret life of a megalomaniacal brain-monster from Dimension X, all of this is very, very stupid — and crushingly incoherent.
And make no mistake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thrives on that sort of incoherence, snatching helter-skelter from the bottomless grab bag of marketable trends stolen from other tried-and-tested franchises. Designed as a film to appeal to the widest possible audience, TMNT 2.0 winds up pleasing no-one. It hedges its bets at every corner, oscillating wildly between cartoon juvenilia and Nolanised sturm-und-drang (the aesthetic equivalent of a Nickelback album), nullifying all of the cornball jokes in a deluge of bathos and bombast. By the time our heroes start slugging it out with faceless goons on the mythical snow-capped mountains of upstate New York (I think?), Liebesman’s film lamely retreats into a series of secondhand abstractions: a never-ending string of hyper-accelerated, continuity-busting action scenes that remind one why Michael Bay is revered in some circles as a secret avant-gardist and Jonathan Liebesman is just that talentless hack who directed Battle: Los Angeles. Heroes and villains — reduced to a bunch of computer-generated eyesores — duke it out for the fate of the world, but I sincerely doubt anyone could possibly care.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.
The evidence: http://fastercecilcatdemilledemille.tumblr.com/post/94453393043