Several years ago, I wrote less a review and more a polemic about how and why bad movies get made. Fast forward to today where I am presented with another reviewer’s dilemma. I’m not saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of Shadows is in the same category of bad, but it puts the critic in a difficult place and raises this key question: on what terms does one review a movie?
Some time ago, Roger Ebert and others came up with a way to side step panning a whole class of movies. They didn’t use an absolute objective scale on which to pass judgment. Rather, they asked, did a movie accomplish what it set out to do given its budget, genre, and target audience? That is, you couldn’t stack up GI Joe against Citizen Kane, and if you had to review GI Joe (God help you), the most important question you might ask is, did it succeed within the blockbuster-action-soon-to-be-merchandised universe of film?
This clever machination allowed reviewers the ability to avoid trashing movies they knew to be terrible, and whether it was self-serving or not I oftentimes find myself using the paradigm.
Such was the case when I walked into the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The movie is not great. It’s not even good. Oftentimes, story logic crumbles, if it was ever a consideration to begin with. It blows past sweet to saccharine in the first five minutes. But is it a failure? I think not because 13 year old boys will like it, and this demographic is what the movie aims to please.
These turtles have a fresh and gritty look while retaining the characteristics that have made them so popular the last 25 years. All the complimentary characters are represented, and there’s enough ‘tude to go around. There are a few laughs, which help to make up for the ludicrous plot and lapses in story logic.
TMNT (in the age of LOLs, it’s much easier to write this), like just about every blockbuster these days, is about saving the world. O for the days of yore when the heroes just had to stop a shark, but today, from Transformers to Independence Day to Pacific Rim to TMNT, it seems no studio can craft a big action movie like this where the fate of Earth is not at stake. And when you repeatedly invoke these stakes, they actually lower a bit because they are not fresh or interesting anymore.
Megan Fox, as the headlining name for the movie, has swapped out robots for reptiles, but it’s basically the same role she had in Transformers. She offers come hither looks and sexy struts while helping her pals to save the world. I’ll give her credit; she knows what she is about and doesn’t stray too far from the template.
The only other curious casting choice is Laura Linney who plays a federal agent trying, at first, to arrest the turtles but then allying with them to take on Shredder, Commander Krang, and the other threats to planet Earth. The last time I saw Ms. Linney was at the beginning of every Downton Abbey episode on Masterpiece where she introduced the production. I think the idea was to bring someone of heft and classical bearing to TMNT, as was done with the X-Men films. In those movies, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen played, respectively, Professor X and Magneto. McKellen’s Magento, especially, was done with menacing flair and panache. Linney’s performance in TMNT is static, and her great skills are not utilized in the least. I don’t think it’s a draw for older viewers and younger ones won’t know who she is.
With a budget most likely well over $100 million, TMNT will have to do mad business to break even. I’m not sure there’s enough meat on the shell to get it there even if I judge it alongside its confreres in the genre and don’t hold it to any higher standard than that. With that in mind, I give it a half-hearted Kowabunga, dude!
Directed by: Dave Green
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Stephen Amell, Tyler Perry, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Brian Tee, Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly, Gary Anthony Williams
Running Time: 126 minutes