"Been there, done that," complains Michelangelo near the end of the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saga, an apt gripe about the movie itself.
Series fatigue seems to have set in just at the point when the TURTLES franchise acquired its first solid plot. Restless in their subway-station lair beneath Manhattan, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael are delighted by a visit from their human contact April O'Neil (Paige
Turco)--only to see her vanish in a burst of modest special effects. It seems that back in 17th-century feudal Japan, noble Prince Kenshin (Henry Hayashi) loved the pretty Mitsu (Vivian Wu), leader of peasant rebels against his father, tyrannical Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono). In desperation,
Kenshin used a magical scepter to summon a certain quartet of legendary warriors to settle the dilemma--but by accident he teleported their best friend to 1603 instead, taking April's place himself in 1993. Once the Turtles' Japanese-speaking mentor, Splinter the Rat, gets the full story from the
bewildered Kenshin, the Turtles go back in time to rescue April.
It doesn't take long for the amphibian newcomers to get captured by Mitsu's peasant army, but they prove their worth in battle against Norinaga's raiders and become heroes to the people. Meanwhile, Lord Norinaga, who holds April in his dungeon pending the return of his son, turns to an outside
source to put down the uprising: an evil English trader named Walker (Stuart Wilson) who promises gunpowder for gold. At last the Turtles attack Norinaga's fortress and the long-awaited showdown takes place between Walker and his well-armed crew and the sword-wielding mutants. The bad guys raise
their muskets at point blank range and get scared and run away. Walker falls off a cliff via equally contrived circumstances, and the Turtles and April at last have the opportunity to return to their rightful time. But Michaelangelo doesn't want to go back, making the very good point that in 1993
the turtles are outcast freaks, while in feudal Japan they've become respected citizens and public heroes; he has to be dragged back to the future for the obligatory celebratory hip-hop dance number that cues the closing credits. Had the picture focused on his unexpected rebellion (previously the
hothead Raphael was the only one of the four with distinct attitude), there would have been a more compelling movie here.
In the first two TURTLES features it was somehow enough just to see the unlikeliest of comic-book superhero concepts, man-sized turtle teen martial-artists, brought to life via Jim Henson's animatronic wizardry. This third--and, at $30 million, most expensive--go-around gamely attempts to
jump-start the viewer's interest with the canny switch of locations (and centuries), but the new recipe can't change the fact that this Turtle soup has grown cold. Given the unenviable task of stirring the stale material, writer-director Stuart Gillard seems seriously overtaxed. He wastes time
with minor business while breezing past major plot developments, most glaringly the climactic confrontation, when Walker's piratical posse panic and retreat for no plausible reason other than to ensure another win for the good guys.
Wilson's smug, ironic Walker seems much too contemporary a character for a 17th-century trader; one half-expects him to reveal his time machine. And while Turco's unflagging spunkiness remains intact, the Turtles don't seem quite themselves this outing. Their green rubbery faces are now freckled
with large dark dots (acne? liver spots?), and the prominent sabre-scars on their shells seem to come and go from scene to scene--although this may be explained by the simple fact that it's virtually impossible to tell one of the terrapins from the others. Even their surfer-dude voices (one
belonging to actor Corey Feldman) are starting to sound identical, merging into a single Valley-Guy chorus.
The movie's frequent battles are bloodless (and Walker is the only onscreen casualty) but lack the inventive slapstick of the earlier films. Much of the humor is verbal, hinging on the Turtle's running wisecracks and sub-WAYNE'S WORLD gags about other movies. Astoria, Oregon, adequately
substitutes for feudal Japan, and there's a clue signifying that the Turtles will have a future adventure even further back in Japanese history, but if the time-travel gimmick has to be employed twice in a row then it's probably best to banish these characters to a retirement sewer. (Violence.)
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