Starring: Pete Ploszek (Teen Wolf), Noel Fisher (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part Two), Jeremy Howard (Galaxy Quest), Alan Ritchson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Megan Fox (Transformers), Stephen Amell (Arrow), Will Arnett (The LEGO Movie), Brian Tee (The Wolverine), Tyler Perry (Gone Girl), Gary Anthony Williams (The Boondocks), Sheamus (The Escapist), Laura Linney (The Truman Show)
Director: Dave Green (Earth to Echo)
Writers: Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)
Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes
Release Date: 30 May (UK), 3 June (US)
Can we please all drop the pretence and admit it: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a bloody stupid concept. It’s highly entertaining and a large part of nostalgic pop culture for many, but even its creators don’t take it nearly as seriously as some of its fans do. The original comics were made as a satire of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the 1980s, and from there it unexpectedly exploded into a phenomenon that engulfed the western world for close to a decade. Its popularity has never waned not only thanks to recent reinventions of the franchise for a new generation, but because fans of the original have stayed vocal in the geek community. With all that said, that doesn’t excuse how much of a disservice 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was to the franchise. It was a mess of a film with an indecisive tone, a series of baffling changes to the series mythology that only made it stupider, a story that forced in unneeded tropes like heroic destiny, and a focus on the lame and miscast human characters rather than the heroes in a half-shell the audience paid to see. But for all its faults, the Turtles themselves were decently realized as characters and the action was at least entertaining from a mindless point-of-view, showing there was at least some potential for the movie to plausibly work. It was just about successful enough to warrant a sequel, but if the fans are to be won over the filmmakers are going to have to knuckle down and finally give them what they want. And with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, I think they’ve done just about as good a job as they could.
What really sunk the first film is that it couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a grounded reinterpretation of the property or just a goofy summer blockbuster, in the process making a film too self-serious to enjoy but also too juvenile to have respect for. All TMNT fans have ever really wanted is a straight-up live action adaptation of the 80s cartoon, and that pretty much is exactly what Out of the Shadows is with everything good and bad that comes with that. Any attempt at being something deeper has been thrown out of the window in favour of finally embracing the ridiculous nature of the source material, and with that one simple but key decision everything else falls into place. Yes, the plot is a simple fetch quest that could have easily been pulled from any number of episodes of the cartoon, but that’s what it’s trying to do. Yes, the science makes absolutely no sense and concepts like dimensional gateways and brain monsters controlling mechs are completely at odds with much of the rest of the movie, but compared to the insanity of other parts of the TMNT world it’s practically restrained. It also makes the smart decision of not dwelling too much on the mistakes of the past; the Turtles’ botched origin isn’t mentioned beyond a quick throwaway line, William Fichtner’s character doesn’t even get acknowledged, and the creepy way Michelangelo and Will Arnett’s Vern would ogle April (Megan Fox) is incredibly downplayed. There’s a real sense that the filmmakers have actually listened to fan complaints and tried to rectify them as best they can. Not every mistake can be fixed since it still has to serve as a sequel and many problems are deep within that first film’s DNA, but as a post-mortem clean-up job I think they’ve done admirably in delivering all fans really wanted: a fun adventure with the Turtles that embraces everything they love without the need to be ironic or ashamed.
Unlike last time where our title heroes took backseat to April and Vern, the Turtles are unquestionable the main characters in their own movie here. The film starts and ends with them, they have an important impact on the plot beyond being living MacGuffins, and they even have understandable internal conflicts and emotional growth drawn from their distinct personalities. Sure, their development isn’t much more involved than learning to accept themselves and their place in the world, but even something simple like that is enough to allow the audience to better invest in these characters. The human characters are now where they belong as supporting players and, though still not especially compelling, at least they don’t eat up half the runtime. Megan Fox is still incredibly out of her depth as April O’Neill and Will Arnett can be obnoxious as Vern Fenwick, but in their new positions they fit more comfortably into the movie and don’t distract from what we can to see.
On the new character front, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Stephen Amell may be a decent enough actor, but as Casey Jones he feels incredibly miscast. He certainly has the physique for the role and Amell at least looks like he’s at least enjoying himself, but simply lacks the laid-back charisma the character calls for; take the exact same script and give it to someone like Chris Pratt, and you’d have a more faithful representation of the character. Laura Linney frankly feels wasted as the generic police captain who turns from bitter and stern to supportive and trustworthy after one inspirational speech, and whilst Brian Tee’s interpretation of the Shredder is certainly a lot closer in spirit to the original character he’s constantly sidelined by the other villains in the movie; he never even gets involved in a major action sequence and is relegated to barking orders. Luckily, Shredder’s lack of presence is at least made up for by the many other villains in the movie, who are all not only far better than the pitiful excuse for villains last time but outrageously so. Bebop & Rocksteady are easily the most fan-requested characters to appear in a TMNT movie, and here they are given justice with lots of screen time and two major action sequences revolving around them; their dumb but happy-go-lucky personalities serving as a very apt metaphor for the film’s mentality. In a similar vein, Krang is finally given the big screen treatment and not much is sacrificed in the translation, complete with an enormous mech to fight the Turtles with and a certain “technological dome” at his disposal. He’s not in the film as much as many would like, but he’s great whilst he’s there and there’s certainly plenty of possibility for him to do more in future instalments. And, whilst I may be embarrassed to say it, I thoroughly enjoyed Tyler Perry as Baxter Stockman. He may be playing the stereotypical nerdy scientist complete with big glasses and bowtie, but he’s clearly aware of what kind of movie he’s in and is having so much fun hamming it up that it becomes infectious.
If there’s one thing I will say in the first movie’s favour, it’s that the action scenes were a lot better done there. Jonathan Liebsman may be a thoroughly bland director, but he at least had experience in directing action, whilst Dave Green is a relative newcomer with only a few shorts and a found footage movie under his belt. The action here is by no means incompetent or unoriginal, but it lacks the ferocity and visceral impact the first film had, mainly because it relies less on martial arts and more on causing mayhem. Fitting in with the lighter tone, the film’s look is significantly brighter with highly saturated colours and a far more outlandish approach to production design and visual effects. Not only does the CGI on the Turtles look more seamless but their designs have been noticeably streamlined to be a teeny bit closer to their classic look, thankfully looking less like roided-out Shreks this time. Similarly, Bebop & Rocksteady and Krang have both received updates to their appearance but are still instantly recognisable as those characters, proving they aren’t impossible to realise on screen and providing hope even more of the wackier side characters from TMNT lore could make the jump to the big screen. Honestly, at this point, introducing Ace Duck wouldn’t be too much of a left turn.
I was on the fence for the entire movie about whether Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was a genuinely enjoyable dumb movie or just better in comparison to the lacklustre previous film…and then the end credits happened. I won’t say much more, but the moment they kicked in I not only grinned like a seven-year-old but I felt affirmed in my opinion on the film. Is this film ridiculous and stupid? Yes, but it’s clearly meant to be. Will people who don’t care about the franchise enjoy it? Probably not, but it’s certainly not made for them. Judged just like any other movie, this is garish disposable nonsense, but doing so would be snobbish and ignorant. This is a movie that looks at how crazy the source material is, sees how rabid the fan base is for it to be unleashed in all its insanity, and actually has the guts to say “F*ck it! Give them what they want!” without an ounce of shame. It is most certainly junk food cinema, but not the kind you immediately regret after consuming. This is the kind of absurd escapist movie experience that is enjoyable and even healthy in small doses, but it would be advisable to balance it out with something a little healthier on the brain. If you’re not at all invested in Ninja Turtles, you can easily knock a few points off my score. But if you grew up with even an ounce of these characters in your life, and you’re willing to admit to yourself that the franchise is inherently ridiculous, I suggest you at least give this movie a chance. Is this the perfect Ninja Turtles movie? No, but there is no such thing in existence. Perhaps barring the original 1990 film version, I’d say this is the best realisation of the franchise in cinema history, especially taking into consideration it’s a sequel to arguably the worst realisation of the franchise in cinema history. For that, I think this movie at least deserves a hearty proclamation of the Turtles’ immortal words: COWABUNGA!!!
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10