Thirty years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two avid fans of adventure comics, put their heads together and created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise of graphic comics, animated series and movies that has thrived for three decades.
A trilogy of live action movies came out in 1990-93, followed 14 years later by “TMNT,” a computer-animated film. Now, for the summer of 2014, a reboot is hitting the screens in a flurry of releases the past few months that has revisited Captain America, the Amazing Spider-Man, Godzilla, X-Men and Planet of the Apes.
Amid the pre-release build-up of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” there have been lively social media debates focusing on red flags that have gone up regarding Michael Bay’s involvement — who serves as a producer, not as director and who has his share of detractors because of the “Transformers” series, despite its massive success — along with concerns about director Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous efforts — “Wrath of the Titans,” “Battle Los Angeles” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” — have taken their hits from critics and viewers. Then there is the casting of Megan Fox, whose depth as an actress has been questioned, in the pivotal role of April O’Neil.
The good news is that under Liebesman’s direction, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a visually spectacular summer action movie. It follows the usual blueprint of the good-versus-evil story, with the heroes facing overwhelming odds but who are able to summon the courage, skill and resourcefulness to vanquish a foe.
The opening segment gives nod to the early graphic comic version, with those artistic renderings used as a backdrop while Splinter (Danny Woodburn, but voiced by Tony Shalhoub), the genetically-enhanced and intelligent rat, presents a voice-over, recalling how he raised the four turtles, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, since they were babies and how he used the ninja principles to instill discipline as well as physical preparation in the turtles.
Still residing incognito in the sewers of New York, the four turtles are eager to battle bad guys despite Splinter’s assessment that they are not ready yet, and sneak off to right wrongs, knowing they probably will endure the wrath of Splinter when they return.
The screenwriting team of Josh Applebaum (“Alias”), Andre Nemec (“Alias”) and Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) has the turtles going up against their usual enemies: the Shredder and his Foot Clan that have a grip on New York City.
Fox’s April O’Neil is a TV reporter for a local news agency who, along with her cameraman/colleague Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) go around the city covering fluff stories (or “froth stories” as Vernon calls them) while April pines to handle hard news stories. One night she witnesses the thwarting of a Foot Clan burglary on the docks by four mysterious beings, but her story is met with skepticism by her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg). Even after Fox survives a hostage situation that is diffused by the turtles she cannot find anybody to believe her story, not even Vernon.
Doing research on her own, she discovers the secret of the turtles, and her own involvement years earlier, and with nowhere else to go, she takes the information to Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), a scientist colleague of her late father.
Nothing, however, can stop the inevitable battles between the four teenage turtles and the Shredder, with April and Vernon — in the role of the reluctant hero — in the middle of things.
With the standard plot line and the usual chase and fight scenes and constant peril, the writing team needed to inject character into the story. And here is where “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is elevated. The writers captured the essence of the four turtle brothers, each with a unique personality, and the very real interplay one would expect from teenage siblings.
Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), the free spirit, has the showiest scenes via his overt flirting with April. Leonardo (Peter Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is the leader of the group, the tactical designer, protective of his brothers and dedicated sensei student. Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is the aggressive one who can be sarcastic. Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the inventor and technical genius. They all are mentored by Splinter, who passed on what he has learned to his adoptive sons.
The turtles engage in verbal interplay, even in the midst of mortal danger, that is full of wit and playful digs at each other.
As for the humans, Fox is fine as April in a role that demands more physical than emotional action, leaving open the possibility of deeper character development in the likely sequel or two. Arnett’s character also lacks any true development other than being pulled into incredible situations because of his affection for April.
In the end, it is the bond between the four teenage mutant ninja turtles and the way they feed off each other — when not gnawing on pizza — that in this movie, as well as in other media, makes these characters so astonishingly popular.
Hoffman at his best in intricate “A Most Wanted Man”
John LeCarre’s novels are woven with complexity and require a tenacious attention span. Whenever his stories are adapted for a screen presentation, the challenges are the same for the viewers.
“A Most Wanted Man,” aside from being our last chance for a big-screen presentation showcasing the enormous talents of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a complex spy tale for our times, when intelligence agencies face the daunting challenge of keeping tabs not only other governments, but also on rogue groups of people that blend in but are committed to kill for their cause.
Smartly adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell (“Edge of Darkness”) and directed by Anton Corbijn, “A Most Wanted Man” can be classified as an art-house spy thriller. This is not James Bond, with neat high-tech gadgets, eccentric villains, chases, gunplay and exotic locations and women. This is a story that takes place in the trenches.
Much like his earlier “The American” that featured George Clooney, Corbijn presents a somber world where the main characters go about their lives with a gloomy persistence, totally committed to their mission, leaving little time for anything else, including a normal life.
“A Most Wanted Man” focuses on a post-9-11 world where the most dangerous person could be someone standing right next to you. Responding to lessons learned from the 9-11 attacks, in which rivalries and an unwillingness to share information between intelligence entities allowed the terrorists to carry out their attacks, the German government has set up an under-the-radar group led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) that has set up shop in an underground garage in Hamburg with its surveillance gear and hits the streets to track down potential terrorists by building allies and recruiting informants.
Bachmann, a man haunted by an operation in Beirut that went horribly wrong because of that fatal lack of cooperation between agencies, is a driven man who considers grooming a secondary concern. He smokes incessantly and drinks hard liquor, even on the job. In one of the rare scenes in which he is home, one can sense that place also is secondary among his priorities — his home is in that underground facility, and his colleagues are his family.
Bachmann has been tenaciously tracking Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy, high-profile Muslim who publicly decries the actions of terrorists and has a network of charities. While most of the funds reach these charities, some of it goes missing and Bachmann suspects it is being diverted to help terrorists obtain weapons.
When a Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally immigrates to Hamburg and it is learned he is the son of Chechen leader who committed atrocities but built up a nice financial next egg to pass on, Bachmann sees an opportunity to catch Abdullah in a sting.
Bachmann and his colleagues — Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullman) — are a 24-hour operation, and their quest includes working Karpov’s legal sponsor Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), owner of the bank where the Karpov fortune is held in an account, to cooperate.
The film, despite its slow pace, remains gripping as Bachmann and company engage in psychological and persuasive tactics to achieve the goal. Meanwhile, Bachmann also must deal with other agencies of high power and influence while forming a tenuous, barely trusting association with Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), working for U.S. intelligence.
In Bachmann, Hoffman leaves us with a memorable portrayal of man who invests so much of himself “to make the world safer” that he has become a person who, without his work, is just a hollow existence.
“A Most Wanted Man” is a nice break from the noisy popcorn movies of the summer. Despite its gloominess it is an entertaining exercise, succeeding in being suspenseful while relying solely on dramatic interplay. It is also a grim reflection on the world today and the toll it can take on those on the front lines of the fight against terrorism.