Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Review

Film Title

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Synopsis

An actual Ninja Turtles movie.

Director

Steve Barron

Cast

Judith Hoag
Elias Koteas
The TMNT
Splinter
Shredder
Domino's Pizza

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How much better was this movie than the recent remake?

The difference is night and day, folks. It’s not surprising, seeing as the remake was complete shit. Here, I wrote a mathematical proof to illustrate this:

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Do you have too much time on your hands?

Time is an illusion.

How long until the Ninja Turtles appear in this film?

5 minutes and 15 seconds, or less than a second after the opening title appears on-screen. It stands in stark contrast to the twenty minutes sin tortugas that opened the recent version. This original version also covers the origin story around 23 minutes in, whereas the new one covered that at around the 45 minute mark. If you need a concrete example of modern Hollywood’s inability to get to the point: there it is.

The original version doesn’t waste time trying to explain why the movie features the Ninja Turtles. The people who made this movie understood a very profound truth: if somebody is watching a movie titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they’re fine with the movie featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s shocking, I know, but the guys who made the recent version seemed almost apologetic about the whole thing. When Megan Fox mangles their name, Donatello says, “Well, when you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous!” Yeah, we get it: you think the concept is dumb, though you’re making a movie out of it anyway for some reason. Anyway, the original version has none of this stuff. It never apologizes for what it is, and it never feels ashamed. It’s a movie about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Just go with it.

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Is this going to be a positive review? Oh God, they’re even worse than your other ones…

I hadn’t watched this movie since I was a kid, but I realized watching it that it may be one of the greatest artistic achievements of our age. I’m sure some people will accuse me of being biased, but whatever. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is a high water mark for adaptations of comic book characters in film. It’s also a high water mark for adaptations of ridiculous pop culture phenomena that don’t quite work outside of their time. Really, could this film have been made under anyone other than Bush Sr.? Could it have been made without that late-80s/early-90s American view of an ascendant Japan, mixed with equal parts fear and fascination, before the Lost Decade came and showed that even ninja are subservient to Capital? As the recent remake showed: nope!

This movie was released shortly after the Burton/Keaton Batman (1989) rewrote the concept of the superhero film. I believe I’ve stated previously that Batman (1989) completely blew my mind when I saw it at the age of 5. The only movies I can remember seeing in the theater before it are The Land Before Time (I cried when the T-Rex was killed at the end) and Beetlejuice. Anyway, Batman changed the game by drawing in elements from the 80s comics (most specifically Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) as well as from classic films like Metropolis. In the following years, a variety of comic book adaptations followed. Some, like The Phantom and The Shadow, seem to have been forgotten. I’d like to hope that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has not been forgotten. It is a masterpiece.

While I didn’t realize it as a kid, TMNT was initially written as a straight-faced sendup of the shift towards a darker tone present in comics of the early-to-mid 80s. One of its main influences was Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Elektra runs; like Batman, TMNT draws from Miller’s work, though it does so in a radically different fashion. I still remember reading through the Daredevil comics from 1980-2007 or so several years ago and laughing at some of the elements in Miller’s 80s work. It’s not that they were funny in and of themselves. It’s that I finally realized what TMNT was winking at the whole time. Really, it’s hard to take The Hand seriously when you already grew up with The Foot.

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Zzzzzzz

Ok, I’ll get to the point: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) manages to capture the tone of the original comics very well, and still stands as a great absurdist take on the shift towards a darker tone taken by comic book films then and now. It sends up several decades worth of samurai and ninja flicks without ever making fun of such films in a judgmental fashion. There is a deep reverence for genre film on display here, and one can tell that the people involved loved ninja flicks, 80s action flicks, vigilante flicks, old westerns, and whatever else. There is no shame in this film. There is none of the base cynicism present in many contemporary superhero films, where the characters are either made fun of or turned into something else entirely. TMNT is pure. This is cinema as it was meant to be.

Really, where else will you find a movie where a mutant bipedal talking turtle decides that wearing a trenchcoat and fedora will sufficiently disguise him on the streets of New York? Where else will you find a movie where you don’t even worry about that, because New York is presented as such a trashy loony bin of ne’er-do-wells that the residents don’t even bat an eyelash? More importantly, the movie itself doesn’t worry about it. The trenchcoat-clad Raphael chases Casey Jones across a street, leaping over the hood of a passing taxi cab, and the cab driver answers his fare’s exasperated question with, “It looked like sort of a big turtle in a trenchcoat. You’re going to LaGuardia, right?” That’s how you establish the setting of your film, folks. I hope they’re screening this movie at NYU.

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Oh yeah, this looks like a classic alright.

It is. Trust me. Shredder heads up a multi-racial gang of juvenile delinquents that smoke, play pool, sleep on arcade machines, skateboard, and steal boxes out of the back of delivery trucks. They’re basically a sanitized version of the bad guys from Death Wish 3. They also practice fighting, and if they are good enough, they graduate to ninja-hood and become one of The Foot. Shredder states that they are a family, that he is their father, and that he gives a place to those that society rejects. Shredder is not concerned with the petty differences that the ruling classes use to divide people. He sees no race. He sees only The Foot.

Intrepid reporter April O’Neil gets on the bad side of The Foot when her news reports start to get too close to the truth. The police commissioner doesn’t want to hear any of this and tries to get her fired. The turtles excitedly call her a “fox” as they watch her broadcasts on TV. They get drawn into the battle when Raphael goes out one night and ends up saving her from an ambush by The Foot. In retaliation, The Foot trashes their hideout and captures Splinter. They subsequently trash April’s apartment and antique store, leaving the Turtles, April, and new friend Casey Jones to retrain for the final battle at April’s family farm.

While at the farm, the turtles meditate around a campfire and commune with Splinter. Splinter delivers some truly immortal dialogue, presented here verbatim:

“I am proud of you, my sons. Tonight, you have learned the final and greatest truth of the ninja: that ultimate mastery comes not of the body, but of the mind. Together, there is nothing your four minds cannot accomplish. Help each other, draw upon one another, and always remember the true force that binds you. The same as that which brought me here tonight. That which I gladly return with my final words: I love you all, my sons.”

Maybe it was just late when I watched this movie, but I felt tears welling up for a moment there. I didn’t cry, but it was just powerful, powerful stuff. You might laugh at that, but whatever. This movie has more heart than 99% of the comic book adaptations they’ve assaulted us with this past decade, and I can’t think of many other comic book adaptations that show this level of care and love for their characters. If they tried to do this scene in the remake, Splinter would have appeared out of the campfire in some slow-motion speed-ramping dubstep-bwar-laden display of bullshit and talked about how waterboarding is the way of the ninja now because Cheney. Again, fuck the remake.

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So was there anything bad about this movie?

No, everything was awesome. I mean, I’m sure some people will criticize the dumber jokes. At one point, Raphael states, “Now I know what it’s like to travel without a green card!” after emerging from a long journey in the back of a white van. Prior to that, Michelangelo says, “And I thought insurance salesmen were pushy!” when confronted by another wave of Foot Clan ninja during the fight at the antique store. Why would the Ninja Turtles even be aware of insurance salesmen? Who knows. Just go with it!

There’s a hilarious bit during that antique store fight where a ninja appears with axe-swords and begins distributing them to the others. Why didn’t this gentleman bring the axe-swords to begin with? Isn’t it embarrassing to have to go back to your van and collect the axe-swords you should have brought in the first place? Also, isn’t it embarrassing to be the guy in charge of distributing swords instead of fighting? Maybe they should have hired a moistened bint for that role.

Like I said, all of these things are awesome. If you have a problem with these things, that’s fine. Your ancestors up in Heaven weep, for they realize that they have failed, and their lineage has ended with an individual incapable of understanding what is truly awesome in this world. You have failed yourself, your family, your ancestry, and humanity. That’s fine, though. It is a free country. You’re free to criticize Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and be a crushing disappointment to everyone around you. We cannot judge.

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I think it’s time to start wrapping this up…

The Turtles face down Shredder, but get their asses kicked. Finally, Splinter appears, and tells Shredder that he was the pet rat of his master, Hamato Yoshi. Shredder realizes that Splinter was there when Shredder killed Yoshi and Yoshi’s true love. Removing his mask, he touches the scar on his face, remembering that Splinter was the pet rat that leapt at him and gave him that scar all those years ago. This entire scene is perfect. While I didn’t recognize it as a kid, I immediately noted now that it is a great nod to the samurai and ninja flicks of old, where the student confronts the villain that killed his master and the villain realizes that the student was the child from long ago. Here, though, the child is a pet rat that has since mutated into Splinter. It’s awesome in all senses of the word, and hits the Ninja Turtles tone perfectly.

Anyway, Shredder charges Splinter and loses, as he is not one with the way of the ninja. As he hangs off the edge of the building, Splinter tells him that, “Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki. But something much worse comes for you, for when you die, it will be…” Shredder cuts him off by throwing a sharp implement at him; while catching it, Splinter loosens his grip and sends Shredder falling off the building into the back of a garbage truck. Splinter completes his sentence: “…without honor.”

The movie cuts to Casey Jones standing down by the garbage truck. He lets out a sarcastic “OOPS!” and hits the lever on the truck; Shredder is crushed to death by the trash compactor. I laughed for like five minutes straight. God, this movie is amazing.

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A brutal 80’s Action death in a children’s film? No wonder you have problems!

It doesn’t top Kersey’s point-blank-range bazooka finishing move from Death Wish 3 in terms of hilarity, but it’s in-character for Casey Jones and a great way to end this story. Sure, I think they brought Shredder back in the next one and screwed everything up, but let’s forget about that. Let’s focus on this film. By itself, this is a great movie, made during the height of the TMNT’s popularity. It was all downhill from here, but in and of itself, it’s perfect.

But was it better than The Arcade Game?

Oh God. Don’t make me choose. Don’t make me choose!

About Vandel

I am an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.