Whither the radical reptiles of yore?
Apropos of a franchise about crime-fighters created in a lab, the current iteration of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a toxic alchemy combining nostalgia, CGI, and a bit of cultural appropriation thrown in for good measure. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael’s place in today’s superhero landscape is an odd one, operating somewhere in the space between Marvel’s streamlined efficiency and DC’s foreboding inconsistency. “Out of the Shadows,” the second of the new “TMNT” series, tries to incorporate elements of both and ends up a soupy mess — director David Green’s sequel has turtles, but not much power.
That’s in part because these two Michael Bay-produced movies have left the franchise’s best elements back in the ’90s. The sibling quartet remains a group of wisecracking vigilantes, but their charmingly dumb catchphrases are nowhere to be found; “Out of the Shadows” comes across as unwilling to commit to what made the earlier cartoons and films work in the first place. The result is not only a bad movie in general but a bad Turtles adaptation in particular, and that’s coming from a former Turtles-obsessed kid who once named a pet rabbit Leonardo.
This sequel to 2014’s reboot does at least open strong, beginning with a genuinely impressive sequence that starts atop a skyscraper and ends with our heroes inside the Jumbotron at a New York Knicks game. Once there, they’re reminded of the fact that credit for saving their beloved city had previously gone to Will Arnett‘s cameraman-turned-celebrity, as all involved agreed the general public probably wasn’t ready to accept four overgrown turtles as the saviors they are.
In that way, “Out of the Shadows” attempts to brood on the nature of heroism, ultimately coming to the same conclusion Batman does in Christopher Nolan‘s recent trilogy: that it’s meant to be a sacrifice, and seeking out credit is antithetical to the enterprise. (Eventually they get to have their pizza and eat it too, of course.)
As the siblings make their way through the sewers after that basketball game, glimpsing a Halloween parade in the process, there’s the sense of a missed opportunity: Leo and his cohorts undoubtedly have a unique, subterranean understanding of New York’s geography, and emphasizing the quartet’s labyrinthine routes might have actually distinguished “Out of the Shadows” from the superhero fare it spends nearly two hours aping.
Instead we get a “Dark Knight”-style chase sequence that ends with Shredder escaping police custody in a similar manner to the Joker, a retrofitted garbage truck resembling something out of “Mad Max,” enough infighting to warrant renaming the film “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Civil War,” and an interdimensional hole in the sky straight out of the first Avengers movie. “Out of the Shadows” stumbles from one set piece to the next, rarely offering viewers much reason to care in between, and its halfhearted attempts at moving toward the “dark and gritty” end of the comic-book spectrum never land.
The film is at its best when embracing the inherent weirdness of its source material, namely the four brothers’ ultimate nemesis. Anyone not already familiar with Krang will be struck by how deeply strange the villain is: an octopus-like talking brain connected to a robotic body who enlists Shredder to help him take over the world, he isn’t actually as clever as his appearance suggests. Further down the totem pole, but nearly as endearingly odd, are Bebop and Rocksteady, a pair of henchmen transformed into a warthog and rhino, respectively, by a purple chemical whose official name in the Turtles-verse is “ooze.” (See also: 1991’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze,” still the franchise’s cinematic high-water mark).
In keeping with the proud tradition of casting professional wrestlers as bad guys, Rocksteady is portrayed by WWE’s Sheamus, here following in the footsteps of Kevin Nash, who played Shredder in “Secret of the Ooze.” Other important characters feel miscast, from Tony Shalhoub reprising his voice role as the sagacious rat Splinter to Tyler Perry as a power-hungry scientist, but at least none of the Asian characters are played by Tilda Swinton. Go, ninja, go — and maybe next time, don’t come back.