Friday, April 8, 2011

The Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu - 2007's TMNT Movie

One thing about my viewing of the 2007 TMNT movie kept me from enjoying it fully. I used to think I'm not the type to get misty-eyed over dead famous people I never knew personally, but it was extremely difficult to hear the voice of powerful veteran character-actor Mako.

I had to turn the movie off and come back to it after a while because it was difficult to watch. The movie must have been his final performance, since it came out in 2007 and he died in 2006 (after a quick look at IMDB, apparently it was).

Anyone who pretends they aren't moved when actors they love die are lying. Through art you feel a connection to others.

In any case, I was surprised and delighted to see the new movie "got it." They knew what made the Ninja Turtles tick. Lots of teams like the Fantastic Four are described as a family, but with the Turtles that's literally true: all four of them are brothers, and they have the same camaraderie and competitiveness of brothers with strong personalities. Splinter, the wise old rat that trained them in Martial Arts, is even called Father by the turtles. When he isn't called Master or Sensei because he's that, too. Mako even used different tones of voice when Splinter was their Sensei and when he was their parent.

If the Ninja Turtles are a family like the Fantastic Four, like the Avengers, all the emotional stories and conflict is based around an axis of two characters: one is a leader-type that is responsible and principled, and the other is a wild, brash, proud and ferociously independent guy that bucks at being led. With the Avengers it's Hawkeye and Captain America and with the Turtles it's Leonardo and the angry, tempermental Rafael. Just like Boba Fett was based on Clint Eastwood, Rafael was based on the screen persona of James Cagney. Amazing how much screen time Rafael gets in the Turtles movies: he's not everyone's favorite but he's obviously the writers' favorite, just like Hawkeye was consistently every Avengers writers' pet character.

The movie feels like an actual Ninja Turtles movie, as opposed to what I was afraid it would be: a movie that shamelessly uses the fondness people my age have for the Ninja Turtles to knock off a cheap and fast flick. Yeah, sure, it's animated, but now that I think about it, I'm surprised none of the original Ninja Turtle movies were animated. Like Tarzan, the Ninja Turtles have an athleticism and physicality that only animation can actually bring to screen.

Animation was the best decision ever for this movie because it was filled with monsters and black magic like animated rock golems. Though the movie is a direct sequel to the original live action movies, it combines their New York street-toughness with the Ray Harryhausen weirdness that defined the lighter and softer animated TV incarnation, which had traditional superhero stuff like Dimension X and a scientist that turned himself into a fly monster.

Like Batman, there are several different tones the Turtles take over the years (and like Batman, the sillier things got the more science fiction there was), but this version the Turtles' goofier elements are more subdued and subtle. For instance, there is some pizza-eating, but it's in the background and the Turtles don't go too crazy, and some of their catch-phrases are alluded to but never outright said, like the Turtles have a license plate that says "DUDE-1." Michaelangelo in particular was like his late eighties/early nineties contemporary, Bart Simpson, in that he was pretty much a catch-phrase machine. Michaelangelo still likes to skateboard, which dates the Turtles a lot - but I'm not complaining because it made for some neat stunt scenes and is character-appropriate for a fun-loving, keep it hangin' dude like him.

There was no Turtle Van, Turtle Blimp or Turtle Communicators. The movie borrowed a lot of things from the 90s cartoon (which was to the Turtles what Adam West is to Batman), but apparently the idea of the cash-strapped turtles that live in a sewer having their own friggin' blimp was too over the top to believe. The height of Ninja Turtle high tech in this movie is smoke bombs, plastique and hang gliders. They don't even use that most comic book of all pieces of technology, the grappling hook gun! I guess they're too old school for even that.

The turtles are guys that love what they do: they like adventure and beating up evil Ninjas and it's hard not to like them back when you see them wiseass their way through fights. Why couldn't the relatively humorless Spider-Man movies be more like that?

Thank God (aka Frank Miller, in this universe) this movie wasn't a reboot or origin story. It's a straight up sequel, and it's great to see a movie that doesn't go through the motions and tries to legitimately continue the story. It reminds me of Superman Returns, in that TMNT straight up ignores the bad movies. Unlike Superman Returns we get an honestly new story.

For one thing, Shredder isn't the bad guy again, the way you'd expect of a cheap and easy movie that uses the familiar elements. Shredder is to the Turtles what Lex Luthor is to Superman: he's great but we're all sick of him. Get another villain, already!

Thank goodness they didn't use the villains from the animated cartoon, two borderline-retarded Dr. Moreau animal men named Bebop and Rocksteady with Brooklyn accents that were about as legitimately menacing as Bulk and Skull were.

The main villain is basically a straight lift of the DC Comics baddie, Vandal Savage. An immortal ancient Chinese warlord who uses his immortality to become a super-rich, influential tycoon. Did I mention he was played by Patrick Stewart?

They also did the single most obvious villain to do, but it's such a cool idea it deserves to be mentioned. The Foot Clan are now led by some evil Asian Dragon Lady mastermind, basically a lady Shredder.

This should come as no surprise. Every single Asian mastermind supervillain has a hot, evil daughter that knows karate and wears a catsuit, ever since Dr. Fu Manchu had his evil daughter Fa Lo Suee. Remember Ra's al-Ghul's daughter, Talia? It was downright criminal that the Batman movie with Ra's in it left Talia out since she was the single most memorable element about Ra's other than the Lazarus Pit. First Christopher Nolan mispronounced Ra's's name (it's said Raysh, damn it!), mangled his origin...and now this!

Other than their catsuit-wearing leader, the Foot clan follow the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu: the more Ninjas there are, the less awesome they are, until a good guy can cut through a crowd of bad guy Ninja henchmen like butter.

The setting is New York. Where else would it be, right? The turtles are street-tough vigilantes, illegitimate children of Batman and Daredevil. The turtles even leave in the middle of conversations, just like Batman does, and they leave criminals tied up to lamp posts like Spider-Man. The comic started off as a parody of Frank Miller, who was so big he created a subgenre unto himself, full of bat-wielding vigilantes, street punks on every corner with colored spike hair, narration box overuse, Sais, Nunchaku, and ninjas, ninjas, ninjas.

By the way, what ever happened to ninja, anyway? Remember when every Martial Arts school switched to black uniforms for a little while because ninjas were so cool? They were a huge craze in America back in the eighties for a while thanks to two guys: Frank Miller and Orientalist novelist Eric van Lustbader. Van Lustbader wrote Ninja and Jian and other airplane thriller novels that were basically the P.F. Chang's version of Asian culture combined with adventure and espionage porno for men, sort of like a combination of Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Grisham and Memoirs of a Geisha, basically a male version of romance novels.

You know, I've actually thought about Lustbader a lot the past few weeks because the tone of all those BBC articles about the destruction in Japan reminded me of Lustbader: "experts" talking about Orientals and their culture in ways that emphasize their solemnity and stoicism in ways that make them stop seeming like real people and make their suffering no longer real, either.

Believe it or not I'm actually a big fan of Lustbader's thrillers because at least they were different; find a stack of thrillers published in the 1980s aimed at male readers and I guarantee two-thirds will be Tom Clancy imitators. Anyway, Ninja had one of the greatest opening "first victim" scenes ever, instantaneously killed by ninja.

Eventually the ninja craze was supplanted by the kickboxing craze, just like the ninja craze supplanted the first wave Kung Fu craze with Bruce Lee. That's a shame because ninja are incredibly supercool and near-superhuman. They have mystique as stealthy assassins from an exotic culture. I love watching old Samurai movies from the 1950s and 1960s where a typical meeting with a Ninja would go with a Warlord in an empty room, except for a shadow that suddenly appears next to him. The warlord would give his instructions to the shadow...the real person never shown and his voice never heard, ever...and then the shadow would vanish from the wall.

Don't get me wrong, the TMNT movie wasn't perfect. For one thing, there wasn't much of a central villain. The main Vandal Savage bad guy wanted penance for his actions and was ultimately a decent person. The Turtles could have walked away at any time; the story felt like it didn't concern them directly. Towards the end it becomes a "call the cops" movie, a film where the entire premise can be undone if someone just called the cops. Overall, it was tightly plotted and everyone got something to do, even Casey Jones and April, and the Foot Clan received one very interesting character-defining bit that showed they weren't just bad guy hirelings but had something to them.

Splinter in particular was very well used in this movie. He even joined the fighting at the end, which was a surprise. He didn't die at the end or disappear like all mentors and he didn't just show up to deliver expository dialogue.

A few things about the Turtle movie that surprised me:

The movie was a short and tightly plotted 80 minutes long. Compared to bloated, overlong comic book movies, that's practically a blessing and no scene feels useless. There are advantages and disadvantages to skewing your audience young and apparently a short length is one of the benefits.

Why is April O'Neil suddenly an expert in ancient cultures? Wasn't she like, a reporter? Like Chakotay from Voyager, a dull character that never got anything to do, Chakotay got skills as required by the plot so he'd have something to do. Also, in a surprise that left me laughing kept out of the trailers for obvious reasons, she joins the turtles in battle in a banana-yellow Ninja catsuit. Oooh, what a toughie! I don't know any TMNT fans...was this something people really demanded to see?

The opening of the film was identical to an obscure, years too late TMNT knockoff called Warriors of Virtue. In Warriors of Virtue, the leader of the Karate Kangaroo heroes, the guy that had his shit together the most, had to spend years in retirement in the jungle hounded by guilt, and the story was about him returning from retirement. No joke, the guy's color was even blue. Like in TMNT, he's even introduced as a shadowy "guardian angel" presence saving some kid in a jungle.

You can tell this movie company, Imagi, is a far Eastern studio (Korean) because when they have Asian characters, they don't look obviously Asian or different from the Caucasian characters. To Asian people's eyes, they don't look any different from us. Though I'm not sure what I was expecting, something that surprised me about Japanese cartoons was how the Japanese drew themselves looking identical to Americans.