On average, I see somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-90 movies each year, and in the year of our Lord 2014, I did not see a single movie that I enjoyed less than the reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Produced by Michael Bay’s IP-graverobbing shingle Platinum Dunes, the film was an ugly, unfunny, soul-dismantling garbage fire. The story was chaotic nonsense, the action was so overly busy as to be numbing and, worst of all, the Turtles, an engaging band of brothers in every prior incarnation, were horrifically redesigned as ghastly monsters with zero charisma. The film wasn’t merely an affront to longtime TMNT fans, it was a cautionary tale for what happens when whiz-bang summer entertainment is produced at its most cynical and calculated.
The sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, could have been a substantial improvement simply by aspiring to the level of being watchable, yet seemed far more likely to emerge as a repeat offender, a second assault to the senses. After all, the 2014 film was a gigantic hit, removing any need or motivation for betterment. Yet someone in the Platinum Dunes operation clearly decided to do a little extra legwork all the same because Out of the Shadows is shockingly, unfathomably, enjoyable. Not long into the film, I was floored by the realization that not only did I not want to leave or die, but that I was actually being entertained. And then I kept being entertained. I had never even considered that possibility. If one steps into a room fully expecting to be waterboarded, it’s jarring to be surprised with a backrub.
Out of the Shadows picks up a year after whatever it was that happened in the first film that I managed to purge from my memory. Apparently the Turtles saved the city from Shredder (Brian Tee, though I have a vague recollection of William Fichtner being involved somehow), yet are still operating at a remove from the outside world, their heroic rewards being reaped by Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett, actually functional as comic relief this time), to whom they’ve allowed to receive the glory for their actions. The boys still barrel through storm drains as if propelled by jets, but their inability to engage with the public (beyond Megan Fox’s encoring April O’Neil) is beginning to take its toll, especially on born extravert Michelangelo. Aside from catching the occasional Knicks game from the rafters, it’s all work and no play for our heroes, as they table their longings so they can stop Shredder from escaping during an ill-advised nighttime prison transfer.
Despite the best efforts of the Turtles, as well as hotshot cop and moonlighting vigilante Casey Jones (Arrow’s Stephen Amell), Shredder is successfully beamed out of custody via a transportation device created by scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry, inexplicably). Yet Shredder’s temporarily dematerialized form is hijacked by extradimensional villain Krang (Brad Garrett), a disembodied brain occupying the breadbasket of a robot host, who has, for reasons unknown and unimportant, decided that this ninja criminal is his ticket to bringing his massive ship, the Technodrome, to Earth to conquer all humans. Before beaming Shredder back home with his marching orders, Krang gives the villain a vial of purple ooze, which Shredder exposes to a pair of dimbulb convicts, reconfiguring them into brute-force enforcers Bebop and Rocksteady, a humanoid warthog and rhinoceros, respectively.
The story then devolves into a mish-mash about the hunt for ancient objects that will somehow facilitate Krang’s arrival, but that’s all beside the point. Out of the Shadows functions by remaining lively in a way that its predecessor never approached. The trick the sequel manages to pull off is that it, more than any other TMNT feature film, effectively appropriates the feel of the original cartoon series. The 1990 film, deservedly revered and still the best TMNT movie, took a darker, more street-violent approach to the material, and its sequels were a bit too lightweight as a counterbalance to parental outcry. Out of the Shadows succeeds by embracing the Saturday-morning vibe that other recent big-screen translations (most notoriously, Bay’s own Transformers series) have opted to discard or managed to bungle. Out of the Shadows is the rare non-Marvel film adaptation that doesn’t seem embarrassed by its roots.
It also helps a lot that the Turtles are permitted to be funny and likable this go-round. While their unsettlingly bulky statures and hideously designed faces remain in place, their personalities shine through much more this time than in the prior outing, where they all felt obnoxious and bro-y. Their interactions and one-liners largely work this time. What’s more, the film offers them some reasonably compelling material to grapple with, such as their feelings of isolation from the world, the consequences of immersion into society and the heated internal debate on whether or not to use the ooze to make themselves human, and therefore palatable to the masses. It’s weightier material than a TMNT film requires, especially one that follows up that atrocity from two years ago. Another improvement lies with the human comrades. Fox is given more pluck as April than before, functioning less as bimbo lunchmeat this time. As Casey Jones, Amell is no Elias Koteas, his Chris O’Donnellian fresh-facedness lacking that same tough-nut grit, but he’s still an agreeable presence. And it’s quite a relief not to be embarrassed for Arnett a second time.
It’s still difficult for me to wrap my mind around the idea of Out of the Shadows not arriving as a second helping of fetid refuse. In fact, its euphorically energetic kick makes it far more enjoyable than the plodding flatline that is X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s tempting to ascribe any favorable reaction to the film to its kitchen-sink fanservicing incorporation of just about every element from the old cartoon. Bebop, Rocksteady, Shredder, Krang, the Technodrome, the boys’ souped-up “Party Wagon” van, it’s all here, each rendered very faithfully (far more faithfully than the Turtles themselves, actually). So much is crammed into Out of the Shadows, as a matter of fact, that Shredder himself almost feels like an insignificant bystander in the conflict. It remains to be seen just what’s left for a third film to use. Stockman as a human fly? Mousers? Leatherhead? Don Turtelli? Who knows. I just can’t get over the notion that a hypothetical third film no longer fills me with pervasive dread. That’s some real turtle power at work right there.
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