The November Blogs-Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

I remember the TMNT comics, I played the TMNT RPG (The Cyberduck Systems Model D800, the Alihens and the PreDucktor all featured) but somehow I never saw the movie. This week, I changed that. It was a good choice.

You probably know the basis but just in case; four baby turtles thrown into a New York sewer are mutated by the nuclear goop they land in. They’re tutored in ninjitsu by a similar mutated rat, called Splinter, who learnt the art watching his owner train. Splinter names them Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, along with one other fellow, Raphael. They’re jaunty, cheerful, Olympic athlete teenagers with extraordinary martial skill, no impulse control and a burning desire to grow up. Oh and they love pizza. These ninjas are into pepperoni and cheese.

Their adolescence coincides with the rise of the Foot, who are essentially Fagin’s kids from Oliver Twist but without 850,000% more martial arts and a different kind of problematic representation. The Foot are led by Shredder, the rival of Splinter’s old master. The lads save April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) from the Foot and sensing two stories at once she uncovers the truth about them and the Foot as Splinter and Shredder circle for their final confrontation.

This holds up really well and as the excellent Earl Newton pointed out, it’s pretty much the blueprint for a decade of indie cinema that would follow. The relationship between the lads and Splinter, and each other, is core to the movie. There’s a surprisingly well realized subplot involving April’s boss and his son who’s in the process of being radicalized by the Foot. There are moments of real emotion. Some of it’s overdone, because 90s, but this thing really has heart and charm.

And goof. Did I mention the goof?

A massive part of the success is down to the turtles themselves and the legion of people who perform as them. Brian Tochi and Josh Pais as Leonardo and Raphael do all the emotional heavy lifting while Corey Feldman and Robbie Rist do some great scene stealing as Donatello and Michelangelo. Hoag’s great too, even though she has almost nothing to do besides have the court mandated romance with Elias Koteas’s vigilante Casey Jones. I love Koteas’ work, and this is not the only seminal ‘90s genre movie he’d appear in but Casey is absolutely the element that hasn’t aged well. He’s deeply sexist, at one point delivers a homophobic joke so awful it lands badly in 1990 and straight up commits murder at the end. Basically he’s Eddie Munson from Stranger Things with more luck, more anger and a tenth of the charm.

That aside though, there’s a lot here that’s still really fun. Kevin Clash as Splinter is the proto put-upon dad and future indie darlings Sam RockwellSkeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf all show up as troubled youths. There’s a solid attempt at an emotional arc, there’s a sense of responsibility and, crucially, great fight scenes.

The turtles were all run by at least two people with one performing, one working the face and others coming in for martial arts and stunt work. That means Leonardo was acted by David Forman and Martin P. Robinson, Donatello was played by Leif Tilden and David Rudman as well as Ernie Reyes Jr. on martial arts and Reggie Barnes for skateboarding scenes. Likewise, Raphael was Josh Pais in the suit, David Greenaway on the face and Kenn Troum on martial arts duties. Finally Michelan Sisti played Michelangelo with Mak Wilson on facial duties. In addition to Clash, Ricky Boy and Robert Tygner brought Splinter to life.

Sounds cumbersome, right? Not at all. The fights are fast, crisp, clean action that tells a story and drives a story. At one point, Raphael storms off to a roof, uncorks a series of blisteringly fast strikes to blow off steam and Casey watches from a distance. Like him, you look at it and think ‘Huh. That six foot turtle can fight’.

This movie is entering its third decade and it’s still technically impressive. It’s also, more importantly, fun even with the occasional bum notes played by time. Give it a shot. It’s still got Turtle Power.

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