Jonathan Liebesman presents: The Michael Bay Mixtape
In light of 'TMNT,' and with a nod to Heller, we examine the very special relationship between Bay and his newest protégé
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Paramount Pictures
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Screenplay: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec and Evan Daugherty, based on the characters created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Alan Ritchson, Johnny Knoxville, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg and Tony Shalhoub
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes
August 8, 2014
(out of four)
It was love at first sight.
The first time Jonathan Liebesman saw Michael Bay he fell madly in love with him.
And so it only makes sense that his tilted angles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles look just like Michael Bay's tilted angles. And that his grainy, teal-and-yellow color palette looks just like Michael Bay's grainy, teal-and-yellow color palette. And that his giant metallic Shredder looks just like Michael Bay's giant metallic Transformers. And that his obnoxious sound design and even more obnoxious characters sound conspicuously like Michael Bay's obnoxious sound design and obnoxious (and noxious, for that matter) characters. Because this is what you do when the love of your cinematic life is also your producer (and, perhaps, mentor). The sincerest form of flattery, etc, etc.
Put it this way: If Bay were Splinter, Liebesman would be Leonardo, who as we all know is the worst of the Ninja Turtles. The suck-up, the teacher's pet, the one who learns every lesson and regurgitates them immaculately, but without any personality or distinction at all. Liebesman's filmmaking here pretty much follows suit. At least Bay has vision of some kind. Liebesman provides little more than a superficial rendition - just as heavy on the noise, the cheap humor and the rah-rah violence, a lot lighter on the T&A, but a pretty close approximation all-around.
To his delight, I'm sure, the admiration is reciprocal. (After all, who can forget the glowing letter of recommendation Bay offered Liebesman, in this very publication, in response to Battle: Los Angeles?) The two first joined forces as a director/producer team for 2006's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and they were clearly a match made in heaven for this TMNT reboot. That Bay's name is the only one we've seen in advertisements is not just name-brand marketing, but a perfect indication of the movie Liebesman was trying to make - a Michael Bay Film by proxy.
Only without the benefit of Michael Bay's skill.
Having said that, the action scenes in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually hold together better than many of those in the Transformers movies, and the lack of teenage pin-ups is a welcome respite. But by and large, it's Bay Lite. And with the director reportedly departing the Transformers franchise for the eventual fifth installment, I fully expect Liebesman will be near the top of the list of potential replacements. Ninja Turtles is practically his audition tape, right down to a musical score so overbearing and generic-sounding, I just (incorrectly) assumed Steve Jablonsky composed it.
The question for many, apparently, was whether or not the franchise needed the Bay treatment in the first place. I suppose that depends on your personal degree of attachment to the characters. (I've made my thoughts on the unimportance of source fidelity abundantly clear by now.) I was once as much a fan of the Turtles as anyone - let's just say one of my birthday parties revolved around them - but I couldn't care less whether or not this version is true to the spirit of the original movies, comics or cartoons. What I can say is that I remember the cheesy animatronic versions of the Turtles being more expressive than the dead-eyed CGI versions we get this time around. (For that matter, the incarnations from the reviled, animated TMNT from a few years back - which I didn't think was so bad, for the record - felt more alive as well.) The malleability of the special effects allows the characters to do some pretty nifty stuff, but in the end they still wind up looking more fake than the old rubber-suit versions.
To make matters worse, the characters all behave more or less the same, except for a few individual scenes that assign specific characteristics only so they can cheaply pay off later on in the script. Yes, Raphael is the rebel loner, Donatello is the nerd, Michelangelo is the surfer dude, Leonardo is Splinter's lame lap-dog - but those details only come into play in a handful of moments. In Raphael's case - and his is the supposedly substantive arc - he has a big dramatic moment at the beginning and a bigger one at the end, and that's it. It carries no weight, even for a mindless kiddie action flick. Donatello and Michelangelo have a few good lines. Leonardo is the worst-developed of the four - which is fine because, let me repeat this one more time, Leonardo sucks.
But the true central character is April O'Neil (Megan Fox), a bad reporter who wants to be a good reporter, who finds herself on the verge of a big break when she stumbles upon the Turtles fighting the nefarious Foot Clan on the docks one night. She quickly uncovers the secret history of the Turtles - which, it turns out, is more coincidence and happenstance than journalism - and how it connects to Obviously Evil Businessman Eric Sacks (William Fichtner). The role is something of a mainstream comeback for Fox, and I admire the energy of her performance, even if her severe limitations as an actress are as obvious as ever. April has a lap-dog of her own in Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), her personal cameraman / truck driver / errand boy. The pairing of those two at least provides a sort of easy charm; the Turtles themselves, with their forced and exaggerated beach-bro attitudes and mannerisms, are more grating than endearing.
That goes for most of the movie as a whole, which tries - mostly unsuccessfully - to retain the kid-friendly cheese of the originals while transplanting it all onto the faux-gritty style modern audiences are accustomed to. But if you're trying to create something with enough imagination and humor to make crime-fighting mutant reptiles actually work in a movie, one way not to succeed is to hire two filmmakers who have demonstrated neither imagination nor a sense of humor. If nothing else, Liebesman has probably done his idol proud.