Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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They aren’t exactly your typical costumed superheroes, but the turtles have a lot to teach us about heroism, even if it’s difficult to make out through the metallic buzzing sounds and predictable plot.

Even before the first teaser trailer hit YouTube, this film was filled with controversy.  Not the sort of controversy you see surrounding heinous projects like Fifty Shades of Gray, of course, but controversy because, well, Michael Bay.  The same man who filled Transformers with crass jokes and excessive profanity was in his little evil genius laboratory, plotting more evil, even to go so far as to make the turtles aliens from another planet.  But the pressures of twenty-something boys who grew up in the ’80s prevailed upon him.  Maybe a little too much.  Because what we have from the start is a film that doesn’t hack its source material to shreds, but neither does it take any risks, or chart new territory for the franchise.

The yellow leather is a really cool upgrade from the horrid jumpsuit.

The yellow leather is a really cool upgrade from the horrid jumpsuit.

But let’s not get too down on the movie at the outset.  The first half-hour or so is absolutely phenomenal.  True to his word, director Jonathon Liebesman refrained from making Megan Fox’s April O’Neil a sex symbol, and we get what is probably the best acting in Fox’s career yet.  You can argue about whether or not that’s saying much, but the fact remains that O’Neil is one of the best developed characters in this film.  She desperately wants to be an investigative reporter and drives hard for a new angle on the story of The Foot Clan, who just happen to be terrorizing the city, which is how she manages to catch a glimpse of the turtles.

Odd as it sounds, the thing that really makes the first couple of encounters with the turtles fascinating is the camera work.  It’s shaky, dark, and almost amateur-like, but in a way that makes it seem authentic.  Like you’re really there, witnessing the action (I imagine that this would be one of the very few instances when 3-D would make it worth your money, while, to add a disclaimer, I saw it in regular, boring, non-wallet-sucking-glasses-less-2-D).  It makes the early part of the story fascinating.  Compelling.  It’s a phenomenal first act.

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Unfortunately, the film skips a second act altogether and goes straight for the third, practically skipping character development for the turtles entirely.  The film jumps from April meeting the turtles straight into full-blown confrontation with The Foot, hardly allowing us to become attached to the new incarnations of these characters before demanding that we shake in fear at their fate.  That’s when the audience splits.  The filmgoers walking in as skeptics will be completely turned off.  The optimists, such as myself, will relish it for the action sequences, which are more thrilling in a league that the old films could never have reached.  Because, you know, CGI and stuff.

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So it’s a bit of a mixed basket so far as the cinematic quality goes.  Bay’s iconic special effects combined with an entertaining level of typical Mikey-driven humor brings enough to the film to help you overlook its failings, even if only barely.  So my level of excitement as a filmgoer and fanboy wasn’t exactly astounding.  But as a Christian critic and worldview analyst, it thrilled me.

This was for two reasons.  The first is that this is without a doubt the cleanest PG-13 action movie I’ve seen in a very long time.  Two uses of the a-word is the closes that the film gets to profanity, and sexual content is practically nil, save for a couple innuendos and one close-up of April’s rear-end while she’s leaning out of a van.  It brings me great hope for the genre in a decade that has seen so much pushing the envelope that’s really more like shoving it down a shredder than pushing it (pun intended).

The second reason is that it really shows a return to the classic hero.  It’s a continuation of the Captain America trend of a hero that is wholly good, and a turn away from the Iron Man-fueled worship of the anti-hero (prior to his redemption, of course).  There’s no need to question the turtles’ ethics.  They are undoubtedly the good guys, fueled by the same quest for goodness that makes Christians cringe at the evening news and weep at the heinous acts of ISIS.  When the rubber meets the road, they even would rather risk exposure if it means saving innocent lives.

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So it’s true that the character development is shoddy at best, Shredder looks like a Transformer (thanks for that, Michael), and the plot is somewhat predictable.  But it’s also true that the characters were cast well enough to begin overlooking those shortcomings, especially Tony Shalhoub as Splinter, and it’s also true that this film is one of the cleanest and most morally upright in the action genre in quite a while.  So as a critic I say it’s a mixed bag.  As a Christian, I say it comes out ahead.

Logan Judy
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At Cross Culture, Logan writes about film, comics, cultural analysis, and whatever else strikes his fancy. In addition to his work at Cross Culture, Logan also blogs and podcasts at A Clear Lens. You can find him tweeting about Batman, apologetics, and why llamas will one day rule the world, @loganrjudy.
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