It’s important to review films on their own terms, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows‘ terms are, essentially, that’s it’s a giant commercial aimed at 11-year-olds. Now, all “tentpole” movies are commercials, to some extent, but this is a sequel, to a reboot, of a movie adaptation, of a cartoon from the ’80s, which was designed mostly to sell toys in the first place, produced by the Transformers guy (Michael Bay) and financed through a partnership between Paramount and the Chinese company Alibaba. We’re used to giant commercials, but this is sort of the apotheosis of giant commercials, designed to appeal to the broadest cross-section of international youth while promoting the most brands (Mattel, Carmelo Anthony, Tastykake, Dodge, etc.).
In one scene, Michelangelo wanders through a Dia De Los Muertos parade and compliments a guy on his Bumblebee costume. You know, Bumblebee from Transformers. Because if there’s one thing kids like, it’s corporate synergy. Now, accepting those terms, and in comparison to Transformers, its closest cinematic relative, TMNT: Out Of The Shadows actually isn’t half bad. In fact, parts of it are pretty damned good.
But first I should qualify. It’s very dumb. And often in that particular Michael Bay way, where it’s gross and pandering and kind of porny while trying to look cool and macho — like a cinematic barbed wire tattoo. Leonardo actually has a tribal arm band tat in this movie. A few of them have tats, in fact — as teenagers, you wonder if the tattoo artist had to get permission from Splinter. Anyway.
Michael Bay once again produces (meaning his precise creative contributions are somewhat mysterious), while the directing job went to Dave Green, previously of the quietly successful Earth to Echo, and writing duties fell to Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (both of whom also exec produced). Nonetheless, it’s hard not to assume Bay’s influence in an opening scene where Megan Fox (as TV reporter April O’Neil, who does almost no reporting in this movie) goes “undercover” as a “nerd,” in a blonde wig and glasses, to investigate an evil scientist played by Tyler Perry (who, credit where credit’s due, acts the hell out of this role when he could’ve just showed up and collected a paycheck). They’re fake bonding over some nerd stuff, as bespectacled weaklings do, when she notices that he’s passed off the MacGuffin, and has to ditch him.
Next thing you know, she’s tearing off her wig and glasses, and transforming into a slutty Catholic school girl, complete with plaid miniskirt and low-cut white shirt tied off at the waist. There’s that other thing kids love, uh, beer commercial makeovers.
The whole thing feels like a shampoo ad from the ’90s, and not just because Megan Fox has stolen Britney Spears’ outfit from the “…Baby One More Time” video. Strangely, a lot of Out of the Shadows exudes a similarly 1998 idea of cool, with a soundtrack featuring all manner of bygone Jock Jams, from Fatboy Slim to “Rumpshaker” to Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky.” You get the same sense of surreal randomness seeing which cultural artifacts get thrown into this media porridge as you would hearing someone sing Ricky Martin in a North Korean karaoke bar, or seeing an Angolan villager wearing a Dukakis shirt.
Likewise, the plot is this kind of discount superhero slurry, featuring the full house of clichés, from transformative serum, to giant portal above New York, to bad guy (Krang) rushing to complete an ersatz Death Star. There’s also a conformity vs. proud outcast subplot by way of a serum that can be reverse engineered to maybe turn the turtles into humans, a la two or three X-Men movies. But again, I mostly expected plot slurry. And the way Out of the Shadows blatantly yadda yadda’d anything too expository actually had a goofy charm. It’s at its best when it allows itself to be silly, like a foreign cartoon that doesn’t entirely translate.
It’s at its worst when it feels like it’s trying desperately to be hip and current. Like nü Rafael, and the fact that he has a full do-rag instead of his old Lone Ranger eye strip now. Oh, and he also walks with an “urban limp” and talks like a black jock stereotype. This despite being voiced by Alan Ritchson, who looks like Hitler’s ideal Aryan. He ends up sounding like old tapes Howard Stern used to play of Bubba the Love Sponge when he was working at a hip-hop station in the ’90s and trying to sound black, only more painful.
Thing is, he’s still not as bad as Mudflap and Skids, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen‘s possibly illiterate B-boys. And in the Transformers movies, once you accepted the dumb plot and kind of offensive character design, what did you get for your troubles? A painfully long movie with too much plot and bad action sequences. The set pieces in Out of the Shadows, from a slide down the Chrysler building at the beginning to an airplane-to-airplane skydive to a tumble down a giant waterfall in the Amazon, are actually pretty good. It’s virtually all CGI, but the shots aren’t hacked to pieces, and it maintains a spatial awareness as it jumps from slow-motion to regular speed and does a brilliant job manipulating perspective to create scale. Which is to say, unlike Transformers, it actually delivers on its most basic promise, fun action.
Also, Krang. He’s so wonderfully disgusting, a giant dripping brain who in this incarnation looks like he has a soul patch made of slimy noodles. I don’t know how the same people who designed these offputting Ninja Turtles designed such an awesome Krang. Maybe it was different people? Either way, he’s (assuming a disembodied brain inside a robot belly identifies as male) probably the coolest looking tentacle beard character since the one guy in that Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best part: Bebop and Rocksteady. I unabashedly loved these characters. Played by Gary Anthony Williams and Stephen Farrelly, they are essentially an inseparable, interracial couple of gay, leather daddy bikers, one a jive-talking soul brother with a purple mohawk, the other a ginger Irish ne’er-do-well with puffy mutton chops. They find themselves stuck with Shredder in a paddy wagon and eventually end up his lackies, running his errands and becoming his guinea pigs for a serum that “brings out their essential animal nature,” turning Bebop into a warthog and Rocksteady into a rhinoceros.
You’d think they’d be pissed about being turned into anthropomorphic animal monsters, but nope, they’re stoked, high five-ing and bumping bellies. In fact, they’re always stoked, even when Casey Jones is locking them inside a container and blowing them up with a hand grenade. It doesn’t much matter what task Shredder forces them to do or who’s trying to kill them or what serum is forever altering their DNA, as long as they’re together. “Do I look fat?” Bebop asks, and Rocksteady farts on him and they high five. Soon as they regain consciousness from the grenade blast, they headbutt, and Bebop yells “My man!”
They celebrate each other’s difference, refuse to let adversity tear them apart, and take pleasure in whatever they’re doing, as long as they can share it. It’s adorable. Bebop and Rocksteady are an inspiration to us all. And frankly, that’s a pretty beautiful and surprising thing to find in a movie that’s otherwise the artistic equivalent of the gruel you use to feed toothless refugees.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.