I sometimes have to remind myself that sometimes things aren’t bad just because they are different than I expected them to be. It is too easy for the Internet to fanboy up and twist its nipples in fury over changes to things as mutable as “the canon.” Hell, even the Bible got retconned, so arguing that that some filmmakers missed something from a comic or a cartoon is just a waste of everybody’s time. What you’ll never see in this column is, “They made this different and that is why it’s bad,” because that’s just using nostalgia as a masturbatory aid.
Having said that, I also have to remind myself that trying something new doesn’t give a filmmaker a pass to drop trou, squat, and then proceed to shit the bed. When a film screws the proverbial pound puppy of character plotting, while also feeling that it’s being clever while doing so is an excellent way to draw my intellectual ire. So today, brought up before you is the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Proving that while you can make changes to make an adaptation, if your movie ends up being a tire fire anyway, it’ll end up here. This is the Takedown.
Ugh, before we get started digging into this punch bowl turd, since typing out Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) is both long and annoying, I am going to using the normal shorthand TMNT. However, I do not mean the TMNT – the 3D animation film from 2007, which is a delight. Nor do I want to confuse this peptic ulcer with the wonderful 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – a film for which I have a soft spot on my shriveled black heart.
Anyway, the movie starts with a saucy little animation and voice over credits sequence, which like Wolverine is probably the best part of the movie. It then has the poor sense to cut to Megan Fox playing April O’Neil. You can tell she’s supposed to be April (or Wario) because she is wearing distinctive yellow. Even though she is a terrible reporter she keeps trying to get a scoop on this mysterious Foot Clan that is running around New York. They’re apparently up to either “shenanigans” or maybe “tomfoolery.” The move is vague at that point and it’s never important enough to care either way.
Since the plot requires convenience, April catches a cadre of Foot Clan members robbing, a bunch of shipping containers at gunpoint (because as we all know, shipping containers are vicious). While they’re holding up metal boxes at gunpoint they are attacked by shadowy figures in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of the first episode of Daredevil, except not you know – watchable. The Foot is easily overpowered by these mostly unseen ninjas and April manages to get a couple of shots off to prove their existence.
Feeling that the movie needs to pad out the running time, April tries to convince the people (Read: raging douche duffels) she works for that something odd is going and, of course, nobody believes her. Once that’s thankfully over there’s a different pointless fight scene in a subway which leads to April finally meeting the turtles. They frighten her a little bit, and Mikey makes horrible flirting noises, and at the end she remembers their names for some reason. With this new information, April O’Neil of Channel 6 is on the case and goes to look for through her old notebooks from when she was a kid.
It turns out that the turtles were all part of some science project that her Dad and the very obvious Bad Guy Eric Sacks were involved in. Following this new hot lead, April visits Hacky Sacks at his mountain lair and they have a strange and stilted conversation about basically nothing. Then he gives her a business card / not a tracking device and she’s on her way to meet the turtles.
There’s more backstory about how Splinter trained the turtles and learned to be a ninja from a book. Also that Yacketty Sacks guy who was obviously evil, yeah, turns out you were right – totes evil. The Foot Clan and the Shredder – a giant ninja space marine, attack the Turtle Base/Playset and fisticuffs ensue. In the end Raphael’s apparently killed and the rest of them are carted off to Sacks Fifth Avenue Lair. It turns out that Raph’s plot armor is pretty thick and he survives, after which enlists April and they’re off to the rescue like a discount Rescue Rangers.
Up in the mountain lair, the turtles learn the about the Stupid Assed Plan ™ from Sacks A’Hoy, who then leaves because he ate a bad burrito or something. What happens next (spoilers) is that Raph shows up, gets his ass handed to him on a platter by the Shredder, and then Shredder leaves because (I assume) he ate the same sketch food and had a bathroom to lay waste to. I am making assumptions here because it’s never actually explained. Then the turtles just sort of leave because the villains left them alone to deal with their personal battles with week old beans.
In any event, the turtles and April and another guy who I haven’t mentioned on purpose set off back towards New York to stop the SAP ™ which involved killing lots of people and then selling them an antidote made from the turtle’s blood, even though they’re dead somehow. The details such as they are escape me. The Foot Clan plans to spray the poison off the top of Sack’s Tower and just make a big mess. But the turtles arrive, there’s the obligatory fight sequence where the Shredder is vanquished (and a lesser one where Puncher Sacks gets knocked out) and the day is saved. In the denouement, the turtles blow up a car because they’re not very bright.
Now that that is out of the way we can look at why this movie doesn’t make any goddamn sense (hint: it has nothing to do with Los Tortugas Mutantes). The main issue that plagues this salmonella infestation is that the plot just does not work. In spite of 3 screenwriters it seems like nobody figured out what the plot was supposed to be, or maybe they just argued with each other about it. That’s possible too. Instead, TMNT is built using only the loosest of threads because the plot is secondary to the set pieces.
What I mean is something that you know, deep in your heart to be true – action movies are built around their set pieces. For the uninitiated, in film a “Set Piece” is an action sequence that is designed so that it could stand alone. Kung Fu cinema does these to a large extent, with many using the plot to create reasons for the characters to wreck ass. Examples include, but are not limited to, The Dojo Scene in the Matrix, the cold open in basically any Bond film, Daredevil’s Single Take or gods help us, Star Wars Trench Run (no link because – legal advice). There’s supposed to be big show stopping sequence meant to be memorable and awesome to look at. The best ones are able to use the story that was built up in the intervening sections to add drama to the proceedings. So when Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master does furious battle there’s some gravitas to go along with what is happening (seriously, click that go watch it and come back – you’re welcome). However, in all of these cases the set piece works as a sort of capstone for the films that they are in – they’re the payoff for the greater story, or in the case of Bond’s Cold Opens – the launch of one.
TMNT doesn’t do that. Instead it plays as if the set pieces were all decided in advance and then the story was strung together afterwards in a vain attempt to make them work somehow, like a full retard Frankenstein’s Monster. For example, at the end of the second act the turtles are involved in a snowy mountain chase. The Foot Clan attacks them in trucks and they fight them off while barreling down the mountain on their shells. It’s tasty in an empty calories sort of way, but let’s focus on the fact that Empty Sacks has a snowy compound that just so happens to be on the top of a mountain. The thing is that there’s no reason for that, and you can feel it in your kidney stones that the Evil Lair is on an imaginary New York mountain because the snow escape was already planned. Screw the logic at that point because we’re gonna have a snow battle and put it in the trailer dammit
Of course when you build a plot around action sequences all the character development goes right out of the window and hits every step on the fire escape. Let’s take the classic TMNT villain – The Shredder. In basically every version of TMNT he’s the main baddie, generally knows how to kick ass and as the leader of The Foot, is the greatest threat the turtles face. In this previously loved breakfast burrito he’s rendered as a largely mute guy in a suit. Granted, he still beats the hell out of the turtles and their kung fu book learnin’ but he is not a compelling villain. I mean, this guy fills the same roll in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he didn’t get his own poster.
I get the impression via dialog and how the movie is structured and shot that Sacks Spice was supposed to be the villain. You know what? That would have probably worked better. The ninja armor is presented as being borderline Iron Monger kit, and for some reason Shredder doesn’t kill the turtles when he has the chance. Magical Japanese guy has no reason to do this, but Ninja Sacks would because he needs them alive because their blood is full of money (that’s why they’re green!). That character situation would work since the character pieces would have built on that relationship. As it is, Shredder is just a dipshit in a metal suit, so when he is beaten nobody gives a ninja rat’s ass. He hasn’t earned any enmity since any character he may have had was edited out 17 script drafts ago.
It may seem odd that I’m harping on this so much, but basically if you are building your movie around your action scenes you are doing it wrong. The character / plot development sequences are properly the core of the movie and not the other way around. If you take a good action movie and replace the set pieces with “IOU : 1 action sequence” the film will still work. Die Hard for example. Hells, even The Avengers would work if you pulled out the action because the character interactions were so strong (the sequel not so much). But yeah, since the structure of the film is so fundamentally flawed nothing else in this movie stood a chance.
But since I can’t just let those go either:
The Takedown Lightning Round
There are about 8 “useful” characters in this movie and it runs at over 100 minutes long. Stupid fight sequences spray most of the running time with a foaming pink mist, so that leaves around 5 minutes per character to develop them. With 300 entire seconds we get the following:
Donatello is a stereotypical nerd, Raph is an insecure asshole, Leo has swords, and Mikey wants to give April his pink thing. Splinter is a low rent Master Shifu. April thinks “reporting” is taking cellphone pictures, Love Sacks is a stupid villain with a stupid face who has a stupid plan and lives in a stupid house. Shredder wears a rented suit like he’s taking his mother to prom and hoping to get lucky.
Okay, so what the actual hell are The Foot doing at the beginning of this movie? They sure as shit weren’t working towards some master plan for poisoning New York, since at the start they had no way of knowing that a crucial part of their SAP ™ – the mutant turtles, even existed. So basically they were doing nothing but make a nuisance of themselves. None of it makes any sense anymore since the plotting of this film was held down and told to squeal like a piggy.
Whatever the Actual Fuck Will Arnet Was Doing:
No really, why is he there? The movie is already starved for character development and then they add a guy whose whole point is to make Mikey look less skeevy? All he does is awkwardly flirt and act like a creep. I kept expecting his character arc to pay off and somehow involve roofies.
Finally, something that I need to touch on because it fills me with Attack on Titan level sadness is the subplot involving the lab. In the rundown of the “plot” I glossed over the reveal that it was the young April O’Neil that saved Splinter and the Turtles from the lab where her dad worked and put them in the sewer. This is the sort of occurrence that makes screenwriters feel smart when they are being exceptionally stupid. There is a part inside every writer, down past the insecurity, existential dread and starvation, that wants things tied together. Doing that makes you feel like things are clean and neat like a freshly scrubbed toilet bowl, but like those it all ends up shitty in the end.
The phrase I like to use for this phenomena is the “Small World” Effect. Basically the implication is that every character is fundamentally tied to each other by their destiny or past. It’s super lazy writing because basically it’s a method to try and skip all of that stuff I was saying about character moments. Instead it replaces characterization and story beats with exposition. So instead of, “Hey guys, she needs our help and we trust her to keep our secret,” we get, “We have to help because she helped us once and we don’t remember.” In effect it swaps out characters doing things and being, well, characters and instead drives them with the power of destiny. But if you take away all of the character moments you don’t actually have characters anymore, just CGI effects telling you stuff you don’t care about instead of showing why you should.
Another movie that did this was the critically dry diddled Phantom Menace. I’m not going to get into that because it doesn’t need me piling on too, but something that film tried to do was shoehorn in all sorts of odd connections. Young Anakin Skywalker was was the planet of Tatooine, just like Luke! Isn’t that a coincidence? Also, he built C3-PO out of spare parts because he’s crafty, now we know where that droid came from and we all felt rubes for caring. Then of course R2-D2 came along for the ride with Anakin because there’s apparently no other astromech droid in the galaxy. The end result was to make the Star Wars Universe feel really, really small. It stopped being about people coming together from a wide variety of backgrounds and instead made it about a tiny cadre of people’s problems while trying to keep the same melodramatic scale.
Getting back to TMNT (sorry) the lab subplot does the same thing. If the turtles are from somewhere else their friendship with April could actually mean something. As it’s scripted now they aren’t really friends with her, they either feel they owe her or they want her to lay their creepy turtle eggs. Even the villains are all connected to that. The only exception is the Shredder who exists as an entity separate from Nap Sacks due to a hasty rewrite. I assume if the change wasn’t so quick he would have be involved in the lab incident too as an Igor or something.
But like I said at the top, you don’t need to bitch and/or moan about changes to the beloved “canon” to show that TMNT is a fecal air show. Even without going back to the source the film is structured wrong, if the characters were any thinner they’d be on America’s Next Top Model and when you go through and make everybody share a common connection (like herpes) the movie implodes under the weight of its own infected cold sores. Well, at least there’s more of these coming.
What really gets me is that these films have the ability to be good. The original 1990 one is a classic and even the most recent 2007 one played with the premise well. But those were character films first that just happened to involve anthropomorphic turtles. Maybe, like me you were hoping that this new TMNT would at least be passable. Maybe you enjoyed the comic or (more likely) the 1980’s cartoon and you still hold a candle for the turtles. If that’s the case use the doll to show us where this movie bad touched your childhood.
And that, is the Takedown.
As always, if you think I’m wrong you can lambaste me in the comments section. or if you think I’m doing the Great One’s Work feel free to earn his favor by defending me. In either case arguing on the internet is a better use of your time than the movie.
Until next time.