ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (1990), Part Two
Chris Sims: Welcome back to ComicsAlliance’s in-depth review of 1990’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, the film that led to uncounted self-inflicted nunchuk injuries!
Matt Wilson: Also the underpayment of many a poor pizza delivery guy. Just because it’s sounds somewhat wise and comes from a turtle doesn’t make it polite.Chris: When we last left off, April O’Neil’s apartment and antique shop had both been burned down by the heated flames of ninja combat, but she and the Turtles managed to escape with the help of sports-themed vigilante Casey Jones. You know, when you really lay it all out like that, this movie’s pretty weird.
Matt: And we haven’t even gotten to the guy with knife-covered clothes and his army of thieving children, or the giant talking rat he’s taken captive. Ah, but here he is, doing some enhanced interrogation on Splinter, asking him how the “freak” turtles know how to fight so good.
Chris: Shredder’s first question (after a backhand) is “what are these… freaks?!”, as though it’s perfectly normal for him to be chatting up a five-foot rat-man who owns a couch, but fighting turtle-people are just a step too far for him to get his head around.
Matt: Splinter refuses to answer, which sends Tetsu into a rage that culminates in him beating up some of his own Foot Clan ninjas. You know, we said this movie really gets teen angst, but it seems to not just be for teens.
Chris: Yeah, everyone’s pretty moody about this whole affair. After a pulse check to assure us that Tetsu did not just beat a teenager to death with his bare hands – which also assures us that he definitely could’ve done just that – Danny wanders over to where Splinter’s being held and strikes up a conversation. Key point here: Shredder has rooms for his enemies that feature manacles on the walls, but not doors.
Matt: Much like the “Duke’s gonna be OK!” stuff from GI Joe: The Movie, the “he’ll be all right” dialogue was actually added in after. That foot soldier was totally supposed to die.
Chris: That would explain why Danny is so bummed out, but it’s a little less understandable why Splinter would just start talking to this kid who just sold out his sons to be murdered with battle axes. I guess he’s just a really good judge of character?
Matt: Splinter just likes to challenge his own powers of persuasion, I guess.
Chris: It’s just weird, because Danny’s dialogue would seem to indicate that Shredder isn’t even sure if Splinter can talk.
Matt: I have to say, it’d be hard to believe even if you’d seen it. April takes the turtles and Casey to her family’s old farmhouse to hole up, and you’d have to think this place would be in upstate New York or maybe rural New Jersey. But because a lot of this movie was filmed in North Carolina, everybody’s stripped down to the sweltery tank tops of a Tennessee Williams play. People were in coats in the city scenes!
Chris: Wait, are you saying that New York is not surrounded by decaying antebellum plantation houses?!
Matt: Maybe in Mirage Studios reality, it is.
Chris: It definitely goes Southern Gothic on us pretty quickly, what with April and Casey working out their sexual tension through shouting at each other, but sadly, it stops before we get a shot of Donatello in a white suit and bolo tie sipping a mint julep on the porch.
Matt: Yes, April and Casey are officially moving us away from turtle/human romantic relationships, which we can certainly be thankful for. And to create an even more old-timey atmosphere, we have April writing a journal with Ken-Burns-style voiceover to tell us how each turtle is working through his anxiety. And hey, Donatello! He’s finally doing machines!
Chris: April has also taken up colored pencil art, though whether she plans to arrange her drawings sequentially and sell them to a movie producer before marrying Julie Strain remains to be seen. My personal favorite thing about this scene, though, is when she talks about how Leonardo is keeping a constant vigil over Raphael, who was beaten half to death by the Foot, and then we see that they’ve straight up dumped Raph into the bathtub like he passed out drunk at a party.
Matt: I don’t know anything about turtle medicine, but turtles like water, so OK. Listen: The whole idea of going off to a farm to grow as a human (or turtle) being is a pretty hacky story trope, but this movie and Pootie Tang both use it, so it’ll always have a special place in my heart. Leonardo maturing and feeling immense guilt for letting Raph go off to nearly die is really nicely played in this.
Chris: You and Ross Campbell. When I talked to him and Joe Keatinge, Ross – who loves the Ninja Turtles the way most people love oxygen – talked about how he wanted to basically redo this scene in Glory, but with mystic warrior dairy cows. And oddly enough, I had not made the Pootie Tang connection.
Matt: I’ll connect Pootie Tang to anything with even the most minor similarity. Another movie connection: There’s a scene in which April and Casey flirt some more, and they really lay on the Han/Leia relationship thick, don’t they? Even down to the argument over what he should call her. And earlier she joked about dreaming about Harrison Ford.
Chris: It does kind of remix a bunch of other movies into its own story, doesn’t it? Star Wars here, we talked about Pinocchio last week, plenty of kung fu movie clichés (which makes sense since it was produced by Golden Harvest). It’s pretty decent at poaching, though, and when you consider how the TMNT idea is originally one big mashup, it makes a lot of sense. At the very least, it’s not annoying about it.
Matt: Better to mix a bunch of influences than just copy one. Raph wakes up and asks for some food, which sends Leo into hysterics. Leo apologizes,they engage in some brotherly love and Donatello makes a “Kodak moment” crack. Donatello is the most out-of-character turtle in this, and I blame Corey Feldman.
Chris: Just so we’re clear on this, Raphael was definitely in a coma for several days, right? And then just got better from being jammed into a bathtub?
Matt: That’s the long and short of it.
Chris: Oh well. Training montage!
Matt: Michelangelo was the only character who didn’t get a big scene in this part. I guess we can assume he was just off in a room, figuring out ways to not pay full price for his food.
Chris: You are definitely turning on the Turtles as this goes on. By the end of it, you’ll be smoking menthols and playing NARC in a warehouse.
Matt: Like I don’t do that already. Back in that very warehouse, Shredder and Tatsu huddle up to talk. Tatsu’s curious why Shredder’s still worried about the turtles, since they haven’t been seen in a while. But the metal man thinks the turtles’ fighting style is suspicious. Intrigue!
Chris: Not only that, but the Turtles’ fighting style reminds Shredder of something from his past, even though he has not actually fought them or seen them fight. He’s getting all this from Tetsu’s descriptions, which means that a) Tetsu is totally awesome at describing fights, and b) Shredder’s past includes a fight with someone who made jokes about sushi and breakdancing in the middle of Ninja Combat.
Matt: “The ancient ‘Wheel of Fortune’ maneuver. Only one master knows this devastating style!”
Chris: While Shredder tries to remember which of his vanquished enemies was trained in spouting pop culture references, Casey is chopping up vegetables with a katana and giving out sensual massage.
Matt: To some sultry R&B, no less. After a quick groaner about the turtles rubbing their sore muscles with Turtle Wax, Leo meditates by a tree and creates a kind of psychic link with Splinter. I forgot this happened.
Chris: It feels bizarre, and considering that this is a movie about mutant turtles who are also ninjas, I can’t really justify why Either way, it leads to the Turtles having a seance around a campfire, which only Leonardo is taking seriously.
Matt: And yet, it works! Splinter appears in the fire in spirit form like Yoda and gives them what amounts to a graduation speech, which also includes his “final words” (they aren’t). What would really help is an address or at least a street name.
Chris: Splinter seems pretty convinced that he’s going to die in a basement, which doesn’t speak all that highly of his faith in the Turtles. Kind of a dick move, Splinter’s Weird Ninja Force Ghost.
Matt: Newly motivated, the turtles tell an ever-closer Casey and April that it’s time to go back to New York. So they drive up to a manhole and jump in. Casey is not pleased.
Chris: Casey’s faith in his ability to romance April when there are other (non-turtle) men within four miles is about as solid as Splinter’s faith in the Turtles. I’m a little curious as to why the bros need April and Casey to come back with them. I mean… the ninjas still want to literally murder April, right? She’s kind of in extreme and immediate danger of being stabbed to death?
Matt: She is also homeless.
Chris: A dilapidated farmhouse is probably still a step up from an actual sewer.
Matt: But that’s where they all go, and it’s probably good they did, because there’s Danny, cowering in a cabinet. How long has he been down there waiting for someone to show up?
Chris: How did Danny even know to go down there? He wasn’t part of the crew that raided the sewer and kidnapped Splinter. Did he just casually strike up a conversation with Foot Soldier #532? “Hey man, if I wanted to run away and go someplace where Shredder couldn’t find me, how would I get to the Ninja Turtles’ secret lair playset? HA HA NO REASON, JUST CURIOUS.”
Matt: Maybe they have a bulletin board at Video Game and Skating Warehouse. Old flustered Casey goes up to sleep in the truck and the turtles mourn some moldy old pizza before sacking out. Danny sleeps fitfully, as Shredder and Splinter argue in his head. I have some weird dreams, but rarely do martial arts masters argue via old quotes in them. I kind of wish they would.
Chris: There’s also a bizarre bit in this scene where Donatello says that Casey is claustrophobic, and Casey gets mad because he thinks he said “homosexual,” and threatens to punch Don in the mouth. Good call on leaving that one in there, Movie For Ten Year-Olds From 1990.
Matt: The words don’t sound anything alike!
Chris: Casey’s a sports guy, so he’s probably had a few concussions.
Matt: Insomniac Danny slips out of the sewer and heads back to the warehouse. Tossin’ Turnin Casey (these are the toys they would have made if they’d made toys) follows and bears witness to Arcade Game and Bell Biv Devoe Soundalike Music Mecca.
Chris: Casey’s despite his long hair and rude, crude attitude give him the ability to blend in with the crime teens while Danny goes to talk to Splinter, who gives him his origin story in a series of shots that kind of forget that Splinter is supposed to be chained to the wall? And that rats don’t live in birdcages?
Matt: The power of story can break chains, Chris. I remember laughing out loud at the rat in his cage doing karate moves when I first saw this. I was seven.
Chris: It’s the most obviously fake shot in the entire movie, which is saying something. And the thing is, this is still a Henson joint. They clearly could’ve done better, and just wanted it to be a goofy spinning rat puppet in a birdcage.
Matt: This backstory is Very Complicated to all be taking place in one room. But all that really matters is Splinter fought Shredder when he was a normal sized-rat, and Shredder has terrible (or maybe amazing?) sword aim, because all he does is cut off Splinter’s ear. I think the cartoon was right to make Splinter a man who gets turned into a rat.
Chris: You know, I prefer the movie version, because the idea of a rat that learned karate so good that it could be a sensei if it was ever mutated into being a man is pretty baller. Of course, it’s also worth noting that the guy who owned Splinter was a ninja master who also had a 9-to-5 day job doing construction in a hardhat and overalls, so… that’s a little dodgy. Son even has a metal lunchpail.
Matt: Hamato Yoshi was a Renaissance man. Why do you think he named the turtles what he did? (Goodnight folks, I’ll be here all week!)
Chris: Ugh. Anyway, Danny, smart kid that he is, is finally able to put together what we already know, that the man who killed Splinter’s master is now the Shredder. Did I already mention that there were a ton of kung fu movie clichés in this?
Matt: But with Han Solo in it: Casey beats up a Stormtroo — uh, Foot soldier and dresses up in his uniform so as to more easily skulk around.
Chris: Shredder ends up interrupting his own origin and doing his best Angus Scrimm impression at Danny (“boyyyyyyyy”), waving his various arm-knives around until he finds the drawing of Leonardo in Danny’s pocket. By Danny betrayed! Again!
Matt: Even when this kid wants to help, he f**ks everything up. Shredder orders Splinter killed and sends the whole Foot Clan after the turtles. Casey grabs Danny and finds out that the s**t is hitting the fan.
Chris: Danny tells him “they’re gonna kill Splinter!” and Casey looks pretty alarmed, even though he has never met Splinter and, from what we’ve seen so far, has no idea who he is. I guess the Turtles or April talked about him while they were down on the farm, but I feel cheated that this movie robbed me of Casey delivering a goggle-eyed “Your sensei’s a giant rat?!“
Matt: There is a pretty funny moment where Elias Koteas looks at this talking rat, takes a second to understand what he’s seeing, then just accepts it and saves him. It’s the equivalent of that in about one second and without dialogue.
Chris: I stand corrected; that is pretty great.
Matt: Meanwhile, the turtles meet the invading Foot well-prepared, blinding them with a shower of steam to take out the first wave, then using various tricks to beat the rest. I guess it makes sense that they’d be ready? Danny not being there likely meant he was giving them up somehow.
Chris: They knew he was bad news when he let that pizza get moldy.
Matt: Before Casey and Danny can abscond with Splinter, they’re stopped by Tatsu and a bunch of other “punkers.” Casey looks like he’s in trouble, but then he spots a golf club and is able to used his sports-equipment superpower to drive Tatsu a few yards. “I’ll never call golf a dull game again,” he quips, in a line I never could make out until just now. He Stallones it.
Chris: Casey’s a pretty unnecessary character in this movie – there’s really nothing he does to affect the plot other than stop Michelangelo from hitting on April and making us all uncomfortable with thoughts of turtle boners – but I do like the portrayal of him in this scene a lot. I really enjoy the idea that he’s a dude who absolutely sucks at fighting, until you give him any kind of sports equipment, at which time he can just beat your ass in two hits.
Matt: He’s also a hero character who is a human being, which is something somewhat necessary for a live-action feature film. There’s April, but they’ve got her hitting Foot soldiers from on top of pipes and stuff.
Chris: Is it, though? It’s not like he’s any more impressive than the Turtles, who are jumping around bashing dudes with katanas and nunchuks pretty convincingly. I can’t imagine the kids who wanted to see this movie were really wanting to connect with Casey Jones as the face of the franchise more than seeing really-real-for-real-in-real-life turtles eating pizza and skateboarding through sewer pipes.
Matt: They put humans in all the Muppet movies, too. If it isn’t necessary at the very least it’s Hollywood tradition. And Casey plays a similar role in the comics, so it’s not like he’s not from the source material.
Chris: Yeah, I’m just saying, you could lose him and not really lose anything. This speech that ends all gang violence forever, for instance, could just as easily have been given by Splinter.
Matt: But the Splinter puppet wouldn’t be able to threaten Young Sam Rockwell (it’s really him!) with golf clubs.
Chris: Fair point. So yeah, Casey asks Li’l Justin Hammer if he really thinks of the Foot Clan as a family and gestures around at “all of this.” As previously mentioned, this ends all gang violence forever. You’re welcome.
Matt: The turtles’ fight with the Foot pours out of the sewer and onto a rooftop, because I guess they got bored and wanted to some new scenery, and boy, this just looks like a lot of fun.
Chris: It really does! We get a gag where a bad guy tries to decapitate Mike with an axe and Mike pulls his head back in his shell – eight year-old me was waiting the entire movie for that one – and then Mike shouts “God, I love being a turtle!” This raises some important questions about religion and theology when you’re a Ninja Turtle that, sadly, are beyond the scope of this movie review.
Matt: Especially since they’re almost definitely Zen Buddhists, given their meditation and philosophy Splinter’s taught them an everything. Sadly, this and none of its sequels delve into the rich mine of interest that is Ninja Turtle Religion. In fact, it’s only a short while before Shredder shows up on the rooftop and the Turtles each try to take him on, none very successfully.
Chris: Aw yes, motherf**kin’ Shredder.
Matt: He essentially just falls into the shot from…the sky. Really, where did he come from?
Chris: Who cares? It’s awesome. And i really like that this movie went this long before Shredder actually did anything. We haven’t seen him fight at all, he just bosses Tatsu around and looks like a badass, building anticipation for like an hour before he starts throwing down.
Matt: And then he just owns. The turtles can’t touch him.
Chris: Also, they have no idea who he is! It’s the first time they’ve seen him, eighty minutes into the movie! It’s a tough thing to pull off for a character, but when your audience is likely already familiar with this guy and his status as the Turtles’ arch-nemesis, you can make a slow burn like this pay off.
Matt: And when you’ve got hundreds, if not thousands of kids an trained ninjas to do your work for you, why would you get your hands dirty unless it really mattered?
Chris: Plus Tatsu, who kinda beat a man to death with his bare hands earlier (but didn’t, because PG-13).
Matt: Another thing: This is the first time the Turtles appear to not be having fun when they fight. Even when April’s house was coming down around them, they were enjoying it. Excepting a few cracks about his name at the beginning, they’re taking this pretty seriously.
Chris: Yeah, they go from wisecracks to “oh this guy is going to kill us” pretty quick, which is something they didn’t even do when Raph was in a coma. Motherf**kin’ Shredder!
Matt: Meanwhile, Casey Jones has taken the entire crowd of kids to the building to…teach them a lesson? He’s fighting off the remnants of the Foot while the Turtles fight Shredder.
Chris: He looks around to quip at Splinter, who is gone because he’s gone up to the roof, just as Shredder holds Leo hostage and makes the Turtles ditch their weapons. Ohhhhhh s**t, here go hell come. Splinter vs. Shredder.
Matt: It all comes out here: Shredder finds out Splinter’s name, which he never even knew. Then Shredder takes off his mask to reveal the claw-scratch scar Splinter left and charges at him. Splinter pulls out some nunchuks and sends him over the side of the building to hang on for his life. In true villain fashion, In true villain fashion, Shredder tries to kill his enemy with one last effort, tossing a knife at Splinter. Splinter catches it, but has to let go of Shredder and let him fall into a dump truck in the process. Then Casey Jones takes it a step too far and hits the compactor.
Chris: Quick question, Matt. Do you think that Splinter could’ve flipped his ass off a building with, say, a sai? Do you think a sai, since it’s soooooo much cooler than nunchuks, would be better in this situation? Or are you prepared to admit that you are wrong and dumb about ninja weapons and I hate you and you’re wrong?
Matt: Just because a weapon is good for one situation doesn’t make it cooler, Chris. Splinter wanted a non-lethal weapon, so he used a non-bladed weapon. I ADMIT NOTHING.
Chris: SAI ARE BLUNT!
Matt: Sticking one out at a guy running at you would still do some stabbin’.
Chris: Either way, yes, Casey crushes the Shredder to death (or does he?), Danny reunites with his dad and proves he’s learned his lesson by giving April the $20 he stole out of her wallet, and April gets her job back. She is still homeless and has lost everything she had of her dead father. Happy ending!
Matt: Chief Sterns, who has been a real lump through this whole thing, finally does something, interrogating The Guy From Moon to find out where the secret Video Game warehouse is. April and Casey kiss while the turtles cheer him. They then turn to themselves, and go back to slang they learned from stickers.
Chris: Splinter says “I made a funny,” hands down the worst line of the film, and then the mandatory rap about the movie happens as the credits role, with a guy who sounds so much like Shock G at first that I had to make sure it wasn’t Digital Underground slumming it for a check. It was Partnerz In Kryme.
Matt: Cut Splinter some slack. He’s been through a lot.
Chris: We’ve been saying it for the entire review, but the suits looked really good. The guys in them have enough room to do jump kicks and have interesting fight scenes, and the only time they really don’t look right is when they get thrown onto their backs and you can tell the shells are made of rubber. Really, though, that’s it.
Matt: There are lots of ways this movie could have gone wrong, as we’ll soon see, I’m afraid. First and foremost, the turtles had to look good. And they did! Having Jim Henson on your team really helps with that. They also had to not be annoying catch-phrase machines. Though these turtles certainly say their share of “tubular” and what not, they’re played as fully formed characters with emotions. And those emotions really hit. It’s crazy that a turtle looking after another turtle laying in a bathtub can really be affecting, but it happens.
Chris: Roger Ebert was right: This really is probably the best possible movie about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s got everything you really want out of them, and even when they’re not quite on model, nobody’s horrifically out of character.
Matt: One is more than others, but I’ll get to that. The other big thing, and we pointed this out earlier, the script is pretty good. There are groaners here and there, some stuff gets overcomplicated, and ghost-Splinter seems like a misstep, but for the most part the characters’ arcs and how everything plays out works really nicely.
Chris: I’m not going to brook your anti-Feldman agenda, Wilson. I think it’s an overall solid adaptation. The characters are fun, the practical effects look great, and while it’s definitely silly and flawed, I honestly enjoyed watching it again.
Matt: Part of what really works is that the silly stuff is presented as just a fact you and the other character have kind of got to accept, while everything else stays pretty grounded. Donatello’s machine he does is a truck, not a Kirbyesque dimension-hopping machine. Shredder’s gang is at-risk kids who want cigarettes and video games. The movie doesn’t reach too far.
Chris: Well, except in that it is a movie about ooze that mutated turtles into angsty teenagers and a rat that learned karate by watching its owner do karate. But other than that…
Matt: I know we disagree on this, but I wish Donatello was a more defined character. There are moments where a first-draft version of him seems to come through, like how he is good at Trivial Pursuit but a lot of times he just comes off as Mikey 2. I feel strongly that his character was rewritten because Corey Feldman played him. Leo gets to grow, Raphael is the sort-of lead, Michelangelo is a party dude. Donatello…fixes a truck?
Chris: I’ll give you that, but I feel like that’s also a function of this being a kids’ movie that’s juggling a lot of characters. I think Donatello comes off pretty well – like you said, there are bits and pieces where he’s the Smart One – but they’re also not facing a problem that requires any smarts. I feel like it’s less that the movie doesn’t do a good Donatello, and more that it doesn’t present a problem that each character gets to contribute to. They just end up having to go back and fight enough guys that everything’s okay. But really, that’s just splitting hairs on which part of the movie is more broken, plot or character.
Matt: And I don’t think either one’s really broken, per se. The movie actually juggles a lot of characters really well — April, Casey, Splinter, Danny, Tatsu, etc. There are a couple characters who are out-and-out plot devices, though, namely April’s Boss and the police chief, who seems only marginally interested in stopping the crime spree that caused him all this bad press to begin with.
Chris: Chief Sterns makes absolutely no sense. Is he on the take? Is that why he wants to shut down April’s investigation? Is he being threatened by the Foot? Or is he just that much of a dick that he bribes her boss with keeping his son in jail so that she’ll get fired for asking him questions? Which is, you know, her job.
Matt: A police chief trying to put a tourniquet on bad publicity is pretty realistic — it’s the point of a lot of the third and fifth seasons of The Wire, in fact — but Sterns just seems interested in shutting up one reporter and not doing his job. This is all minor stuff, of course. And to add one minor thing: That farm sure does not look like it’s anywhere near New York.
Chris: Beyond all that, my #1 low point is that Matt Wilson has dumb opinions about ninja weapons.
Matt: Well, me and 1980s Frank Miller will just be over here disagreeing with you then.
Chris: He drew ’em wrong anyway.
Chris: I gotta say, TMNT held up a hell of a lot better than I expected it to, which makes me worry about next week, when we watch the one I really liked when I was a kid. I’m starting to think that maybe Kevin Nash, Vanilla Ice and a plucky young pizza delivery boy infiltrating a ninja clan might not be the timeless story I was hoping for.
Matt: I wasn’t crazy about that one even at the time. It seemed like one big slog to Vanilla Ice, and when he appeared I realized I didn’t even care that much about seeing him. But that’s next week. This movie was great then, and it’s a fun watch. It’s the rare artifact from childhood that’s almost as good as you remember it.
Chris: Cowab – now? Do I say it now?
Matt: Yes. Now is the time.
Matt: You made a funny! Ha ha ha!
Chris: Huh. That was a little more hollow than I was hoping. Oh well.
Matt: Maybe some secrets of the ooze will help fill that gap. Though I doubt it.