Friday, August 11, 2023


The art of film appreciation is, to paraphrase Fritz Lang’s classic sci-fi silent Metropolis, a handshake agreement between the heart and the mind. We can find much to intellectually assess about any given picture, but inevitably the heart takes over, too. Thus it is that I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a good movie, but one for which my enthusiasm is muted. Whereas Meg 2: The Trench is a bad movie, and yet it’s one with which, I must admit, I had a certain amount of fun. It comes down to this. Mutant Mayhem, the umpteenth Ninja Turtles project, is a good version of a thing I’ve never much cared about, and for which my ceiling of potential enjoyment is apparently much lower than the average audience. Meg 2, on the other hand, is a giddily stupid sequel that never once thinks it’s doing anything else but serving creature feature silliness larded up with all sorts of cheap paperback thriller plotting. Neither movie asks to be taken seriously, which is all for the better. They’re flip sides of the same goofy coin: putting silly characters and sloppy monsters on the big screen for us to gawk at and laugh with and walk out reasonably pleased. I imagine anyone willingly buying a ticket and walking into a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem or Meg 2: The Trench will find exactly what they hope to see there.

Ninja Turtles is an animated feature that redoes an origin story for the ubiquitous amphibious karate teens. It’s a formulaic superhero tale that twins a toxic ooze catalyst for both heroes and villains. The latter is Superfly, a clear nod to blaxploitation down to the rumbling, street-tough Ice Cube voice performance. He’s a mutant bug who rallies his slimy siblings to steal lab equipment with the goal of assembling a machine to wipe out mankind. Luckily, the pack of plucky adolescent kung-fu tortoises in the sewers below have decided to surface and think they should stop him. They’re a gangly, likable bunch—largely indistinguishable but bubbling over with authentic teenage awkwardness, slang, and bravado. Anyone even vaguely aware of kids programming over the past four decades will recognize the shape of their style—the headbands, the ninja weapons, the love of pizza, the rat father. (He’s Jackie Chan now, and gets some appropriate fight choreography to match.) There’s something comforting enough to the fresh coat of paint slapped on a sturdy, predictable plot engine. Never once is the outcome in doubt. Of course the turtles will discover their powers and live up to their potential, while the bad guys will be defeated in a slam-bang fight downtown, and bigger baddies will lurk in the shadows to be teased in a mid-credits scene. But at least it looks neat and the squeaky cracking turtle performances have a real teen energy going. It’s nice to see them animated with a Spider-Verse-style scragginess, down to the wiggly penmanship, expressive line work, and layered visual jokes. It has a rat-a-tat rambling to the dialogue, and sequences stuffed with quick-witted gags and gooey sentimental heart you’d expect from a collaboration between Seth Rogen and a co-director on Mitchells vs the Machines. This might be as good as these turtle movies get.

Meg 2
is objectively worse, but I sure didn’t mind it in the moment. Imagine a simpler, dumber Deep Blue Sea and you’re onto something. Jason Statham returns to outwit enormous prehistoric sharks that’ve eluded capture at a scientific outpost meant to contain them. There’s a slog of exposition up top, a lot of soggy business about an ensemble trapped in dive suits on the ocean floor in the middle, and then a chomping spectacle at a beach resort that ends things on a toothy grin. Along the way we get gun-toting villains with a duplicitous boss out of a bad Michael Crichton rip-off, as well as a tentacled deep-sea beastie and eel-like lizard things slithering around making extra variables for the sustained climactic action. I could describe all the flimsy characters and simple interpersonal dynamics and cheap attempts at emotional investment. But really all the movie has going for it is a brisk pace and a willingness to just go for it. The director is Ben Wheatley, who usually does unsatisfying indie horror movies—though his best was winking feature-length shoot-out Free Fire, and his worst was a dismal, instantly-forgotten remake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca for Netflix. Here he gets a chance to make a studio budget (boosted by an international co-production with Chinese backers and actors) colorful and bright and dripping in off-screen PG-13 gore. It’s so stupidly diverting I only wished it was even stupider. A little extra excess—and yes, I’m really saying a movie culminating in Statham stabbing a prehistoric jumbo-shark through the mouth with a broken-off helicopter propeller should be more excessive—could’ve made Meg 2 a classic of its kind. It’ll have to settle for agreeably crummy B-minus movie status instead.

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