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'Ninja Turtles': Some Of The Year's Best Action Is In A Kids Movie
"Normal? Why would we ever want that?" exclaims one of the shelled reptilians at the end of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. It's meant ironically in relation to part of the plot (Can the turtles ever join society or must they be New York's silent heroes?) but it's also attempt to signify its outsider status of oddball Hollywood characters. While the 1990s cartoon adaptation is as weird as they come—crime-fighting pizza-loving brothers in the bodies of turtles with a giant rat for a mentor—nothing about these now-mega-franchise films will strike anyone as truly odd. Few probably can recall the events of the 2014 film, so the sequel inevitably arrives with the helping hand of Chinese funding (most curiously, a film studio now run by internet giant Alibaba).
Out of the Shadows is kid-level storytelling through and though. The story picks up where its predecessor left off, as the turtles continue to fight crime from below while their enemy—Brian Tee's The Shredder—remains in police custody. Thanks to Tyler Perry's giddy mad scientist and the maniacal plan of Krang, a giant bubblegum-colored space brain attached to a robotic body (as ridiculous as it sounds, it's a strangely delightful effect to behold), though, Shredder will be out in no time. The Turtles thus must defend the world once again by stopping the start of a time warp to bring a war machine to Earth, aided by Megan Fox's April O'Neil and wannabe detective Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). Laura Linney also shows up to chew scenery as a rulebook-following police chief, a nice bit of gender-blind casting. There's also a talking rhinoceros and a warthog, which had many grown men in the audience cheering in unironic nostalgia.
Out of the Shadows director Dave Green joins this franchise after the kids film Earth to Echo, his feature debut. However, the film (much like the previous one) feels more like the brainchild of Transformers director Michael Bay (acting as producer) and the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic. Putting together these CGI creatures against photorealistic backdrops is an impressive feat, and in the trademark "Bayhem" style, the camera swerves up, down, and around the entire 360 degree space. Whether staging a highway car chase or aerial drop, the large scale action sequences move fluidly via the camera's constant high-velocity maneuvers, putting the audience in the center of the action without necessarily cutting things up. The effects team mostly stays true to real world physics, even when the image is CGI, making these action set pieces carry some weight.
It's perhaps frustrating that such talent is wasted on juvenilia, though Out of the Shadows at least embraces its cartoonish origins. The film throws a simple three-act plot together with barrel-scraping humor; occasional conversations about the importance of friendship and teamwork impart lessons to the film's target audience. None of this bad per se, especially when Out of the Shadows easily features the most sophisticated action in a Hollywood blockbuster this year. But it is frustrating to feel a disconnect between those hoping for authentic adrenaline rush alongside sophisticated plotting (ironically, the kind directors like Johnnie To and Tsui Hark make for Chinese-language audiences). Perhaps you can't have your pizza and eat it too.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is now playing everywhere.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.