Dave Green’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is based on the multimedia juggernaut about a group of pizza-gulping reptiles who were raised by a rodent sensei to protect New York City, but what the film really recaptures is the lunatic excess of American blockbusters before they were tamed by Disney to fit a mold of earnest interchangeability. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before it, the film is loud, sleazy, and amoral at best, to the point that it’s fair to wonder, as other critics have, who this series is for.
Out of the Shadows’s intended audience appears to be those hovering right on the boundary separating Gen X from Millennial, who remember the original TMNT comics, television cartoon, and run of films with mild amusement, if not exactly nostalgia. Viewers of this age are also old enough to remember a wilder and woolier kind of blockbuster, such as the early films of Michael Bay (a producer on the new TMNT film series), and Joel Schumacher’s neon-camp nightmare Batman & Robin, which sent the superhero picture scurrying into realms of fan-pandering caution that it’s yet to vacate.
Which isn’t to say that Out of the Shadows is good, but its badness occasionally exudes a kind of lurid integrity. Green, whose direction suggests he’s been instructed by Bay to approximate a Diet Coke-version of the latter’s sometimes amazing aesthetic, mounts canted angles that sporadically contain a whiff of real geometric awe, framing the Turtles as they tumble through otherworldly cityscapes. A Bay-esque highway battle that sets the film’s pretense of a narrative in motion has admirably bizarre grace notes, including the weaponized accessories on the Turtles’ garbage truck-cum-hero vehicle, which include a pair of robotic hands that wield nunchucks, out of homage to the weapon favored by Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), the vulnerable jokester Turtle who serves as the mutant quartet’s “heart.”
Out of the Shadows approximates the coked-up frenzy of a particularly chaotic Saturday-morning cartoon.
Later, a prolonged skydiving/river-rafting sequence, which makes room for a working tank manned by a talking warthog and rhino, is executed with the same sense of escalating invention that informed the first TMNT’s snowy mountain-chase climax. At its best, Out of the Shadows approximates the coked-up frenzy of a particularly chaotic Saturday-morning cartoon, crossing it with the hardness of something like Simon West’s Con Air.
Most strikingly for a film that’s also obviously courting children, Out of the Shadows looks seamy, offering a New York City out of a 1980s-era vigilante movie. The sets are loud, deliberately fake, and abounding in neon, and there are distractingly crass close-ups of actress Megan Fox, who’s afforded little human agency even by the standards of a Fox/Bay collaboration. One of the craziest villains of the TMNT universe, a talking, disembodied alien brain called Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett), has been brought on to serve co-villain duties with the reliably evil Shredder (Brian Tee), and its surpassingly vile presence kicks the film’s already dirty-minded id into overdrive.
But the stakes-free freneticism grows exhausting, then numbing. To fully sustain itself as a feature, Out of the Shadows needs a pervasive element of something, whether it’s wonder, narrative efficiency, or even the obsessive, pounding nihilism that it ultimately only flirts with, which gives Bay’s best films as a director their disreputable power. Nothing in this film matters, as scenes bleed haphazardly into one another. (For instance, the Turtles just happen to be flying over the bad guys in Brazil, leading to the sky-diving sequence.) The film’s openly mercenary ethos initially scans as a bracing lack of pretense in a market crammed to the gills with insidious faux-sentimentality, but its overstuffed relentlessness proves equally tedious.