Written by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck
Directed by Steven Barron
When Channel 3 news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is accosted one night during the walk to her car by a group of thugs, four strange saviors submerged in shadow come to her rescue with the speed and stealth of ninjas. Both foes and friends represent forces the city of Manhattan will reckon with in incredible ways. On the side of crime and greed is the mysterious Foot Clan, a clandestine syndicate originating from Japan believed to be long forgotten. Led by the imposing Shredder (James Saito) and trained as ninjas, the Foot uses their talent for crime’s sake, in addition to recruiting the city’s delinquent youth as the next generation of troops. On the side of virtue and righteousness are…mutated teenage turtles who dwell in the sewers, also schooled in the ways of the ninja by their master Splinter (Kevin Clash), a adult human sized mutated rat! Soon, the quartet formed by Leonardo (Brian Tochi), Donatello (Corey Feldman), Michelangelo (Robbie Rist) and Raphael (Josh Pais) will test the hardness of their shells and the sharpness of the Shredder’s blades!
Of all the properties from the 1980s to make it big in pop culture, few would have placed bets in favour of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a black and white, somewhat gritty if also comically inclined graphic novel by the writer-artist duo of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The concept alone sounds like a joke. Well, the concept itself is a joke, really, but regardless of how zany and offbeat it might have been, it caught like wildfire like few other ideas ever could and quickly struck a chord not just with comic book readers but kids as well once the stories made the transition to colourful after school and Saturday morning cartoons in 1987. With turtles all the rage by the latter years of the decade it was only logical, not to mention economically viable, to bring these heroes in a half shell to the silver screen, much to the delight of millions of children and the ire of plenty of parents.
What makes Steve Barron’s 1990 cinematic translation so interesting to analyze is the fact that it appears to be an adaptation of several iterations of the property as opposed to just one. Upon first glance, especially during the film’s opening five minutes, it truly appears as though the director, his screenwriters Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck, and the production crew have gone the purist route and chosen to bring the original, slightly more adult-themed comic book to life. There is a lot throughout the picture to support that theory. For one, the set design and cinematography are both akin to the style and mood of classic film noir, with darkness and light frequently playing humungous roles in setting tone in a great many scenes. For those who expected a direct transposition of the cartoon series from the television screen to the movie screen, said expectations were laid to waste for much of the film’s running length. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a surprisingly dark movie, both literally for its moody lighting and for its handling of many of the leading characters. Raphael, understood to be the ‘cool but rude’ turtle, is quite the hot head in this first film in addition to his short temper causing him to suffer a spectacularly violent beating at the hands of the Foot Clan at the midway point of the film. If that wasn’t enough, he yells ‘Damn!’ loud and clear more than once (one might liken this curious factoid to the word ‘shit’ being uttered in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie). To top it off, the protagonists’ chief nemesis, The Shredder, is a laughing matter in name alone. He looks like a stone cold killer, acts like one when finally engaging in combat in the film’s climax and corrupts misguided children and teenagers into believing they have a home within his criminal organization, poisoning their minds with a false sense of community.
On the flip side, the four heroes themselves look (to a degree) and sound like the animated counterparts. True enough, Raphael is a short-tempered curmudgeon to the last, but the other three are true to the fun loving side of being a teenager their reputation was based on up until that point in the property’s history. Constant cries of ‘awesome’ and ‘cowabunga’ remind the viewer that these creatures are just a bunch of lovable guys who want to have fun when time permits. While the sense of humour peppered throughout the film will not appeal to everyone (some of it is, admittedly, a bit juvenile), the presence of the titular ninja turtles does provide a great degree of levity in contrast to the literal and thematic darkness that surrounds them. Taken as such, Barron’s film is a hybrid of sorts, picking and choosing elements from the first Eastman and Laird books as well as what made the cartoon series such a runaway hit in the few years prior.
While the movie does strive to provide a moderately interesting human element to the story of family and friendship with characters like April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones (played with frat boyish charm by Elias Koteas), the foursome of genetically enhanced reptiles take center stage once they are revealed on screen. The decision to produce a live-action motion picture was one fraught with risk. Rather than take the easy way out and make an elongated episode of the cartoon show, a decision that honestly would have made decent sense, the filmmakers, in collaboration with the legendary Jim Henson, give viewers one of the more visually impressive and memorable version of the turtles fans have ever seen. A mixture of detailed costuming and animatronics, the heroes represented at the time a tour de force effort in hand made craftsmanship. The reason is not limited to the fact that the outfits look believable enough but because the actors inside are called upon to perform a series of martial arts manoeuvres, the difficulty of which are augmented by the suits. Jumps, flips, roundhouse kicks, punches, spinning on the floor, the swinging of swords, bo, nunchuks and sais are all exercised in some capacity as waves of enemies attack. Performed any stunt man or woman sans costume these feats would serve as passable entertainment but not anything genre fans haven’t seen before. When done by actors wearing bulky costumes such as these it all looks rather incredible. The caveat resulting from the outfits will not be viewed as an acceptable reason for the otherwise average quality of the martial action on display but for the more forgiving viewers it makes for a solid lark.
Striking a reasonably fluid balance between the grit of its source material and the family friendliness of the animated version that stemmed from it, Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sports enough qualities for ardent fans to admire and newcomers to discover. While the ninja skills the mutated monsters pride themselves on cannot be considered of the highest order, what the actors and stunt men accomplish under layers of prosthetic material in an attempt to produce high-octane fisticuffs remains impressive in its own way. Turtle power!