The heroes in a half shell return for more halfhearted fun in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.” Every bit as noisy, brain-numbing and lowbrow as its predecessor, the Michael Bay production never strays from basic blockbuster formula. It’s fast food entertainment destined for a short run atop the box office charts and an even shorter lifespan in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Although the franchise has remained active in animation and video games through the years, the heroic quartet named after famed Renaissance painters — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo — went dormant in live action films for two decades, until 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” resurrected the phenomenon. At the time, some longtime fans took issue with reinventing the turtles as motion capture-animated heroes, especially in the context of a sleek, soulless, steel-crushing action extravaganza à la Bay’s “Transformers” productions. But worldwide audiences didn’t seem to mind one bit, and the film brought in just under half a billion in global grosses.
Even with that success, a few (arguably) notable changes were made for the follow-up. Director Dave Green (a relative newcomer whose only feature credit is the family sci-fi pic “Earth to Echo”) assumes helming duties from Jonathan Liebesman, the roles of villain Shredder and his henchwoman Karai have been recast (with Brian Tee and Brittany Ishibashi, respectively) and Johnny Knoxville no longer voices Leonardo (the duties are assumed by his mo-cap portrayer Pete Ploszek, with Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard and Alan Ritchson back as Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael). Not that any of it matters much when visual spectacle still takes precedence over coherent plotting, and the human characters retain all the gravitas of generic placeholders who accidentally made it into the shooting script.
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The basics of the plot — a term that can only be used very loosely — go something like this: Shredder enlists the help of nerdy mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry, trying to have fun and getting nowhere) to open up a portal to another dimension, where the nefarious mutant blob Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) plots to escape and take over Earth. But enterprising journalist April O’Neil (Megan Fox, seemingly even more disinterested than before) catches on and alerts our turtle heroes to fight back.
Unfortunately, even after they saved the city in the last film, the turtles are resigned to living a secret life in the sewers, and April’s wisecracking cameraman Vern (Will Arnett, the most dignified human here) becomes the public face of their actions. Still, they’re visible enough that they catch the eye of aspiring detective Casey Jones (Stephen Amell, nothing but sarcasm) and eventually police chief Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney, who must have lost one hell of a bet).
But really, everything that happens in the movie is just an excuse to pile one CGI setpiece on top of another. Audiences will see cars flying through the air, turtles skydiving and an alien invasion cribbed directly from “The Avengers” playbook. And they will meet additional cartoony foes including the moronic mutant lackies Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (wrestler Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly).
The turtles are even more central this time than they were in the last film, as the humans become deserved afterthoughts to their brotherly squabbling and bonding. And yet the screenplay by returning writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec still does little to flesh out the basic personalities that turned these unlikely superheroes into enduring icons (their roots in alternative comics having long ago been bowdlerized by their success as a commercial enterprise).
Anyone left unimpressed by the surface-level shenanigans typical of Bay in the previous film won’t find anything to change their minds here. The technical contributions are as slick and shallow as any random “Transformers” entry, and the obnoxious soundtrack especially grates as it veers between cacophonous explosions, shrill line deliveries and thuddingly predictable song selections from Edwin Starr’s “War” to Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.”
Originally planned to have the subtitle “Half Shell,” the sequel instead goes out with the same “Out of the Shadows” moniker as a quickly forgotten “Turtles” videogame from 2013. Call it a subliminal signal to the franchise faithful that this too shall pass, soon enough.