I watched an interesting double feature this weekend: Michael Bay’s version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles followed by William Lustig’s Maniac. That’s an odd pairing, I know, but sometimes you just have to watch whatever Netflix sent you and not ask questions.
The movies are not in the same genre and, obviously, hail not just from different neighborhoods budget-wise, but from completely different cities. Or maybe the difference would be better characterized by saying that Maniac is from downtown and TMNT comes from the suburbs.
Michael Bay has a way with action scenes and a striking visual style but I have yet to see one of his movies all the way through. Except for Bad Boys, but there was enough humor in the back and forth between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence that the movie didn’t seem as depressingly rote as all other Michael Bay movies.
The sad truth is I had every reason to watch TMNT all the way through to the end. I’m a big a fan of the Heroes on the Halfshell. I liked what I saw in the trailer. I know a lot of purists (yes, there are TMNT purists) had a problem with various aspects of the script — the enlarging and aging up of the turtles, April’s childhood connection to the turtles, the urbanization of the turtles — but I thought the series was ripe for a reboot and, while the second change with April was gratuitous but undamaging, I thought the other changes might bring a fresh perspective.
But I took a phone call at the start of the third act, which in and of itself is a bad sign, and when I had a chance to get back to the movie, I asked myself if I really needed to watch the rest of it. The answer was no. I had expected every beat in the story through the first two acts and knew exactly what was going to happen on the way to the finish. So I maintained my record of having only ever finished one Michael Bay movie by popping Maniac into the machine and watching that instead.
I get the feeling that Michael Bay has an app on his phone that tells him exactly what’s supposed to happen at every point of a movie. He just types in the page number and the app comes back with, “A reversal for the protagonist!” or something equally insipid.
And I think insipid is the correct word to use here. You get the feeling that not only do his movies not challenge you, they somehow manage to drain your IQ a little while you watch them.
And let’s talk about casting creepy Bill Fichtner in the role of “trusted friend who turns out to be the bad guy.” When you do that, when you cast a guy known for playing that exact role in every movie, you rob any surprise that the audience might have experienced. They point at the screen when they see him, just as I did, and say, “He did it!” They don’t even know what “it” is yet but they know Bill is responsible.
But now let’s talk about the whole “trusted friend who turns out to be the bad guy” trope. It’s been done so much it’s just plain done. I was disappointed that Iron Man 1, a movie I otherwise liked, fell back on this easy lay of an idea and that was six years ago. It seems like every superhero movie since has played that same stupid card, culminating with the massive Hydra infiltration of SHIELD in Winter Soldier.
The one movie where it worked for me was the massively underrated Dredd from 2012. When the other judges show up to hunt down Dredd, they just straight up do it for money. Watching that deal go down, I had the same shitty feeling I had when watching Serpico for the first time. That’s life, baby. When the bad guys have all the money and all the guns, sometimes the good guys take early retirement in the form of huge bribes.
But in that case, we weren’t expected to believe during the first part of the movie that a certain character was a standup guy who later turned out to be pulling all the evil strings in the movie. The bad guy, played with deliciously lazy malice by Lena Heady, made a call, threw down a wad of cash for some bad cops and shit got real, yo.
In that one case, the trusted friend proto-trope was an actual indictment of human corruptibility. Unlike Robert Redford’s character in Winter Soldier or every character Bill Fichtner has ever played except for that one time on Grace Under Fire when he was kind of nice right up until he could, as an actor, see that that ship was going down like the Hindenburg and got the hell out as soon as his lawyer could arrange an exit.
Anyway, the reason I’m talking about these two movies together is that I believe in my heart of hearts that William Lustig and Michael Bay approached their products with the same open sense of avarice. They were both trying to make a movie that people would go see and that would in turn make some money so they could go on getting paid to do the greatest job in the world.
While the intentions are the same, the end results couldn’t be more different. TMNT is slick and predictable, a beautiful girl without a brain in her head, while Maniac is a hot mess, a girl who takes you to new places because she’s so fucking crazy and then hits you with a wrench and steals your TV.
I don’t know if Lustig just didn’t know what he was doing — he had only directed two movies before this and had been so proud of the results he used the name Billy Bragg as an alias on both — but the mishmash of Psycho and every other psycho-trope type movies where the killer is just pining away from an abusive childhood at the hands of a withholding mother works on a different level in this case.
Part of what makes it work is the creepy mannequin imagery and part of it is Joe Spinell’s ambivalent take on the part of Frank. I get the impression he asked Lustig several times for his motivation and every time the director responded, “To get your fucking paycheck, Joe. Now act, damn you!” So in parts of the movie he’s your average 1970s goombah, picking up chicks and making time wrapped in polyester, while at other times he’s whacked out of his mind on the remorse of a childhood lost like a jibbering rage fever monkey in a cage with a loose door. Those are the parts that I think really sell the movie on a level above something obvious like The Bloody Mutilators.
For whatever reason, it works and, for obvious reasons, TMNT does not. If you’ve ever seen a Michael Bay movie, you’ve already seen the rest of them, including the ones he hasn’t made yet, but Maniac is a disturbingly uneven treat.
Let’s pause for a moment so I can recount my Michael Bay anecdote. I watched the first three quarters of The Island on DVD back when it first came out. When Scarlett Johannson is in a movie I don’t… well, there aren’t any other criteria. I just watch the movie. As it turns out in this case, not the whole movie, because it was a Michael Bay film.
The funny part is that I’m also a big MST3K fan and had seen their episode based on Parts: The Clonus Horror a dozen times. If I remember correctly, I got a quasi-legal VHS version from the Best Brains website back when the web was young and it became a go to thing to watch when I was bored and there wasn’t anything good on TV.
I was watching The Island, as bored as I always am in Bay movies and thinking about turning it off, but this idea that I recognized the story from another movie kept kicking me in my mental balls. Those movie fans out there — and by “movie fans” I mean those whose love of film borders on OCD — know what I mean. It’s why IMDB was invented. You know your mind is not going to move on from this problem until it has an answer to where you’ve seen this before.
Eventually, it occurred to me that the story, if not the visuals, was strikingly similar to Parts: The Clonus Horror. A movie, I should add, that’s so bad it’s almost a Michael Bay movie. Actually, now that I think of it, if Mr. Bay had been shitting out his particular brand of diarrhea back in the 70s before budgets got big and CGI got cheap, this is the exact movie he would have made.
So I went to look it up and, sure enough, Dreamworks (Bay’s employer of record for this particular monstrosity) was successfully sued by the people responsible for Parts. To me, that’s like dung beetles fighting it out in court over a particularly smelly turd. Even so, I’m glad the dung beetles who weren’t Michael Bay won.
I want to impart two bits of wisdom, one mine and one that belongs to someone else, about this topic before I beg off:
First off, every time someone from the arts community (and by “arts” I’m including the movie industry which means my definition is super broad) criticizes Bay for his mind numbing product, he responds by quoting his sales numbers and saying, “I give the people what they want.”
The response I’m quoting here, but whose source I can’t find, is stridently on point: “Bullshit, as an artist your job is to give the people more than they want.”
That’s just fucking brilliant and I wish I had thought of it, but I didn’t.
Secondly, I want to mention that the obvious takeaway from this post is this: When it comes down to Maniac and TMNT, just skip them both and go watch Dredd. I guarantee it will be worth your time. And if it’s not, I will literally* give you your money back.
As a survivor of the 1995 cinematic stillbirth called Judge Dredd, I too was reticent to believe again, but I can honestly tell you that everything that sucked about the original is special in the reboot.
* By “literally” I mean “figuratively” as in, “I literally will NOT give you any money.”