Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – T-U-R-T-L-E Power!

One more review before I call it a year, unless some interesting podcast or shoot interview pops up in the next week. Will probably put out a post for review requests prior to the middle of February when I have a few days off work again.

Don’t really want to editorialise, but I’m not especially convinced that the last number of the year 2020 going up by one will make that much of a difference in the world, but let’s stay optimistic. This has been the worst year ever for a lot of people, which I can attest to personally as well as for many of my friends, and the same across the world. Fingers crossed things start changing soon.

Until then…

It’s December 25th of 1990, a year where it was an absolute challenge to get the new (in the UK) Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles figures for Christmas, but luckily I completed a collection that had started in the summer with Leonardo, Raphael, Rocksteady and the Foot Soldier. Incredible satisfaction to fill out the rest of the line.

Then, a few days later, my dad takes me and two friends to see the differently (and correctly) titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think I knew what happened in it already from a sticker collection I’d won in a competition in the Daily Mirror newspaper, but the text they’d used was from a prior draft that still included Oroku Nagi, the deceased older brother of Saki (the Shredder). Not that it mattered, I was stoked to see this.

The opening of the movie is actually a pretty interesting diary of a time, with the New York presented in it as grotty, grimy and dangerous. Even though there’s a comic aspect, the atmosphere feels like it’s from a more dangerous and dark movie. Someone who’s metaphorically shining a light in the dark corners is reporter April O’Neil, who’s attacked by a young Sam Rockwell and his buddies before being they’re taken down by mysterious assailants. A sai is left behind by Raphael, used to smash a streetlamp, creating a connection between April and the Turtles.

It’s there where it loses me a little bit because the Turtles themselves are goofy and trying too hard to be cool with the potential catchphrases. You’ll be able to hear Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello, who brought a bit of a bad name to the film because around the time it was released he got busted for coke in his car. That was one of a few things that was used against the show and the toyline (kids going down into, and getting trapped in, the sewers as well as a surge for turtles as pets, spreading salmonella… you’d think they had an agenda). The Turtles do win me around with some comic timing in their scenes in the sewers and hassling a pizza delivery boy.

Casey Jones is also included, and as someone who went by his sporadic and masked appearances in the cartoon it was bizarre to see him in such a pivotal role, because I didn’t get any exposure to the comics at the time. I don’t know whether Elias Koteas was wearing a wig or not, although I assume not, but it was much diminished by the time the third movie came around. Rounding out the cast is April’s gruff boss, his delinquent son who is in with the Foot Clan, and a screaming police chief who April is constantly trying to undermine.

Lest we forget, the Shredder, flanked by his second-in-command Tatsu, who broods and looks like he could take your eyes out with his fingers in one go. Shredder is pretty threatening and nasty, with a scarred face from a prior encounter with Splinter, and dispatching his own followers is a good show of that. About the highest point for the Foot Ninjas is a scene where they accost April in the subway and tell her “We come to deriver a message… *SLAP* – SHUT IT!”. I’m kinda surprised that hasn’t made it as a meme over time, because it’s intended to be a threatening scene, but between the timing and the Engrish rines and derivery it comes across as comical.

As the movie goes on, Splinter is captured via a Foot Ninja having trailed the Turtles back to their lair and beyond that the Turtles are attacked at April’s place when the delinquent kid shares info with the Shredder. This is melded with with some scenes from the comics, although Raphael takes Leonardo’s place as the Turtle that gets beaten to the point of near death. They escape to the Northampton farmhouse from the comics to recuperate, before spiritually reconnecting with Splinter and coming back to rescue him and duel to the death with the Shredder on top of a building.

When I reviewed Masters of the Universe a few months ago I made some connections with Flash Gordon, which I also looked at. I think that this film shares a lot in common with Flash Gordon too, just where Gordon goes extravagant this movie goes dark. The director, as I mentioned in my review of the retrospective documentary, took a lot of the comics and tore out striking images and scenes to incorporate in the movie, much as Mike Hodges did. The work there come in creating the connective tissue between them, which I think works quite well. It’s hard not to imagine the cast really nailing it in the rehearsal room, especially Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas, who have really good chemistry.

Even though the TMNT brand was born in the eighties, I think of it more as having a nineties sensibility, but it’s very much produced and directed as an eighties action movie with the soundtrack being akin to Rocky with the comeback. It’s also a very quick-paced movie, running only ninety minutes. As a kid, that’s about right so that it’s not boring. As an adult, it means it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Also, as a kid, I just wanted to see the Turtles and Splinter and Shredder on screen, but as an adult I wouldn’t have minded them holding back with revealing the Turtles a little longer. I guess they had their primary market in mind and served it well, because the film was a big hit. The subsequent films… well, that’s a story for another day.

The Bottom Line: A thoroughly enjoyable movie that probably marked the pinnacle of the success of the Turtles, beyond massive toy sales. A solid 7/10 effort that I probably appreciate more as an adult than I did as a kid.