Comics artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird originally conceived "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as a parody of brooding '80s comics artist Frank Miller's obsessions with grim urbanity. So what better time than now, when Netflix's "Daredevil" series fashions itself as "The Wire" with costumes and "Batman v Superman" is making audiences more miserable than Brecht could ever dream, for a piss take in the form of an even nuttier sequel to the CGI-heavy, meme-happy TMNT reboot? That the new sequel is also a market-conscious brand alteration is, well, wholly expected in the age of tronc.
The 2014 Michael Bay-produced Turtles reboot offered itself as an affably grotesque, relatively astute reflection of content accelerationism. Millennials raised on GIFs, sound bites, and poptimism were as relevant a springboard for computer-animated teen hybrids as the gen-X/MTV generation was to the original cartoon series and subsequent franchise. Like a furry fanfic version of "The Fast and the Furious," the Turtles were bound by adrenalized, cop-averse action, alternative notions of family, and an open musical taste that involved beatboxing, a hip-hop Christmas album, and a Juicy J/Wiz Khalifa/Ty Dolla $ign rap about pizza, nunchucks, and half-shells. It also had an appealingly chintzy aesthetic, marrying the neon New York of Hype Williams' "Belly" to the garish primary colors and set designs of Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, occasionally recalling Mario Bava. It was, essentially, a comic book movie unafraid to look and act like a comic book movie.
The first movie was panned by critics and diehards but raked in enough money for a sequel, and so we now have "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows," which course corrects into a fandom-appeasing safe zone that, while taking fewer risks in carving out a singular, modern identity—the pop/rap soundtrack of the first is switched out for Henry Mancini-lite montage music and boomer tunes better suited for "Guardians of the Galaxy"—is as pure a distillation of '90s Saturday morning cartoon absurdity. In fact, it heavily leans on the cartoon, desperately cramming in as many fan favorite villains in under two hours as possible. Along with Shredder (Brian Tee), the Turtles face off against canonical cartoon goons such as the man-beast hybrids Bebop and Rocksteady (played by Gary Anthony Williams and pro-wrestler Sheamus) as well as Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett, best known as the Eeyore-like brother from "Everybody Loves Raymond"), the alien warlord dubbed "chewing gum with a face" who brings his interdimensional arena of death, the Technodrome, to earth.
The plot is, for the most part, irrelevant—it's there to get the Turtles from one wildly inventive action sequence to the next, each flowing gracefully with spatially coherent choreography virtually unparalleled by the choppiness of contemporary blockbusters. My personal favorite involves an endearingly anxious Raphael yelling "WHAT WOULD VIN DIESEL DO?" before skydiving from one plane into another, wherein the Turtles and their foes then redo the cargo plane brawl from "Fast 6" in the style of a Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoon, with heads popping through steel and a cockpit blown apart by a tank, which then becomes a white water raft for even more brawling on a river.
What plot there is revolves around a purple ooze (it is here that the absence of rapper Juicy J and his many odes to lean is felt the most) that has the capacity to turn humans into malleable mutant mercenaries. An interesting existential crisis arises when its capacity to reverse mutation is discovered, offering a possible identity-sacrificing resolution to the Turtles' sewer-bound alienation, as their anonymity is sorely tested by the moronic showboating of the doofus they elected to take credit for their heroism (a still amusing Will Arnett). Yet the film dispatches with it rather quickly, opting for pat lessons about teamwork and staying true to yourself, which is fine, since this is a kid's movie, albeit one where two criminals high-five each other about their new dicks after being turned into wild beasts.
The mad scientist who makes that transformation possible is one of the film's more curious callbacks, resurrecting Baxter Stockman in his original, pre-cartoon comic book incarnation as an almost Yakubian black scientist. He's played with whimsical malice by Tyler Perry, a filmmaker who courts derision for his allegedly malevolent entertainment empire even though the one time he gained critical respectability was for a bit role in David Fincher's morally reprehensible, victim-blaming awards-bait thriller "Gone Girl."
Far less tasteful is the retcon of Casey Jones. Originally envisioned by Eastman and Laird as a parody of vigilante flicks—he was a street tough who watched too many dumb cop movies—Casey Jones is now just a dumb cop (played by Stephen Arnell, who uncannily looks and sounds like Chris O'Donnell in the Schumacher Batmans). Though briefly going rogue, his new incarnation primarily serves to bury the hatchet between the Turtles and the police. In an otherwise nifty sequence where the Turtles break into police headquarters, they're nearly shot at in a way that queasily approaches the headlines, but conservative politics shoehorn in a pro-cop truce that leaves a particularly sour taste given the NYPD's actual record.
This, maybe, is where Marvel's superficial lip-service to liberal capitalist guilt in say, the Iron Man movies or the recent "Captain America: Civil War," might be more useful than not. And if expecting that much from this feature-length toy commercial sequel is too much, then it would be preferable for all this commercialized fun to just stay dumb. I mean, WWVDD?
'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,' directed by David Green is now playing