2014’s big screen Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot was not a great movie. I don’t hate it with the fiery scorn of many, but at best it’s a bland, unnecessary rehash of something done better a number times. But it made boatloads of cash, so a sequel was green-lit opening weekend, and now Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is here.
It may be dumb as shit, look like rancid ass, and be full of gaping plot contrivances, but Out of the Shadows actually feels like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better still, it was made by people who have an obvious affection for the source material, something the first go-round sorely lacked. The result is a solid, fun—if vapid and empty—summer blockbuster, one that brings in a bunch of the weird shit that makes TMNT such a damn good time, and a rare superhero film that’s not weighed down crushing seriousness.
My biggest gripe with the first movie is that it doesn’t belong to the titular heroes; it’s April O’Neil’s story, and no one should ever let Megan Fox front a movie ever again. (She only really exists in the new movie to wear a school girl outfit and be leered at in creepy, creepy fashion.) The Turtles themselves may look like mangled monstrosities, but as far as the characters and personalities go, they’re easily recognizable as the four beloved martial arts practicing reptile siblings. When they were in the fucking movie, which wasn’t nearly as much as they should have been.
Out of the Shadows, directed by Earth to Echo helmer Dave Green, rectifies this lack of Turtles in the very first shot. Right out of the gate, Green, and writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, show the Turtles being the Turtles, running around New York like yahoos, eating pizza, pining for a normal life where they don’t have to hide in the rafters to watch a basketball game. Raphael is brooding, Donatello nerds out, Leonardo feels the pressure of leadership, Michelangelo provides the head-in-the-clouds comic relief, and all is right with the world.
Shredder (Brian Tee) is, of course, up to no good, and when super scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry awkwardly playing an awkward nerd) springs him from prison, the villain is transported to Dimension X, meets the brain-in-a-robot-body Krang (Brad Garrett), and they hatch a plan to take over the world. It’s probably best to not look too closely at the science behind Out of the Shadows, as the how is not particularly important—there are a ton of big, fancy-sounding words that don’t actually mean anything thrown around to gloss over the technical aspects. Comical at first, it gets increasingly tedious the more it happens. Remember earlier, when I told you this movie was dumb as shit?
As is easy to imagine, it’s up to the Turtles to stop this nefarious plot. And as expected, they team up with April, Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), and new addition Casey Jones (Arrow’s Stephen Amell). Though he’s around, Casey Jones only really gets one scene to shine and wear his trademark hockey mask, which is a shame. The rest of the time he’s just an add-a-kid tag along, more of a goofy sidekick than useful ally. And, for some reason I cannot fathom, Laura Linney plays one of the most generic movie police chiefs ever put on film. Did she lose a bet? Is that why she’s in this movie?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows does add some of the bat-shit crazy elements that make the source material so peculiar. I already mentioned Krang, and though he looks awful, it’s fun fan service to have the shrieking, chewed-bubblegum-looking baddie mixing it up with the Turtles. Someone has to, as Shredder is totally wasted here. Perhaps most exciting for fans is the inclusion of Rocksteady and Bebop, played by WWE superstar Sheamus and Gary Anthony Williams (Smart Brother from Undercover Brother), respectively. Again, the science is dubious—apparently there is just latent Rhinoceros and warthog DNA lurking inside of our bodies waiting to be mutated by nameless purple ooze—but they actually feel like the Rocksteady and Bebop who first appeared in the cartoons.
Out of the Shadows works best when it’s allowed to run wild. Yeah, a bunch of crazy, unbelievable shit goes down, and if you can’t get past that, you’ll probably hate this movie. (What did you expect out of a movie about giant talking turtles who are also badass fighters?) But if you can just go with the flow and accept the inherently absurd premise, this can be a ride that’s remarkably reminiscent of watching the movies and cartoons many of us loved in our younger days.
This nostalgic sensation also cuts both ways. With Nickelodeon involved in the production, this is obviously aimed at a younger audience. While some of the adventure translates, things like the overly goofy one-liners and juvenile sense of humor have not aged so well and may make your adult self cringe.
When Out of the Shadows abandons the good times and high adventure, is when it bogs down. We get it, they’re teens, they’re hormonal and moody and just want to be normal like everyone else. There are tedious moments of adolescent angst, a heavy-handed thread about being true to who you are, sibling infighting, and other similar asides that absolutely kill the momentum and pace—they take it out back and shoot it in the head, Old Yeller-style.
There are huge, I’m talking Grand Canyon-sized, plot contrivances sprinkled throughout. Basically, anytime any character needs an answer to a question, an explanation for a situation, or the story needs a push, an overly convenient point pops up and that’s that. Of course, the guy who sells Rocksteady and Bebop a couple of untraceable black market cell phones installed GPS so he could keep tabs on two unstable, dangerous criminals for his own edification, not so he can give the tracker to Casey Jones in the next scene. That would be ridiculous.
Though he’s a producer, not sitting in the big chair, Michael Bay’s fingerprints are all over Out of the Shadows. This manifests especially in the hyperactive visuals, which are, as often as they can be spectacular, overdone and distracting. When sweeping camera movements, CGI tricks, and frenetic editing take precedence over clarity of action, it becomes an issue. There is, however, a clever, meta TMNT/Transformers crossover gag early on.
If you can get past the god-awful character design (Splinter somehow looks even worse than before), credulity-stretching leaps in narrative logic, and enough cheese to start your own nacho empire, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is actually a pretty good time. Is it perfect? Oh hell no. It’s barely even competent in many ways. There are massive issues that will sink this for some viewers, and it’s an absolutely stone-stupid movie.
But it’s also a huge step up from last time. Most importantly, it captures the bananas spirit and tone that so many people love about the source material—the end credits song manages to include both the theme from the cartoon and Vanilla Ice’s “Go ninja, go ninja, go” chorus from Secret of the Ooze. I won’t likely ever feel the need to revisit this—there’s nothing beyond empty cinematic calories—but I have to admit I walked out of the theater smiling, and it’s readily apparent that this is a movie by fans and made for fans. [Grade: B-/C+]