The city of New York is suffering under a crime wave of unprecedented proportions, and it's only getting worse. After delivering her nightly bulletin, television reporter April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) walks out to her car, but disturbs a group of the thieves as they are bundling stolen goods into the back of a van. The thugs advance on April, but suddenly the light is smashed by a flying blade and they are beaten and tied up by forces unseen. April doesn't know what to make of it, but picks up the blade regardless, and heads home little knowing that her life has been saved by four unusual heroes who will fight back against the crime wave: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Those overgrown green creatures were the current toy craze of the late eighties and early nineties, and after being created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman for a series of comic books, it was natural that the characters should branch off in to action figures, computer games, Saturday morning cartoons, hit records, junk food and finally the ideal to which all pop culture crazes aspire: the cash in movie. Written by Bobby Herbeck and Todd W. Langen, this big screen debut was the highest grossing independent film of all time when it was released, taking $133 million, and operates as both an origin story and a straightforward adventure for the team in the style of the two sequels.
For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to tell the Turtles apart, because they all pretty much have the same personality. Looking identical apart from their coloured masks, they share a love of pizza, snappy one liners and various martial arts skills. Leonardo wears blue, Donatello wears purple and Michaelangelo wears orange, while the apparent loner of the group, Raphael, wears red. It's Raphael who ventures out alone after losing his blade, meeting a hockey-playing vigilante, Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), and bringing back April to the Turtles' lair to meet their mentor, Splinter, after saving her from the bad guys.
Unfortunately, giant rat Splinter is kidnapped by the gang who are behind the crimes, led by the mysterious Shredder (James Saito), a masked man who killed Splinter's own master. Stranded without the rat's words of wisdom ("The path from inner turmoil begins with a friendly ear," stuff like that), the Turtles turn to April for help, only for Shredder's ninjas to ambush them. The characters are looking for father figures: the Turtles have been brought up by Splinter ever since he found them growing due to the effects of toxic waste, and the teens who make up Shredder's gang have found a surrogate family in the evil ninja ways. Both the human teens and the turtle teens are outsiders, and the film offers a message of the importance of loyalty to the kids watching - as long as you stick with the good guys, of course.
The costumes, courtesy of the Jim Henson Creature Workshop, are impressive, but none too expressive, meaning the actors inside have to exaggerate their gestures. Surprisingly, they manage a high degree of manoueverability, and the fight scenes don't look too bad considering how difficult they must have been to arrange. When the craze was at its height, it was fashionable to sneer that if you asked a kid who Michaelangelo was, he's tell you he was one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the script contains references to The Grapes of Wrath and War and Peace, and the moral aspect is successfully integrated without bogging down the action, so the film wasn't as bad as its detractors made out. If only they had offered a little more imagination beyond the eccentric nature of the main characters, then the movie might have stuck in the mind as more than a lucrative opportunity for the toy companies. Music by John Du Prez.
[The Region 2 DVD offers trailers and TV spots as extras, and an exclusive text interview with the Turtles, but of most interest to British fans is that the film is now uncut. When originally released in Britain, the film was edited extensively on the orders of the BBFC, mostly to remove the shots of nunchaku, but now you can see the film as it was intended.]