Cowabunga, Dud! The Spectacularly Dumb ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

Movies with news reporters tend to feature a moment in which a journalist risks credibility to chase the truth, and her editor threatens to kill the story or have her canned because the truth seems too stupid to run with. The audience knows the reporter is right and needs (a) more time, (b) more support, and (c) more screenwriting. (See also: cop movies.) Eventually, the truth comes out, the villains are vanquished, and the front page of a newspaper comes spinning toward the screen.

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Megan Fox plays the TV reporter. When her unfulfilled character, April, tells her boss (Whoopi Goldberg) that she might know the identities of the vigilantes who’ve been standing up to an Asian crime syndicate that’s been terrorizing New York City, and that their identities might be those of her old pet turtles, the boss fires April. Ordinarily, an audience would be mad at Goldberg, whose dreadlocks and face are obscured by a giant, swinging wig that looks like the pelt of a dead Supreme. Not this time. TMNT is not a movie that cares whether April is good at her job.

But since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a mini opus of spectacularly wasteful anti-seriousness, you need an actor whose anti-seriousness titillates while, say, she dangles from a collapsing tower. The plot involves a mad scientist/CEO (William Fichtner) looking to get rich quick by releasing poison gas into New York’s air and selling a cure harvested from the blood of mutant turtles. Why the Turtles’ samurai nemesis, Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), and his multitude of heavily armed goons care about making Fichtner rich is unclear, since Shredder has basically been turned into a gleaming, robotic stack of blade-wielding evil. His cut should go to Hasbro for some kind of Transformers infringement.

Anyway, Fox is not what’s wrong with this movie. In the Ninja Turtles universe (30 years of comic books, TV shows, movies, and toys), April was a constant cause for aggravation, getting into trouble so the Turtles could get her out. She’s a symptom of the movie’s Maxim-era priorities. When she happens upon the massive Turtles celebrating on a rooftop, they’re staggered by her hotness, especially Raphael, who takes turns leching after her with a creepy cameraman (Will Arnett, naturally).

The show was never smart enough to make April a Nancy Drew or Brenda Starr. She was just a girl. “I was just a little girl,” says Fox this time. Mostly, she’s just asked to sit, listen, speak in exposition, and hang from stuff. Michael Bay is one of the producers, and Fox’s appearance here appears to be a kind of rapprochement after she described her time with him on two Transformers movies as like working with Hitler. He fired her from the third installment, which seemed rich to me. This is a director who’s still dreaming of being Leni Riefenstahl. In any case, one person’s burying of the hatchet is another’s five-year penitentiary stint.

Officially, the director is Jonathan Liebesman, a South African whose previous movies include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Battle Los Angeles, and Wrath of the Titans, movies that are the equivalent of being chased by a rhino through quicksand. It’s the kind of high-production visual chaos that would catch Bay’s eye. With Ninja Turtles, the rumbling of trucks and SUVs in an avalanche must have been music to Bay’s ears. As action-sequence staging, that avalanche is an impressive set piece. It’s also suck-up karaoke, like a Voice contestant singing “Beautiful” for Christina Aguilera. Liebesman, too, can stage a climax atop a skyscraper that sends debris crashing onto civilians asinine enough not to run for their lives.

The Turtles don’t need the modern superhero destroy-the-world-in-order-to save-it treatment. But with any Bay production, more is more. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael go from a gang of pizza-loving brats into a clan that seems crossbred with a tag team of the professional wrestling program of your choice. (Mine: TNA’s Impact Wrestling.) They’re bros — sorry: brahs. At some point, three of them are pumped full of adrenaline and turned into amped-up clowns. “After” is barely distinguishable from “before.”

Everybody gets adrenaline except for moody-ass Leonardo, who seems to have been pumped full of something else. Nothing here seems natural, not the pumped-up Ninja Turtles, and not Fox, whose 28-year-old face now looks like Morticia Addams courtesy of Lindsay Lohan. The drugs of choice with Ninja Turtles used to be pizza and, if you had an adolescent nose for it, pot. The Pizza Hut pie ordered by their leader, a gutter-rat sensei named Splinter, has 98 cheeses. Even the pizza’s on steroids. Drugs here do weirder stuff. Take money, the drug that has brought the Turtles back to the megaplex. There appear to be generations awaiting the return of a Ninja Turtles movie that will do as other pandering franchises have. This is a wish simultaneously granted and botched: Turtles fans might have been looking for their own Avengers. They get Alvin and the Chipmunks on performance enhancers and mass-market pizza instead. In Hollywood, history repeats first as farce, then as marketing.

Filed Under: Movies, teenage mutant ninja turtles, Megan Fox, Michael Bay, Drugs

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

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