My childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film. When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon. The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark. This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun. Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.
A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen. Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her. However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side. Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons. At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.
Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here. Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s. This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company. Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms. They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character. Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million. Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail. They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole. Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him. He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.
Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings. He forges the soul of the team. Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic. His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman. Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all. However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude. He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all. He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones. It’s very funny to both of their credits. It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously. The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed. It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors. It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!
Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil. She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it. Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion. Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character. It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here. She does a wonderful job in this role through and through. I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice. She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.
The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones. For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen. As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude. Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan. Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way. He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially. He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over. Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension. By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.
And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect. The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique. The role was the work of two performers. James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities. However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power. The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell. And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.
The action sequences are done remarkably well. All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography. The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original. The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways. It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action. When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness. Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience. It’s stellar and memorable all around. It’s greatly satisfying.
It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is. Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes. Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it. If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here. Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find. It is their film and they carry it. And they carry it with tremendous success. These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.
And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez. These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years. He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation. For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy. Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats. And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes. It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing. While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags. These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance. This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it. Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly. The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters. They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.
Altogether, this is seriously one great movie! I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years. The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities. I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts. I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content. Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema. This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million. That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick. It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation. Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special. And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me. I give it a HUGE recommendation!
Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe. It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it. The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing. It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.
In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako). However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries. In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger). However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod. Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch. He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives. Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.
This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series. It’s nothing exceptional or stunning. It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it. It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything. As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery. Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role. However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with. You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance. It gave the character depth and texture. Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience. The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long. This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.
Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities. There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane. How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie. In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality. Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice. As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain. However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance. Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy. He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though. Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue. For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car. Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.
Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much. They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be. Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads. It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor. I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain. Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity. Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.
Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect. It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward. It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it. I like how this was done in Endgame as well. However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.
Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son. It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane. It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original. Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie. It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.
I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation. Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time. With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together. It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done. Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation. It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.
Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles. However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced. The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks. I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie. It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.
Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead. Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight. She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert. Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films. She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film. While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.
I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer. This is a very well shot and well lit movie. The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere. Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights. While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films. This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out. He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here. Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos. This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since. He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly. It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films. So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.
As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple. It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges. With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter. It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with. The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects. It is very physically intense. However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.
The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good. I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere. The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character. What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film. With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score. Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score. With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all. The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod. Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax. I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock. Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.” This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out. I really adore its beauty.
On the up side, the visual effects are very good. During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects. The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action. There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky. Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.
Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.” An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away. Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion. They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic. Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power. Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry. So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it. Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.
I think what this film lacks the most is depth. Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters. Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander. I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it. Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer. The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring. Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable. The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe. They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake. Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto. We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love. It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it. I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands. It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.
I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor. The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship. At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts. Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again. Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD. The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension. I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality. The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant. So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.
Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention. The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems. While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem. As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there. Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie. I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance. In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.