Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 3 of 3)

Should have gained a few more levels before this one, boys.

3) TMNT vs Shredder

The Fighters:

  • All four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who you’ve already had the rundown on twice.
  • Splinter, their recently-freed master. He plays a small but critical role here. Voiced by Kevin Clash, who would later go on to be more famous as Sesame Street’s Elmo and also for allegedly having sex with underage teen boys.
    • Armed with: He comes with nothing, but he recovers and uses Michelangelo’s one of discarded nunchaku.
  • The Shredder, aka Oroku Saki. Master ninja, the leader of the Foot Clan, and former rival to/murderer of Splinter’s former owner Hamato Yoshi. Great taste in clothing. Played by James Saito and voiced by David McCharen.
    • Armed with: A “yari,”– a metal staff that’s sharp on both ends (maybe he’s a Lord of the Flies fan). His wrists, shin guards and shoulder pads are covered in scary-looking spikes but those never really come into play.

The Setup: Picking up exactly where we left off last time, the turtles take out the last of the Foot chumps when Shredder leaps out in slow motion, telling them their time has come.

As an aside, I must say I remain impressed even today at this movie’s commitment to translating the Shredder of the comics/cartoon in a way that’s faithful while still remaining relatively believable. The Shredder’s outfit is garish & impractical– in real life if you saw this guy walking down the street, you’d laugh– yet director Steve Barron always shoots him with an air of intimidating theatricality; he’s usually accompanied by pounding drums and a mean guitar riff, and of course McCharen’s booming voice doesn’t hurt. The movie actually does a pretty good job of selling Shredder as the Darth Vader of ninjas.

Am I the only one being slowly hypnotized by watching this?

In another nice touch, the boys still react flippantly to Shredder, because (as it’s easy to forget) they have NO idea who he is, or even of his existence. They’ve had an arch-nemesis this whole time and they didn’t even know it.

The Fight: Of course they clue in pretty quickly that he’s the big cheese, because the first couple passes they make at him (one at a time, inexplicably) end with them being clearly outclassed. There’s a fun little moment before a cutaway where after Raph and Leo have been quickly dispatched, the two less action-thirsty turtles have a quick paper-rock-scissors match to see whose turn it will be to fight him; the mood quickly changes from “who gets to fight him next” to “who HAS to fight him next.”

After a brief scene of Casey, Danny, and Pippi Shortstocking arriving at the streets below with a whole gang of confused proto-Foot hoodlums in tow, when we shift back to the rooftop battle the four turtles are huddling together. Mike jokingly tries to talk tactics (“At exactly what point did we lose control here?”) and all four are panting hard, giving the impression of a drawn-out battle. When they figure out that their opponent must be the main villain and therefore knows what happened to Splinter, they set off after him with renewed determination.

The previously discussed issue of what to do with bladed weapons in a kid’s movie is more acute in this scene, since it’s hard not to notice just how many chances Shredder, considering his many sharp implements, has to kill the turtles which he completely passes up. It’s possible that he’s intentionally dragging out the fight as this is likely the closest thing to a challenge he’s had in years. But there’s only so many times you can see a guy use his double-edged spear to non-lethally flip, trip or bonk his opponents before you stop taking him seriously as a hardened killer.

Another cut back to Casey discovering that Splinter’s disappeared and then finishing off some leftover Foot stragglers (which gets the dump truck into position for later). When we return, the fight is even more intense, and Leo’s latest round in particular makes Shredder work for it: the villain ends up downing him just as before, but is visibly pained at the arm slice he received in the process. Perhaps realizing he can’t string these kids out for much longer, Shredder sinisterly implies that he killed their adoptive rat dad (neither he nor the turtles realize that Splinter is within spitting distance), and takes advantage of Leonardo’s blind rage to floor the poor kid and hold him at spear point. He gets the rest of the boys to toss their weapons over the roof (we see Mike’s chain sticks inadvertently catch on a ladder), but then he goes back on his unstated promise to release Leo in exchange for their disarming. Bad form!

Fortunately, the unexpected arrival of Splinter grants Leo a stay of execution. The rodent master unnerves Shredder with a monologue full of information the audience already knows: this old rat who resisted Shredder’s torture for interrogation for weeks is the same creature who scarred Oroku Saki for life many years ago. Removing his face plate to reveal the permanent claw marks, Shredder charges at Splinter in a blind fury, which the rat calmly turns aside using Mike’s discarded nunchaku. He briefly keeps Shredder from succumbing to the multi-story drop but Shredder, ever treacherous, throws a knife at Splinter… which only makes the latter lose his grip on Saki as he effortlessly catches the blade. The villain takes a painful-looking fall into the back of the garbage truck, and even if it wasn’t fatal Casey ensures it is, by “accidentally” pulling the lever that activates the hydraulic press (Koteas’ purposefully hammy “OOPS!” is one of the all-time great Single Word Line Deliveries, right up there with Bill Murray’s baptism scene in Ed Wood). There’s blood stains and everything. Death without honor, indeed.

A lot to like here. For once in the movie the heroes aren’t facing off against a bunch of punching bags whose only advantage is numbers; they fight a losing battle here because the Shredder is just that good, and believably so. Good, but not invincible, as his penultimate tussle with Leo proves. And I hate to sound like a broken record about how difficult it must have been to do martial arts in those Muppet suits, but anybody who can make four guys in giant foam turtle outfits fighting a spiky glittering supervillain actually look more thrilling than silly… well, that guy’s a miracle worker, far as I’m concerned.

It may be slightly disappointing that when Shredder is finished, the turtles end up as spectators in their own fight scene, but when you think about it, it’s really Splinter’s score to settle– he’s the one who permanently lost family to the Shredder’s evil, not to mention those weeks he spent being chained up and beaten. Still, kinda silly that Shredder takes such a furious running charge at a guy standing on the edge of a roof– is he really THAT mad about his old mouth scratch? Ninja please, get over it.

In conclusion: Cowabunga.

Grade: B

Recommended Links: Ooh, I really shouldn’t have said “ninja” all those times. It’s not MY word.

Coming Attractions: What’s the word for something that’s not credible?

All in the family

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 2 of 3)

“I do hope there’s more of them.”

There’s always more, buddy.

[Note: It was very difficult for me to find any pictures of this battle online. Therefore I’m going just going to share unrelated images from the movie which I find amusing.]

Here’s Raphael being comatose in a bathtub.

2) TMNT vs Foot Clan (rematch)

The Fighters:

  • Leonardo. Leads. Played by David Forman and Brian Tochi.
  • Raphael. Cool but rude. Played by Josh Pais.
  • Michelangelo. A party dude. Played by Michelan Sisti and Robbie Rist.
  • Donatello. Does machines. Played by Leif Tilden and Corey Feldman.
  • The Foot Clan. Hapless conscripts in Shredder’s ninja-thief-army-family. Played by various stunt men in black clothes.

They’re all armed the same as before. As a side dish, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) has a brief tangle with Master Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata) while rescuing Splinter.

The Setup: Fully recovered and filled with renewed purpose, the four turtles have come back from their rural retreat and reclaimed their home in preparation to hunt down the Foot. The Foot, of course, has been looking for them, and an impromptu visit from a conflicted Danny inadvertently tips off the Shredder that the Turtles are back in town. The Foot arrive in full force but their amphibian adversaries seems to have anticipated their arrival (when they woke up and saw that Danny was missing, I suppose? Even sewer-dwelling mutants know not to trust a ginger), and are ready to give their opponents a surprise.

Meanwhile, with nearly all of the official Foot soldiers cleared out of their warehouse headquarters, Danny and Casey Jones (who followed Danny out there) are left to free Splinter before his ordered execution.

The Fight: There’s a great build-up here with several shots of the Foot Clan streaming en masse into the sewers from multiple entrances. About a dozen of them converge on the turtles’ lair but find it seemingly empty, until the surrounding pipes mysteriously burst open and flood the area in steam. When it clears, the Foot are all knocked out and the four heroes are standing about, cockily– Raph in particular seems fittingly pleased to be turning the tables on his erstwhile tormentors. It’s a good reminder that the heroes are not just martial artists but ninjas, cleverly utilizing their environment and striking foes from the proverbial shadows.

The second wave arrives just as the scene cuts away to Casey and Danny freeing Splinter, and the musical score does a neat trick here where it dies down just as the scene changes, making you think that we’re cutting away from excitement… only to build back up again as Casey’s scene becomes more important, especially when he turns to find Tatsu waiting behind him with a whole crowd of punks (including a young Sam Rockwell!) as backup.

Here’s Donatello spitting water.

When we rejoin the sewer battle (not right where we left off; it’s clear some time has passed), it’s all over the place– in a good way. The turtles are having merry fun with their prey, and unlike what happened in April’s apartment, their confidence is warranted: here, they’re in control, the four fighting as one once again and on their home turf. They even take time to indulge and play some more, with antics including Michelangelo lining up one chump juuuuuust right so that April can give him a gratuitous conk on the head.

The action cuts again to Casey getting positively walloped by Tatsu– Jones is a good brawler, but he’s little match for a seasoned veteran like Tatsu. He gets beaten so badly (Koteas sells the pain as well as the comedy, acting alternately defiant and confused), but turns things around with two quick moves after he stumbles across a golf club. Bludgeon-ready sports equipment is to Casey Jones what spinach is to Popeye.

When the action revisits the turtles the fight has expanded to the tunnels outside the sewers, with the enemy scrambled and on the defensive. They have such control of the battle they’re even doing stupid stuff like having Don bash foes left & right while zooming along on a skateboard (I can only imagine how hard that was to film with that costume). There’s a brief switch back to the aftermath of the warehouse fight for a dramatic beat, and when we return the Foot are in full-fledged retreat, pouring out of the same entrances in panic that they had marched through confidently not so long ago. The music even switches up to the group’s main theme (it played early in the movie as they returned home), the tune’s casual nature underscoring just how effortless and fun this is for our heroes. The streets are oddly empty even for this time of night– isn’t New York supposed to be the city that never sleeps? I don’t think even Wilmington, North Carolina (where this was actually filmed; I’ve been there and it rules) is this empty in the early morning, but then I suppose it’s plausible anyone who was around when they saw a ninja army fighting four karate monsters quite wisely decided to leave the area. And, in a nice touch I hadn’t remembered/noticed earlier, the garbage truck that will play a role later in the climax can be seen pulling up in the background of one part of the scene.

Here's Judith Hoag making a funny face.

Here’s Judith Hoag making a funny face.

All that cutting back & forth between this fight and the Casey/Splinter/Tatsu stuff served a secondary purpose of masking geographical transitions. Every time we return to the turtles’ fight, they’re on different terrain: they steadily push back their enemy from their lair to the sewer tunnels to the surface streets and now finally to the roof of a nearby building. A very smart cinematic play that conveys once again how much the Turtles are in control, while also giving the sense of the battle going on for an unknown amount of time longer than what we see on screen. I wondered this time watching it if the Foot’s retreat was actually deliberate and part of a plan to lure the turtles to where Shredder was waiting, but based on how much of a whooping they all take there’s no reason to suspect the pushback isn’t exactly what it looks like. Shredder could have confronted them earlier if he’d wanted.

The gradual climb up the rooftop is fun too, showcasing the action now happening on separate planes as the turtles drive the Foot upwards via the fire escapes. Reuniting on the roof they finish off the last of the stragglers and seem actively disappointed that there’s not more misguided teens to beat up. Little do they know they’re in for the boss fight.

Although the stakes are low in this one it’s hard not to have a good time watching it. The heroes’ enthusiasm is infectious as they kick ass across multiple stories, the choreography is pretty sharp & creative, and the aforementioned cross-cutting works well.

Grade: B+

Coming Attractions: Shredding.

Here’s the world’s lamest Shredder costume.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (fight 1 of 3)

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)

The Fighters:

  • 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.

“I’m contributing!”

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 battleĀ 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.

Zerg rush

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.

One of whom thinks he’s at a rock concert, apparently.

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.

“ki ki ki, ma ma ma….”

(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.

Grade: B

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.

So……… how did Raph get his sais back?