Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014; Dir.: Jonathan Liebesman)
by Mike Dub
Michael Bay has so become his own brand of spectacle schlock that even in a film he only co-produces, he leaves behind an overwhelming array of fingerprints on the product. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though directed by Jonathan Liebesman, overwhelms with the stale stench of familiarly baroque action sequences and cardboard performances Bay so consistently provides in his own films. In fact, if the TMNT reboot teaches us anything about the purveyor of the most commercially successful – and mindless, ugly, and boring – films of the last twenty years, it’s that his infantile video game aesthetic, his devotion to base theatricality, and his presumption of audience stupidity are most ideally suited for a film aimed directly at 8 year-olds.
This is not to shortchange Leibesman, who has a proven track record of directing hugely budgeted special effects dreck like Battle Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans. In TMNT, he provides as much attention to digital effects work as ever. So much so that after awhile it seems he has become too comfortable with working with his computer-generated turtles, and has no idea how to communicate with human beings. Routinely, stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett appear to be completely lost, even in scenes that involve only humans. Resident evildoer William Fichtner vacillates between evil snarls and evil smiles for no apparent reason. And Whoopi Goldberg, in a mercifully minor, “I did it for my grandkids” supporting role, looks so confused and detached from her scenes that it is entirely possible she thinks she’s in a Marvel film (though, to be fair, you can’t pin that one entirely on Liebesman).
The story contrives a strange amalgam of clichés that, when mixed together, becomes nonsensical: an ambitious young reporter falls ass-backward into the story of the century; a television news cameraman runs away from sensational events; an evil genius devises the most idiotic evil plot in recent memory (it involves using a deadly toxin to poison all of New York City, so that he can then sell the antidote to the few remaining survivors, claiming domination over what would then be a hellscape of chaos and decay while, in the process, becoming “stupid rich”).
In these early scenes, the performances are so bad, the movie so dreadful, that by the turn to the second act, the emergence of computer crafted talking turtles actually offers a spark to the film. Almost immediately, it is apparent that the turtles are the class of the cast, which doesn’t say much for the cast. Despite the one-note characterizations, the sub-mental Alvin and the Chipmunks style of non sequitur catch-phrasing (Michelangelo’s “Cowabunga” war cry is given quite the buildup), and the always eerie, distancing effect of CGI characters, they out-act every human in the film.
Of course, it’s entirely plausible that the barely sentient human performances are just part of the filmmakers’ own evil plot: to showcase the “personality” of the turtles by sedating the rest of the cast. As bad as his films are, Michael Bay is a brilliant businessman, and he certainly seems willing to tank a movie in order to capitalize on merchandising rights. Shilling turtles could potentially bring in millions of extra dollars, but, no matter how good his performance could have been, no eight year old in his right mind is running out to buy an action figure of Will Arnett.