Well, the first thing I have to do is watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) again, since I have no effective memory of it whatsoever. Even though I practically lived with it for however long it took me to write, shoot & edit my review, so…about a week? Two at the most? I remember liking Splinter’s design, hating everyone else’s, and being surprised there was only one gratuitous shot of Megan Fox’s ass in tight jeans. And…yeah. That’s it. Nothing to it but to do it.
(1 hour and 40 minutes later)
Well…that was…awful. I look forward to forgetting about it all over again. Paramount announced a sequel the Sunday after its release and here we are. With two out of three of the same writers, and the same producers – Michael Bay’s own Platinum Dunes. For a quick refresher, Nickelodeon bought the Turtles in 2012, debuting a new TV show that just wrapped up after five seasons and making these two films. Nickelodeon’s owned by Paramount, which seems to have Michael Bay’s soul in a jar, somewhere, and poke it with pins whenever they need a new cash injection. Or maybe the mortgage on Hulk Hogan’s old house in Miami really was that huge. I don’t know. You explain why there are five Transformers movies.
So what has missing writer Evan…Daugherty? “Dauh-hurt-tee?” Sorry if I’m butchering your name, man. But what’s Evan Daugherty doing these days…? Oh…he’s working on the next…Tomb…Raider…
Instead of the previous film’s director, Jonathan Liebesman – who got a job doing the Shanara TV show in the meantime – we have the director of the already-forgotten ET rip-off Earth to Echo, Dave Green. This is a vast, immediate improvement. Instead of all that bullshit Mr. Battle: Los Angeles and Warth of the Titans was on last time, we have nice, clean shots, lots of long takes, minimal shakey-cam…in fact, whenever there’s a stylistic flourish – like slow motion or speed ramping – I can tell it’s done for a reason that’s at least trying to service the story. It’s almost like a late-80s or early-90s sci-fi fantasy film of some description – a far better tonal fit for the Turtles and their now-thirty years of life than early-2000s Horror remake/music video/car commercial aesthetics…and….that’s the best thing I can say about this movie. Other than the Paramount logo at the start, with the stars replaced by shurikens. That’s kinda cool, but the rest can fuck right off.
Right away, it’s exposition time, catching us up on the year between films. For some stupid reason, April and the Turtles agreed to let Vern take all the credit for stopping Shredder’s attempt to gas New York. So Vern’s still a dick, but now he’s a famous dick, so Will Arnet doesn’t have to stretch too hard for this job. Plus he’ll get to display his secret heart of gold just in time for the third act. Again. Why else is he still here? I duuno…oh, wait, yes I do. It’s because the people making this film thought we dumb humans out here in audience land needed a dumb human to identify with in this story. Ignoring the fact we have four turtles who are, potentially, much cooler and more easily identifiable than any dumb human could possibly be…if they ever got the chance to develop. Which they won’t, since their movies continue to be cluttered up with dumb humans. Just like the Transformers movies.
Leo’s still the kind of guy who reads X-Men comics and actually sympathizes with Cyclops. Raph’s still the kind of guy who only reads X-Men comics for Wolverine. Donny’s still the designated Geek, in charge of delivering the heroic end of the technobable. And Mikey’s still creeping on April. Dude – take a hint! She’s just not that into you. You’re like the annoying little brother she never knew she had until last year…and I just discovered a new level of creepy to Mikey’s creeping. Incest is not best, Mike.
Meanwhile, April’s being a real investigative reporter, so at least she’s moved forward. Somewhat. She lost her job in the last movie, and the scene where she got it back got cut for time, so she just seems to be freelance Shredder Associate hunting. With what money? Oh, wait – that’s right – I’m not supposed to care. Here’s Megan Fox in a schoolgirl outfit and I’m supposed to care about that. But don’t worry – it’s for plot reasons – so that makes it…better? And she’ll get her old job back at the end of this movie so…yay? And where the hell’s Whoopie Goldberg? Or am I the only one who cares?
April’s stalking respected-but-secretly-mad scientist Baxter Stockman, who’s played by Tyler Perry, of all people. And for some reason, Perry decided to play Baxter Stockman as an Evil Neil deGrasse Tyson. Probably because Neil’s the one scientist people have seen on TV. Other than Bill Nye. Putting Stockman in here – and casting a black actor in the role – is an obvious sop to fans of those original Mirage comics. Giving him jack-shit to do – beyond stand behind safety glass as he watches mutagen work on human test subjects – is a sop to no one, beyond the people in Paramount who were looking for a sequel hook. After all, Stockman’s only really known for two things: creating an army of mouser robots and fucking around with mutagen until he turns himself into a human fly. We get neither robots nor human fly in this film, and Stockman’s shunted off screen as soon he’s no longer needed to deliver the villainous end of the technobable. Oh, but he signs off swearing revenge! So we can all look forward to that sometime around Never.
April’s stalking Stockman because Stockman’s planning to help Shredder escape during his upcoming prisoner transfer. He’s been held somewhere, for over a year, and obviously got some major plastic surgery between films. Under the care of Officer Casey Jones. As played by TV’s Green Arrow…though, not as tortured or morally conflicted as TV’s Arrow. Which only serves to make him less interesting. Has he even added the “Green” back to his name yet or is he still just “Arrow?” Honesty, I checked out after Season 1, and Captain Jack was the only reason I stuck it out that long in the first place. His “Yes, they deserve to die!” speech is right below Samuel L. Jackson’s famous “Yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!” line from A Time To Kill in all my Google results, and rightfully so.
Whatever. Shredder’s attempted escape doubles as a car chase and a toy commercial for the new Turtle Van/Garbage Truck. “Wait,” you might say, “didn’t the last movie end with a turtle van that was actually a van? So why’s it now a garbage truck with flame pipes on the sides now?” Well, I’d say in response, we’re ten years out from the debut of flaming-decal Optimus Prime, so how shocked are you, really? I like how Donny’s built everyone’s signature weapon into the Garbage Truck somewhere, and how very few of them work as intended. I don’t like how the van mysteriously disappears after this chase sequence, because it underlines the whole “$150 million toy commercial” aspect of the production. Like almost everything else.
And then, suddenly, Krang. Who teleports Shredder right out of the car chase in order to supply our villain plot for the remainder. For some reason, Shredder doesn’t have his own villain plot and for some other, probably just as absurd reason, he instantly trusts Krang – this giant brain monster from another dimension he’s just met – and follows his instructions to the letter. Shredder has to gather three pieces of eight…no, wait…three pieces of a dimensional portal scattered across the surface of the Earth and put ’em all together into what Krang calls an “arc-capacitor,” This will allow Krang to teleport his mobile weapon’s platform, the Technodrome, into the middle of New York City. Why can’t he just teleport the damn thing over himself? I don’t know. Might as well ask how he can teleport a supervillain right out of the highway. Or why he’ll only be able to bring the Technodrome through one piece at a time.
The only answer is the In Real Life answer: it’s because this is a dumb, obligatory sequel made by people who didn’t give a fuck. Hence this most video game excuse for a villain plot I’ve seen outside of an actual video game. “Gather three McGuffins to advance the plot!” Supplied by the worst version of Krang I’ve seen, period. Even the one in Turtles Forever is better. He’s not the Krang – or the Utrom, whatever you want to call them – the world conquering aliens who want to strip-mine Earth for its resources like the 1950s B-movie alien invaders they were explicitly conceived to satirize. The Brain from Planet Arnous? Anyone? And Krang’s not the other half of a comedy double-act with Shredder, like he was in the cartoon this is pretending to be – once he gives Shredder his marching orders, he teleports ol’ Chrome Dome back to our world and never checks in to micromanage, not even once. At one point he says, “Family is for weaklings!” and at another point he says, “I don’t like to share!” which is…kinda the antithesis of the Ninja Turtles. But that’s about all he gets for “character.” He’s just “the villain” and we’re supposed to be happy he’s here, like an old friend who fell on hard times that we meet unexpectedly, doing some random job, like jokeying the register at the corner coffee place. Plus, “arc-capacitor,” sounds like something I’d come up with after passing out during a Raiders of the Lost Ark/Back to the Future double bill, and I have no reason to believe this didn’t happen to our filmmakers.
In fact, this Krang’s little more than a replacement for our last main villain, Eric Sachs. And where the hell is he, anyway? Sure, Vern hit him over the head with a microscope, and that can kill somebody if your aim is on-point. (Don’t try it at home, kids.) But if he’s not dead, he’s still presumably the billionaire industrialist head of a company who aided and abetted his ninja surrogate-dad in almost deploying a weapon of mass destruction over Times Square. So…what? Is he in Guantanamo? Please, he’s too white and rich to wind up in Guantanamo. So is he in some posh halfway house for white collar criminals that lets you wander the streets by day as long as you wear an ankle bracelet and check back in at eight p.m.? Or are we supposed to pretend he never existed?
At least the last Turtles surprised me by being such a wholesale rip-off of Amazing Spider-Man. It wasn’t a pleasant surprise, but it kept me from checking out. It had one thread I could follow to its dumb, obvious conclusion. This one’s got too many threads, and none of them are woven into anything. They all dangle, and most of them are left dangling for the duration.
In the last movie, April’s dad and Eric Sachs developed a green ooze that turned normal animals into humanoid versions of themselves…and potentially cured the plague Shredder was gonna unleash on New York, but let’s ignore that. (Our filmmakers sure do.) In this movie, Krang gives Shredder purple ooze, which turns normal humans into humanoid animals and (as Donny discovers about midway through) turns humanoid animals into normal humans for a few seconds. Everybody got that? Next time we’re gonna get red ooze and it’s gonna turn everybody into fucking Phoenixes or something. Like I thought the Aether was gonna do to Natalie in Thor 2. And Jesus Christ, Donny – you don’t test weird, extra-dimensional mutagens on yourself first! You’re in the New York sewer system – find some fucking subjects if you’re so eager. And how the hell can anyone grow two extra fingers without it hurting like fucking hell? Or at least itching?
”But Beebop and Rocksteady!” cry the children of the village. Yes, they’re here – finally – and their enthusiasm for life, both as minions of the Shredder and as anthropomorphic animals, is infectious…for awhile. They’re so damn close to their 1987 cartoon selves (bumbling, idiotic, but obviously very good friends) that they wind up in the uncanny valley, which is odd, since everything else in this film is trying so hard to be so…I don’t want to say “realistic.” “Realist” is a better term, though I know that’ll sound like a distinction without a difference to a lot of you out there in internet land.
Okay – “realist” is when you draw (either by hand, or with computers) your idea of what a six-foot, anthropomorphic turtle would really look like on top of live-action footage. Of them explaining themselves to the NYPD, let’s say. “Realistic” would be having the NYPD shoot them on sight before they get a word out – regardless of whether a local Celebrity Journalist vouches for them or not. Do you see the difference?
I just don’t want to hear anyone talking shit about cartoons in order to prop this shit movie up. Every Turtle’s cartoon to date has been better written than this, with more character development and better character interactions. Yes, even the ’87 series. Beebop and Rocksteady are the perfect examples. They go through something like the arc their cartoon counterparts went on the latest show, but without the incredibly cathartic moment at the eleventh hour, when they betrayed Krang and Shredder in order to save the world. There’s no redemptive moment here, when they realize, dumbasses though they may be, that they are Planet Earth’s dumbasses, born and bred, and they’ll be damned if they let some space brain take over the place where they keep all their stuff. They’re just dumbasses, full stop, and boredom is the ultimate cure for even the most infectious enthusiasm.
Then there’s April. Who becomes supurfluous once she sets the turtles onto the plot – like last time, but worse. Which means, every time the movie cuts back to her, I get to say something like, “C’mon, April – you stabbed Shredder in the fucking face last time! You should be much more badass than this. Hell, Mikela Baynes (Fox’s character in the Transformers movies) is more badass than this…at least in the first Transformers movie, when she got things to do.” I don’t want to be the guy who keeps saying to Megan Fox, “You did your best work when you played the non-canonical daughter of Nicholas Cage’s character from Gone in 60 Seconds. And that one time you played a succubus.” But here we are. And here she is, sharing screen time with New Casey. Who’s even more superfluous. I didn’t even remember he got to take down Beebop and Rocksteady until just now, because I’m rewatching the end of the film as I type these words.
Goddamnit. My initial also notes include the line, “They almost got it.” But that’s wrong: they look like they almost get it because the film crassly recycles thirty-year-old Turtles iconography and watered it down into a tasteless mush. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder whether the thing you liked was ever good. Of course the Turtles were good – are good. But Paramount didn’t buy them out because of that. They did it because they are a recognizable brand with thirty years of history to strip mine and thirty years worth of fans willing to pay for it. Some of whom have gone on to make their own…smaller fans…? Children! I lost the word there. Children. And why must those children drown in a sea of our nostalgia?
Especially since, with any luck, they’ve been watching and/or reading better Turtles material. Like the 2003 cartoon. Or the 2011 IDW comics. Or – hell – the 1987 series. Or anywhere the Turtles don’t team up with the NYP-Fucking-D. All of which are available on various and sundry home media by now. Me, I’m going to watch the last three episodes of the 2012 cartoon, so I can remind myself that good things can still come out of this franchise. And then I’m gonna start saying the Fanboy Prayer for the series that’s due out next year – “Please, gods, don’t let it suck.”