About 75 minutes into the new film version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I realized with a jolt that the movie was about to end. All the signs were there: The villain was ostentatiously coming clean about his evil plan, the heroes were preparing for what was surely the final battle, and the third-act fan service that the movie had kept bottled up for most of its running time — including the first and only Turtle rallying cry of "Cowabunga" — was now flying fast and furious.
Reader, I was startled. And giddy! The movie had Michael Bay's name on it (he produced), and I had thusly expected Ninja Turtles to conclude with a drawn-out final hour full of countless, mind-numbing action sequences, like a video game that keeps throwing rehashed levels at you simply to pad its length. But no: In the blink of an eye, the film was over, its dumb, convoluted plot resolved with plenty of time on the clock. Ninja Turtles is said to run 101 minutes, but plenty of that is given over to a closing-credits crawl dedicated to its special-effects staff — subtract it, and you've got a movie that runs barely over an hour and a half. And that's as it should be.
Look, for example, at Luc Besson's Lucy, one of this summer's sleeper hits. For a movie about intelligence, Lucy is almost proudly stupid, but Besson proves smart where it matters most: He wraps Lucy up in a shockingly fast 88 minutes, a decision that has won praise even in the reviews that pan the film. Variety called Lucy's running time "surprisingly sleek" — a quote that's begging to be misleadingly repurposed in the film's ad campaign — while Good Morning America's critic noted, "Since it’s less than 90 minutes long, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time." No one put it better than pundit Will Leitch, though, who wrote that Lucy "never gives you any time to stop and think about how ludicrous it all is. This is a feature, not a bug."
Amen! Often, action movies are too convinced of their own self-importance to end when they should, and no film this summer illustrated that better than Bay's own Transformers: Age of Extinction. Clocking in at an unconscionable two hours and 45 minutes, this bludgeoning robot battle was longer than any Best Picture winner released in the last decade, as if its enormous running time could somehow will some significance into being. It could not.
Fortunately, Transformers is the outlier in a summer season that has pretty much managed to keep its dumbest movies super short. This month, the risible tornado flick Into the Storm ran a slim 89 minutes, while Dwayne Johnson's forgettable Hercules lived down to your expectations by wrapping in 98 minutes. That's one minute more than May's Maleficent, which begins with weighty pretensions of grandeur but kindly shakes Sleeping Beauty out of her micronap just as the movie starts to fall apart, and four minutes more than the recent Cameron Diaz bomb Sex Tape, which revolves around a three-hour assignation accidentally uploaded to the internet. "Who has sex for three hours?" asks a friend of Diaz in the movie, noting, "That's the length of the movie Lincoln." Actually, Lincoln runs a mere 2:25, which is still way shorter than Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Don't get me wrong: When a movie is good, like the two-hours-and-two-minutes-long Guardians of the Galaxy, it earns the right to run long. But if your film is just a cynical cash-grab, at least be self-aware about it and bring it in responsibly! Schlocky summer movie producers, take note:
• When you've spent more time on special effects than the screenplay, you should wrap your movie up in 90 minutes.
• When your plot relies on the overused-yet-still-inane plot device of "miracle blood," you should wrap your movie up in 90 minutes.
• When your computer-generated characters are more expressive than your female lead, you should wrap your movie up in 90 minutes.
Say what you will about Ninja Turtles, but the movie knows how dumb it is, and it's timed accordingly. Right around that 75-minute mark, as the villain is revealing the rewards of his evil scheme, he boasts, "I'm going to be rich!" But wait, you think. Isn't this guy already immensely wealthy? Isn't it actually his primary character trait? And then the villain adds one helpful clarification: "Like, stupid rich."
Ah. I get it.
And so do they, it seems.