Saturday, August 9, 2014

No Ninja, No Ninja No!: "Ninja Turtles" boring, even as overpriced junk food goes


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) 
101 min., rated PG-13.

Honestly, what is there to say about a 21st-century reboot of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" from the Michael Bay machine? Hitting a peak in the late '80s and early '90s with a cartoon series, three live-action feature films (plus a belated, negligible 2007 CG-animated feature), video games, action figures and pizza chain product placement, the franchise of those four teenage anthropomorphic box turtles named after Italian Renaissance painters now begs to return to the pop-cultural spotlight. Or, it was apparently just time for another merchandising bonanza. Backed by Nickelodeon Movies and Mr. Bay's production company Platinum Dunes seeing distribution by Paramount Pictures, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" doesn't lack budgetary resources, but wow, what an empty, witless, nap-inducing piece of junk food this is. It's also a depressing reminder that Augustthe last summer month where studios churn out bad moviesis already here. August or not, the film is never as iconic as it strives to be, just rather loud and pandering. Not that the 1990-1993 movies were confused for being "good" or anything more than juvenile, kitschy nostalgia, they at least had a jokier spirit and campy appeal.

Tired of being relegated to fluff pieces that have her exercising on trampolines in Times Square, dogged Channel 6 reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) aspires to be a hard-hitting journalist. One night at a shipyard, she sniffs out the next strike of the organized crime syndicate known as The Foot Clan and spots a fast-moving vigilante who leaves his gang-like mark. Of course, it turns out to be one of the four talking turtles, who are also 6-foot-tall teenagers and ninjas. April will come to meet—or reunite with?—Raphael (voiced by Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Johnny Knoxville) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard), as well as their rat sensei/father figure Splinter (Tony Shalhoub) who's raised them in the sewer since they were little reptiles and taught them Ninjitsu. Meanwhile, science industry mogul Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), April's late father's former partner, might be conspiring with Foot Clan leader Shredder (Tohoru Masamune, kept in the shadows) to own Manhattan and get ahold of the turtles' mutagen in their blood.

Right off the top, there is an animated "origin story" sequence that actually pops, looking ripped straight from the comic book, that catches you up with the "TMNT" lore. After those first few minutes, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" is hard to care about as it goes along and after it's all over. From the joint efforts of screenwriters Josh Appelbaum & AndrĂ© Nemec and Evan Daugherty and director Jonathan Liebesman (2011's "Battle: Los Angeles"), not the most comforting for-hire helmer in Hollywood, the film is frantic and yet so plodding at the same time. It's unimaginatively plotted, save for a sensible development involving April and her scientist father's connection to Splinter and the turtles, and not as goofy as earlier incarnations, but it still has a sense of humor. Too bad every quip from one of the turtles is delivered at such a breakneck pace, usually while they're in wild motion, that none of the humor registers or the one-liner delivered is just plain lame. The action set-pieces, many of which are stylized with slow motion as if the editors just discovered the effect, all look processed that the whole film might as well have been animated or shot entirely as a video game tie-in. If there are admittedly any exceptions, here's one: an entertainingly staged and smoothly edited chase scene down a snowy mountaintop involving an 18-wheeler, Humvees, and the turtles using their shells as snowboards. 

What the film does wrong with the turtles themselves is its biggest inadequacy. As pumped-up CG creations, the fun just feels sapped from their shells, and the quartet is even less aesthetically pleasing to the eye next to the costume-puppet versions. The motion-capture actors playing the turtles barely matter because the aggressive Raphael, the honorable Leonardo, the smart Donatello and the laid-back Michelangelo are all interchangeable, aside from their little personality notes and the different colors of their bandana masks. Let's just say the Seven Dwarves are easier to tell apart. Tony Shalhoub's voice performance actually lends a little heart as Splinter, though. Making good with Michael Bay after leaving the "Transformers" franchise, Megan Fox is the most life-like thing in the entire movie as April O'Neil, filling out that classic yellow jacket and interacting with the turtles. Though one can't quite blame her for not being able to one-hundred percent sell the role of an "intrepid aspiring reporter," she has a more appealing presence here than she ever had as a hot bod with a vacant face in either of those robot movies. Also, Fox has proven to be more of an agile comedian than people give her credit for that compared to her most fully realized performance in "Jennifer's Body" and funny/convincing work in "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," "This Is 40" and "Friends with Kids," she's given zero, zip, zilch, nada to do here as a heavy-breathing action heroine. As news cameraman Vernon who rides shotgun during the adventure, Will Arnett is made to act like a dope, more creepy than amusing without being too obnoxious as he constantly hits on April. Usually making a deliciously oily heavy, William Fichtner is surprisingly generic as Sachs, and it's rather baffling why Whoopi Goldberg would take time off from TV's "The View" and return to the big screen in an extended cameo as April's disbelieving newspaper boss.

Instead of adult men fervently hanging onto their nostalgia with this 2014 edition or undiscriminating pre-teen boys flocking to see it, everyone is better off staying home and ordering a hot pizza. Occasionally cool to look at but never exciting, grinningly cheesy once in a blue moon but never that funny, "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" ends up an overproduced, soullessly slick shell of a movie that can't even get by on pretty looks or benefit much from lowered expectations. It's more relentlessly mediocre and instantly forgettable than a giant disaster, but do the makers really want such a ringing endorsement in the TV spots? There's no knock-my-socks-off fun in trashing the pizza-eating, "cowabunga"-spouting turtle dudes' latest big-screen offering, although it provides a strong reason why they should have remained as a thing of pop culture's past. 

Grade: C - 

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