Japan, 1603. Prince Kenshin (Eidan Hanzei, under the alias Henry Hayashi) is on the run from samurai warriors now his father, Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono) has allied himself with an evil European named Walker (Stuart Wilson). With Walker's advanced European guns and cannons, Norinaga continues to oppress his people. Kenshin's lover, the courageous and beautiful Mitsu (Vivian Wu) leads a peasant rebellion but stands helpless as the prince is caught and returned to the castle. In desperation Kenshin looks to an ancient prophecy about four demon warriors. Using a magic scepter he opens a portal through time and arrives in a New York subway tunnel in 1993 where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Leonardo (Mark Caso, voiced by Brian Tochi), Donatello (Jim Raposa, voiced by Corey Feldman), Michelangelo (David Fraser, voiced by Robbie Rist) and Raphael (Matt Hill, voiced by Tim Kelleher), are performing a zany dance routine in front of their exasperated talking rat master, Splinter (James Murray). No wonder Kenshin faints.
That's right this is not some Japanese samurai epic but the second sequel to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), the wacky children's film franchise spun off from the comic books and cartoon show created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. However, by 1993 the popularity of the pizza-guzzling turtle boys was well on the wane. They were soon supplanted in the affections of fickle youngsters the world over by the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers who gave way to Pokemon who gave way to, well you get the idea. Hoping to choke a few more coins from this golden goose (golden turtle?) New Line studios and their Hong Kong co-producers Golden Harvest green-lit this lame time travel themed outing which came and went swiftly in a summer dominated by Jurassic Park. The moral? Wisecracking terrapins wax and wane but dinosaurs rule young hearts forever.
At the heart of this slapdash saga lies a concept that in theory would seem pretty cool to a little kid. Think Seven Samurai (1954) with the ninja turtles, an idea no less outlandish than the Taiwanese children's fantasy Twelve Animals (1990). Having somehow swapped time zones with Kenshin, the turtles' human gal pal, April O'Neil (Paige Turco, getting more to do this time besides play surrogate mom) gets stuck in Seventeenth century Japan. So the ninja dudes do the temporal twist to bring her home and save the oppressed villagers. This time directing duties fell to Canadian filmmaker Stuart Gillard who also wrote the script. Gillard debuted with Paradise (1982), a blatant rip-off of the similarly cheesy teenage castaway romance The Blue Lagoon (1980), but has latterly specialized in tween genre fare made for the Disney Channel such as the engaging Girl vs. Monster (2012) and bonkers Arthurian-themed Avalon High (2010). He has his cod-Kurosawa imagery down pat. Aided by David Gurfinkel, the Israeli born D.P. who shot The Apple (1980), Enter the Ninja (1981) and The Delta Force (1986) for Menahem Golan, Gillard stages an arresting opening sequence with samurai on horseback charging past the rising sun, but thereafter things descend from the sublime to the ridiculous. His script pulls off the unique feat of being both inane, chock full of corny pop culture gags referencing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wayne's World (1992) and er, Wayne Newton, and unnecessarily complex.
How complex can a time-travelling ninja turtle movie be? Well, the plot crams in feudal intrigue, anti-colonialism, two star-crossed semi-love stories (one of them involving a turtle!), peasant rebellion, and sub-Bill and Ted antics in two separate time zones. While the time displaced turtles either attempt to invent pizza or somehow end up re-enacting Charles Bronson and Horst Bucholz's sub-plots in The Magnificent Seven (1960) (tough guy Raphael gets all paternal with a little Japanese kid and Michelangelo falls for Mitsu?!), Kenshin and his wacky bodyguards discover the joys of watching hockey on TV or dancing to "Tarzan Boy" by Eighties' one-hit wonder Baltimora. For some reason the producers thought they could get down with the kids by including trashy Euro-pop song that was eight years out of date.
On top of that we have the return of Elias Koteas, looking mightily embarrassed in his hippie wig only three years away from Crash (1996)!), as hockey stick wielding sidekick and all-round non-entity, Casey Jones. He also happens to have a double in the Seventeenth century who switches from good guy to villain and back again to accommodate the plot. Inconsistent characterization also befalls Mitsu who shifts from bad-ass freedom fighter to damsel in distress. Spare a thought for poor Vivian Wu who went from working with Bernardo Bertolucci on The Last Emperor (1987) to junk like The Guyver (1991) and playing love interest to Michelangelo. Sort of. At least the filmmakers refrained from exposing kids to any interspecies romance though the script leaves us in no doubt, Mikey is smitten. Vivian Hsu went on to work with Chen Kaige and Peter Greenaway, so that's okay. With so much going on it is remarkable how sluggish and dull the film turned out. Veteran martial arts choreographer Pat Johnson lends his expertise but no director involved with this franchise knew how to stage a decent action sequence and censorship restrictions render the battles more Three Stooges than Seven Samurai. When the ninja turtles eventually returned to the big screen following a fourteen year absence, they were computer animated in the flawed but superior TMNT (2007).