Since when were ninjas so bad at hiding?
by Thom Yee
I don’t know what kids today do after school, what with their STEM programs and their social responsibility and their parents who actually pay attention to them, but back in my day, a lot of us kids took martial arts classes after school, and no matter what our parents may have thought about us getting good exercise or developing a hobby built on a system of discipline, respect, and honour, most of us were only taking those classes for one reason: To beat up other kids.
The thing you have to understand about being a kid in the early ‘90s is that we were coming up only in the afterglow of the truly great action movies of the ‘80s, and so that spirit of almost mindless killing was slowly being eroded while also being finely tempered against the more spiritual elements of what we assumed was the Eastern philosophies of violence as a last resort. For kids who took martial arts, that usually still meant a lot of fighting, just not fighting with the intent to kill.I was a Kung Fu kid, so after a few years of basic forms training, we soon started weapons, beginning with straight swords and on to sabres, bo staffs, daggers, and I’m not sure what else because I quit after seven years or so, mostly because I got having tired of having Kung Fu class on Friday night. Still, looking back, the whole thing seems hugely irresponsible in the same way that midnight basketball may have only taught children to function without sleep, making it even easier for some of them to go out and commit crimes under the cover of night, and sometimes I think the only reason more of us kids trained in the deadly arts didn’t go on to become cold-blooded killers is because so few of those Kung Fu schools taught nunchuks, perhaps the ultimate melee street weapon.
It’s in this late ‘80s/early ‘90s world of unusually fight-capable children that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted, then thrived, and eventually even proved themselves to have long-term influence now into out present day, and in its more than 30 years of existence as a property that would go through numerous highs and lows, it’s strange that maybe the highest highs and lowest lows in the franchise both come from 1990. It’s long been my contention that the Turtles have never been better than they were in the first movie from 1990 and after seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, I’m now more sure of that fact than ever. Because I can’t talk about the new one without mostly talking about the old ones first.
What’s it about?
After defeating the Shredder, crime boss of the Foot Clan and master ninja/robot/we’re not exactly sure because it’s obvious they changed the direction of the character halfway through the first movie’s production, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have returned to their sewer-dwelling lives, still apart from society even as it defends it from the criminal element. But soon enough the Shredder escapes police custody, employing the scientist Baxter Stockman to build teleportation technology to bring the alien warlord Krang to Earth because… we’re not too sure about that either, they kind of skip over the part where they explain their plan or even how the two villainous masterminds met. Recruiting criminals Bebop and Rocksteady and subjecting them to experiments that change them into deadly warthog and rhino mutants, the Shedder once again wreaks havoc on New York with the world-smashing Technodrome , forcing the Turtles to come… y’know, Out of the Shadows. Also, Casey Jones joins the cast, so hurray for more humans in Turtles movies!
It took me a long time to figure out what precisely is wrong with Michael Bay movies, but after watching Out of the Shadows, I think I’ve finally figured it out. There’s a consistent laundry list of problems that tend to show up in each and every one of his movies, even in those he merely produces like the TMNT movies, including nigh-incomprehensible action scenes, characters that don’t feel real, and an awful, misogynistic sense of humour, but those all are usually apparent from the outset, and those aren’t the things I’m talking about when I say I’ve figured it out. I mean, of course it’s all of those things and more that are a problem, but those are just symptoms of a storyteller who’s incapable of telling mature stories. What’s really the problem with Michael Bay movies, pretty much every time, is that, on a deep-seated level, they’re all taking themselves seriously. I don’t think that’s a big secret, and maybe it’s my fault for not seeing it sooner, but it really sunk in this time as I watched Out of the Shadows, particularly as I listened to the movie’s hero score.
That’s a score with something to say, with a theme, with the belief that deep down somewhere, somehow, it has something to offer, some redeeming value at its core. It’s really that seriousness that pushes movies like Michael Bay’s Transformers from merely reprehensible (in execution, tone, and especially taste) to the point of almost entirely unacceptable. What’s even worse, with the Turtles, we have a series that was never serious, that began life as a joke, with its various members not being significantly more than a fearsome fighting team of cool, rude party dudes. Maybe I’m letting the cat(s) out of the bag(s) by front-loading this review with a lot of negative comments and a dismissive tone, but… c’mon, you knew this movie wasn’t going to be good. I’m just here to tell you why I didn’t like it.
Is it any good?
There’s are several points, even entire moments in Out of the Shadows where I honestly believed that I was watching a movie that could have been good, where it was effectively combining action, humour, and nostalgia into a solid piece that could be enjoyed both by long-time fans and newcomers alike. During Shredder’s escape in the movie’s first major action scene, the Turtles give chase in the Turtle Van, and between the van shooting manhole covers at the Foot Clan soldiers, the mechanical arms sprouting from the sides that literally use giant nunchuks, and the very fact that they were riding in the Turtle Van, one of the vehicles I used to love from the original cartoon, it all combined for a scene that was fun, that acknowledged the series’ roots, and was exactly the right kind of stupid that works in a movie like this. When Krang, the weird, alien/brain/warlord bad guy first shows up, he calls one of his henchman an idiot in a way that reminded me of the original show. One part of the movie sees the Turtles underwater, and it reminded me of how much I liked seeing the Turtles in a watery environment where they had the advantage. Even better than the original show, mutants Bebop and Rocksteady proved to be a threat that was physically stronger than the Turtles, and seeing the sports-equipment-wielding Casey Jones rollerblading away from Rocksteady as the rhino villain rampaged his way through a series of cars to make his way to the hero was another cool scene that made use of what these characters are supposed to be. Out of the Shadows even asks existential questions of the Turtles themselves as they continue to grapple with the thought of defending a world that won’t accept them and the temptations they face when they discover that they could become human. There’s a look on Michelangelo’s face as he takes in a Halloween Parade, observing and taking part in one of the few situations where he can blend in, that actually kind of makes you feel sorry for this party dude character who, overall, probably enjoys life far more than you or I ever do.
But that’s about everything positive I have to say about Out of the Shadows. Now, I said in my [short] review of the last Turtles movie that, despite the attachments I should have had to the franchise, I just didn’t care that much about the Turtles, but these strong moments in Out of the Shadows turned out to be strong enough to pull me back in, strong enough even to watch the entire first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie again. Ultimately, I don’t think I was ever really going to like Out of the Shadows, but seeing the original movie again made that even less likely.
A significant part of Out of the Shadow plays with the ideas of acceptance, both of self and from those outside of self, and that’s actually really good for the series and, potentially, for the kids watching it, but one of the things that really bugged me in the movie is that the Turtles become exposed through seemingly preventable circumstances. One thing I vividly remember from the original movies, something that played into the lore of the ninja, was “ninja vanish”, those times when our heroes simply disappeared from sight through skill and speed and foresight. Major parts of Out of the Shadows hinge on the discovery of the Turtles by the police, and even though an early part of the movie openly acknowledges that our heroes are supposed to be operating in the shadows, it seems that in the transition from the 1990 movie to this modern era, none of the Turtles remembered to bring any smoke bombs with them.
That might seem like a small thing, but it speaks to a Turtles production that doesn’t have a handle on one of the franchise’s core concepts, and that carries through especially to the action scenes in the movie. I remember watching the 1990 version and seeing real-life people (in turtle suits) performing real-life moves. There was a recognizable form and technique behind all of the movie’s fight scenes, and it gave that old movie a certain authenticity and weight. In these modern Turtles movies, the forms are superficial, and the action is uninspired. The Turtles aren’t trained ninjas any more than someone who can punch or kick things is a martial artist, and it makes what are supposed to be some of the best parts of these movies completely interchangeable with any generic action movie.
As for the characters, it might seem correct to say that everyone in Out of the Shadows is useless, but it would be even more correct to say that they’re all underused. Like in all Michael Bay movies with crazy, effects-heavy heroes, we spend entirely too much time with the humans, but somehow, despite all of the time we spend with them that we’d rather be spending with the Turtles, even they seem underserved in a movie that — between reintroducing Shredder (kind of for the first time considering the new actor and the confusion over what was going on with Shredder in the last movie), introducing Krang, Bebop, Rocksteady, and Casey Jones, acknowledging Master Splinter, and once again trying to justify April O’Neil’s existence — is going in too many different directions. Almost every aspect of this movie is underserved, and though I wouldn’t feel right spoiling the underdeveloped plot points by telling you exactly which stories go nowhere, I’ll totally spoil the entire movie by telling you that the whole thing, every bit, pretty much goes nowhere.
So should I see it?
In many ways, it’s hard to say that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was a huge disappointment, because there was only ever so much a movie like this was ever going to get right. It’s just too bad that the good parts of the movie act more of a reminder of how much better this movie could have been rather than an improvement in the series. Out of the Shadows is unfocused, undisciplined, and it lacks the conviction to follow any of its stories through to the point of completion or satisfaction. I left the movie with a profound sense of “That’s it?”, and when I tried to fill that dissatisfaction by rewatching the original 1990 version, it only made our modern-day Turtles look even worse.
Thom’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows final score