There’s something admirably valiant about Power Rangers, the most recent attempt to apply a hard and serious reboot to a beloved childhood franchise. The original show is infamous for its cheesiness, replete with dime-store special effects, slapdash dub work straight form an imported 1950s creature feature, and an awkward marriage of Japanese sentai and American superheroes. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the series still maintains a kind of innocent charm that transcends any and all of its flaws. The new Power Rangers only occasionally reaches that level of camp apotheosis, sadly, but it’s quite entertaining to watch the attempt.
The story here is essentially the intro credits for the original show stretched out to two full hours. There are five random teenagers who are chosen to be the Power Rangers, an elite fighting force dedicated to protecting Earth from galactic enemies. The most immediate threat happens to be Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a millions-years-old space witch looking for an artifact called the Zeo Crystal. Its up to alien intelligence Zordon (Bryan Cranston), and his trusty robot helper Alpha (Bill Hader), to mold these teenagers with attitude into the superheroes they’re destined to be.
Right from the film’s first scenes, it’s clear that this is going to be a different kind of story than the original. When a prank against a rival school’s football team goes awry, jock boy and future Red Ranger Jason (Darce Montogmery), leads the cops on a wild chase filmed with a 360-degree camera that gets a workout when Jason’s truck flips and crashes. Director Dean Israelite doesn’t do anything as interesting with his camera after that, unfortunately, but maintains a satisfying and competent level of superhero cinema framing that truly typifies the film. From a technical standpoint, there’s very little extraordinary here, but there’s also very little extraordinarily wrong, either.
Where the film shines isn’t in its cinematography, its design, or its action sequences. The biggest asset is the team of teenagers at its core. All five actors display varying levels of naturalism and skill, but as a whole, they work remarkably well on screen. Appropriately enough, they work better as a team than they do individually, bouncing energy off of each other with an easy, organic chemistry. Team leader Jason, for instance, comes off as slightly boring during his own plot line but seems to come alive when he’s interacting with his fellow Rangers. This is especially true during his interactions with Pink Ranger Kimberly (Naomi Scott), whose delivery and bearing resemble nothing less than Buffy Summers at her most Whedon-esque, a sharp contrast to Jason’s relatively bland, good-natured jock persona. It may take way, way too long to get the kids into their Ranger costumes, but at least the time spent with them as civilians never feels wasted.
The most striking aspect about the team, though, is its unspoken diversity. All of the Rangers come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Blue Ranger Billy (RJ Cyler) is autistic, and Yellow Ranger Trini (Becky G) is either an L or a B in the LGBT spectrum. Despite being the most diverse cinematic superhero team in recent memory, though, the cast never feels like a demographic checklist. There is an unspoken truth to the diversity of the team, making them seem more realistic than does all of the self-conscious, down-to-earth posturing that most of the screenplay forces on the narrative.
While the team is made up of mostly unknowns, the main supporting players are a talented trio who don’t hesitate to bring their A-game. Bryan Cranston gives weight to a role that seems ridiculous on paper; an alien who died millions of years ago and is reincarnated as the artificial intelligence of a downed spaceship. He has a natural authority and gravitas that translates well to the material. Likewise, Bill Hader is great as Alpha, the robot’s wise-cracks and daffy attitude ideally suited to his unique vocal delivery. But neither of them is as captivating as Elizabeth Banks as Rita. Clearly relishing every moment of her screen time, Banks is deliciously evil and mesmerizingly camp in equal measures. Like Frank Langella’s Shakespearean take on Skeletor, Banks’ Rita is much more than the cackling, “because evil” villain of the series. She’s as perfectly cast in the role as Angelia Jolie was in Maleficent, and she’s just as work-it-mama fierce.
But this wouldn’t be the Power Rangers without an epic battle at the end of the running time, and it’s during this extended event that the films starts to crash. Dean Israelite doesn’t have a clear grasp on action, especially on this scale, and the final battle is a mess, with confused choreography, inexplicable twists, and any number of deus ex machina. Quite literally, as it turns out. That the whole thing starts with the Rangers piloting dinosaur mecha to a completely stone-faced recreation of the original theme song should be a clear sign that we’re entering a lactose-intolerant zone. The final battle’s cheese is a stark contrast to the relatively earthbound film that follows it, and it nearly serves to devolve the film entirely.
That being said, fans of the original will probably delight to every second of that battle. Giant robots, rock monsters, a titanic creature made of molten gold, and Banks’ Rita screaming threats against the courageous and plucky Rangers sets off any number of welcome childhood memories. Power Rangers sets forth with a dangerous mission of recreating the thrill of the original series while also trying to modernize the franchise for a relatively more cynical adult audience. That it succeeds even part of the time is probably a testament to the dedication of the cast and crew. It’s breezy and charming almost in spite of itself, even when it hits every origin-story cliche it possibly can, and it doesn’t apologize for its flaws as much as it races over them to get to the next distraction. So maybe it’s a perfect adaptation after all.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-