This is not a “great” movie. It is, however, a movie far greater than it has any right to be.
The Ninja Turtles were originally born quite literally out of a drunken late-night joke-doodle that got turned into a one-shot indie comic (which satirized a lot of then-popular comic series, especially Frank Miller’s Daredevil), later expanded into a gritty pulp series and exploded into popularity thanks to a rather crappy kids’ cartoon. The franchise’s cinematic debut was a low-budget indie with no big stars and had stunt men doing martial arts moves in ungainly costumes; the fact that it ended up being a reasonably entertaining, mostly non-insulting movie that is surprisingly re-watchable and even makes a serious effort at genuine themes & characterization… that’s not just impressive, that’s miraculous.
And all this in the service of a concept that is frankly absurd. Wonderfully absurd, but absurd nonetheless. This makes writing about it even quasi-seriously a weird endeavor, so bear with me.
Also, I love this movie, turtle warts and all. I saw it four times in the theater when I was nine and probably about a hundred more in all the years since. I will try to be as objective as I can, but keep in mind that if you don’t like this movie then you’re terrible and I hate you.
[Note: The earlier fights of Casey vs Raph and Raph blitzing a handful of Foot in the subway station won’t count, as they are too halting/comedic and too brief, respectively.]
1) TMNT and Casey Jones vs Foot Clan (round one)
- Leonardo, de facto field leader of the Turtles, the most responsible and probably the most skilled. Played by David Forman and voiced by Brian Tochi.
- Armed with: dual katanas. Sometimes called “ninjato” a ninja-like variation of the katana, but those are not a real thing, so we’ll call them katanas.
- Raphael, the strongest and moodiest of the quartet. Also the only one with an identifiable New York accent. Played by Josh Pais both physically and vocally.
- Armed with: dual sais, meant for stabbing and sword-breaking. Not much use to him here.
- Michelangelo, the most unfocused and humorous of the brothers. Being the most overtly comedic he was the favorite of pretty much every child back in the day, but as you grow up you tire of Mikey’s showy antics, and pick a different favorite turtle. (Which, if you’re awesome, is Donatello.) Played by Michelan Sisti and voiced by Robbie Rist.
- Armed with: dual nunchaku, aka “nunchucks” if you’re in a hurry or under twelve. The weapon’s popularity can largely be attributed to pop culture; prior to the movies, real soldiers and martial artists would rarely use them, as they’re impractical and nearly as dangerous to the user as they are to his opponent.
- Donatello, the smartest and most laid back of the Turtles. Though he’s not as silly as Michelangelo he spends much time bonding with him, so as to not get caught up in the eternal Leo/Raph melodrama. Played by Leif Tilden and voiced by Corey Feldman, of all people.
- Armed with: a single wooden bo staff.
- Casey Jones, a one-time professional hockey player turned sports-themed vigilante. Sort of frenemies with Raphael, since the two clashed earlier in the film over Casey going too far in beating up a couple purse-snatchers. Easily the second most awesome movie character to sport a hockey mask. Played by Elias Koteas, who’s a delight.
- Armed with: he normally carries all sorts of sporting equipment but here he limits himself to just his favorite weapon, a wooden hockey stick.
- Foot Ninjas, several dozen of them. Though a few might be more veteran warriors brought over from the old country, the majority are likely teenagers who have been taught just enough karate to be a nuisance. Against the Turtles (who have trained their entire lives) they’re basically cannon fodder, but troublesome in large numbers. They’re led by Shredder’s second-in-command, Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata), if your definition of “leading” means grunting a lot and occasionally saying “Attack!” (Still a better leader than most politicians, HEY-O)
- Armed with: all manner of weapons including swords, nunchaku, clubs, and axes.
The Turtles’ friend and frequent rescuee April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is also present, though she doesn’t factor much in the fight either way– she just passively guards Raph’s unconscious body with a stick.
The Setup: Ever since Raphael made the rather un-ninja-ly mistake of letting himself be followed back to the Turtles’ hideout, the foursome have been hiding out at April’s loft apartment (directly above an old antique shop that belonged to her family) and trying to figure out where their master/father figure Splinter has been taken.
Unfortunately, Danny, April’s boss’ son and a soulless backstabbing ginger, has sold out the Turtles’ location to the Foot Clan. They pick the right moment to strike (or maybe not, since it’s broad daylight), first converging on Raphael as he stalks alone on the rooftop, having a temper tantrum.
The Fight: Starts out slow, but builds to a crescendo. First we see Raphael pouting on the roof (as does Casey, fiddling with a police scanner atop a neighboring building) unknowingly being surrounded by Foot soldiers– again, Raph’s skills of detection and evasion are most definitely not up to ninja snuff. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between the fight that ensues against April talking with the turtles downstairs, the latter group unfortunately ignorant of Raph’s circumstances.
This provides opportunity for a lot of attempts at humorous mash-ups between the other protagonists’ innocent dialogue against bad things happening to Raphael (e.g., Don saying “He does this all the time. He likes it!” just before we see Raph getting painfully dragged down stone stairs, Michelangelo scaring Leonardo with clashing cymbals just as a Foot ninja double-punches Raph’s head in a similar motion, etc). Your personal affection for this will vary depending on your patience for such visual punning, but you have to at least admit it’s a good way to leaven the surprising brutality of what’s actually happening; remember, this is supposed to be a kids‘ movie, and most kids’ movies don’t have scenes where fifty people beat the hero into a coma.
Despite losing his sais early on (we see them get tossed off the roof in slow-mo. Curiously, he continues to battle unarmed, not even trying to pick up any downed Foot soldier’s weapon), Raph puts up a good fight at first, so effortlessly overpowering his attackers that he feels cocky enough to quip “I get it, you guys must be studying from the Abridged Book of Ninja Fighting!” which is one of several jokes in this movie I didn’t understand when I was first saw it. However, the Foot’s ever-increasing numbers quickly close the skill gap, and things get worse for the moodiest turtle.
This ends with Raphael being tossed through a skylight (just as Donatello says his brother should “drop in” in any moment now, yuk yuk), barely alive. In the brief face-off between the remaining turtles and the small army surrounding them, Michelangelo puts aside the many worries he should be attending to (including his nearly dead brother) and takes a minute to have a showoff contest with a nunchaku-wielding Foot solider. I suppose the gag might have been intended as a way to lull the bad guys into complacency, because it leads immediately to Donatello vaulting into action like a boss and wailing on bad guys’ faces.
From here the fight is a strange mix of silly antics and crushing odds. The turtles are clearly superior fighters but as with what happened to Raph, the Foot’s numbers (especially in such enclosed terrain) gradually overwhelm them, so nearly every sequence of one of the heroes dishing out punishment is capped by him getting subsequently blindsided or surrounded. And there are a lot of gags involved, mostly using the furniture of April’s apartment and, later, the knickknacks in her family’s old shop: Leo grabs onto a bicycle hanging from the ceiling and kicks opponents while suspended in the air, Mike grabs those cymbals again and claps them against a Foot ninja’s ears, etc. I suppose that as with the cross-cutting during Raph’s beating this is used to lighten up the desperate circumstances for viewers, but the heroes are facing inevitable defeat and their brother is comatose in the corner; the cockiness is unwarranted and the playfulness is inappropriate. Whistling in the dark only goes so far.
On a similar note, this is where the movie first encounters one of its main obstacles: it’s a children’s movie and therefore almost nobody should ever get killed or maimed, yet at least two of the turtles use weapons that are designed for lethality. The sequel got around this problem by having the heroes almost never use their weapons, and the 80s cartoon dodged it by making all the Foot ninjas into (sigh) robots. This movie handles the paradox by having Leo & Raph use their cutty/stabby implements mainly to block opponents’ weapons or force them to dodge; the main damage they dish out comes from their fists & feet. It mostly works (though the movie still received some knocks for its relatively excessive violence, including from turtle-suit designer Jim Henson). And it leads to what’s probably my favorite gag of the fight: Leo making several consecutive katana-swings at a Foot soldier who keeps ducking them, then saying “gotcha!” when the bad guy ducks again at a fakeout.
The game changes a bit when the floor, weakened by repeated axe strikes, collapses after several Foot reinforcements drop in from the broken skylight, sending everybody falling to April’s antique store below… where they’re greeted by Tatsu and another squad of Foot.
The music resumes its same playful yet frantic tune, faster than ever, and you can see the battle turn even worse against the heroes, even though some of those gag attacks are still deployed. Eventually, not long after Mike gurgles about how they could really use Raph right about now, the action stops again with the arrival of Casey Jones, backlit and pissed off but still willing to stop & flirt with April.
(Once again, this occasions a joke I didn’t understand until years later, since I knew what neither “Wayne Gretzky” nor “steroids” were at age nine.)
Casey’s a valuable addition but too late to turn the tide, especially when an errant axe strike ends up starting a fire. The musical score finally catches up with the dire situation here, and the heroes realize it’s time to run away– fortunately April knows of a hidden panel that allows them to escape. Fittingly, the fight ends with a gag, as Casey overhears a voicemail being left on April’s answering machine (remember those?) that’s dangling from the hole in the ceiling; just as April’s boss finishes firing her by saying “I know this comes as a blow,” the cord snaps and it lands on a Foot head. Cute, but crappy for April, since it means she loses her job just as her home and all her possessions get burned down, and all on account of four weirdos she barely knows.
I like it. Barring the aforementioned brief tangles involving Raphael and the opening attack that’s just a bunch of sound effects in the dark, this is the first time we’ve really seen the titular turtles in action, so it’s kind of ballsy to have that fight be a losing battle, even if that loss is understandable. Considering that the main actors are all wearing heavy rubber suits the martial arts are rather decent, and the jokes work decently if you’re into that sort of thing. The escalating chaos is staged pretty well, as is the sense of the odds the heroes are up against; the defeat doesn’t come as a surprise.
Recommended Links: It’s too bad Obata didn’t get to participate in this fight, because he’s apparently a certified badass in real life.
Coming Attractions: Rematch time, punks.