Monday, October 24, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

(PG-13, Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Films, 112 mins., theatrical release date: June 3, 2016)

It must be just like the endtimes to see a Michael Bay production brought to the screen by Nickelodeon Films. The shock of Bay directing under Steven Spielberg's auspices for the Transformers assembly line is now a thing of the past, even if Platinum Dunes is still pillaging innocent memories of everything from Friday night to Saturday morning. Besides, any functional adult can now appreciate the riskier jokes from Animaniacs or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? they were once too young to comprehend. But Nickelodeon has long since been removed from gross subversion ever since Ren & Stimpy got the axe (I like Spongebob, but did you ever seen him whiz on the electric fence?), and Michael Bay's idea of family fun is to patronize every age bracket instead of just the manchild.

Granted, I am totally non-acquainted with the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon Nickelodeon does air, nor did I bother to watch the preceding live-action TMNT movie. Judging by the reactions to that 2014 moneymaker, I wouldn't care to remember even had I screened it. Apparently, the Jonathan Liebesman-helmed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a joyless experience that made the comparatively grittier Steve Barron prototype from 1990 look like Schumacher's Batman. But at least they weren't extraterrestrials, because then I genuinely would've had some post-Transformers stress disorder, a very real form of shell shock.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows suggests these turtle boys (the producers) have cut the diehards some slack. The tone of the sequel is closer in spirit to the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson animated series which defined the property in the late 1980s, going so far as to import the beloved theme song ("They're the world's most fearsome fighting team"), and the script incorporates several familiar-sounding characters. Casey Jones, the hockey-masked vigilante played by Elias Koteas in those ‘90s movies, debuts in Bay's universe here, as do mutant antagonists Bebop & Rocksteady, brain monster Krang and Baxter Stockman, who is represented here as a nefarious black scientist like in the original comics, but loses his prized creation, the Mousers, familiar to his backstory.

Baxter (Tyler Perry) mobilizes the Foot Clan to free the captured Shredder (Brian Tee) from armored transport, but the plan is intercepted by investigative journalist April O'Neil (Megan Fox) and relayed to the four half-shell heroes following a pizza-related blunder at a Knicks game. A freak transportation accident sends Shredder to Dimension X, where he is swayed by Krang (Brad Garrett) to retrieve the pieces of a portal which will allow the grotesque being world destruction. To ensure success, Krang spills the "secret of the ooze" so that Shredder may transform a pair of fugitive henchmen into, respectively, hybrid creatures Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus). It is up to Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard), as well any willing human allies, to dismantle either the portal or Krang's mighty Technodrome.

The ever-endangered April is rescued from a scoop gone awry by the passenger of Shredder's prison van, renegade security officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). This time around, the goalie-masked crusader is less a sullen vigilante and more a beleaguered scrappy, a department underling with dreams of becoming a true detective. Casey poses no threat to Raphael's ego and is taken aboard as a partner fast due to April's solidarity with the Turtles. Casey's only real motive is validation for his fantastical story about that Tortugas van with the grill that shoots manhole covers and the robotic arms swinging nunchakus on the side, which he doesn't get from Police Chief Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney).

The directing gig for TMNT: Out of the Shadows has somehow wound up in hands of a filmmaker more promising than the promo-centric hacks Bay's production company usually employs. That would be Dave Green, whose 2014 feature debut Earth to Echo paid direct homage to Spielberg, but here the only allusion to the maestro behind E.T. is when orange-coded party animal Mikey runs into Bumblebee at a costume party. Green is, as far as Michael Bay productions go, not a total stooge and doesn't redden your eyes during the all-important action sequences, dialing down on the over-editing and disorienting staging as opposed to what Bay typically accomplishes. It's paced briskly, too, and with a lot less of the jejune mogul's patented mean streak to stink the film up like eau d'égout.

Or at least as far as Green's work is concerned. The screenplay by returning scribes Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, meanwhile, bears all the worst traits of working by committee. The movie's subtitle reflects the lip service paid to the friction within the four "brothers" to either carry on as concealed weapons at the beck and call of a capricious populace or exploit Baxter's synthetic experiments under the chance at normality. They could've more aptly titled it "There's No I in Turtle Power" given the more protracted but equally futile strain for de facto leader Leonardo to manage the conflicting personalities around him, especially the short-fused Raphael. Donatello is a witless expository technophile, and Michelangelo, the one with the potential for dim-witted good cheer on the scale of Bill & Ted, is shockingly unfunny.

For all they're given to work with, the flesh-and-bone actors may as well be CG-inserted to match their blocky, bulky co-stars. Megan Fox continues to give the impression of pouting plasticine, the spunk that once spurred her to rake Bay over the coals now so diluted that she'll forever inspire genuine reappraisals of Jessica Alba every time she's on screen. Poor Stephen Amell, meanwhile, never once convinced me that I wasn't watching the second coming of Chris O'Donnell. One can only pray Will Arnett's well-worn presence as the vaingloriously bogus hero, self-nicknamed "The Falcon," will inspire impressionable youth to seek out the complete Arrested Development so they may watch him be typecast properly. Ditto Tyler Perry in the role of Smart Brother once played by Bebop himself in Undercover Brother. In my mind, Perry's more of a burlesque performer than a comic genius, but that's a minor strength here among a predominantly flat cast.

As for Laura Linney, give her the Frances McDormand Honorary Award for Most Overqualified Supporting Actor and be on your way.

This MSG-enhanced sequel just feels so crushingly prefabricated from the self-referential dialogue (Mikey mourns over a planned hip-hop Christmas album), workhorse pop music cues (Lionel Richie's "Hello," Edwin Starr's "War," Elvis Presley's "Little Less Conversation," and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" ALL need to be retired for a while) to the finale which blatantly rips from The Avengers, not to mention Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc.. It's as if they started off with minimal inspiration despite the increased awareness of the franchise's history, resulting in a disposable act of obligation rather than entertainment, a cut-rate Franken-sequel as regrettably overbearing as the new iteration of these happy-go-lucky crime-fighters as the Incredible Hulk's droppings. I wish Dave Green all the luck in the world that he might someday gain a possible mentor in Steven Spielberg, so that he no longer has to bet on the Bay.

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