Film Review: Power Rangers (USA, 2017) is an unexpected thrill for the teen superhero genre

To go back and transpose Power Rangers into a blockbuster teen superhero film in this day and age seems like an odd choice. Though the original TV series quickly became a cult hit, time hasn’t been so kind to the franchise, even if it has strangely persisted for over two decades (it’s 24th season is currently airing in the U.S as “Power Rangers Ninja Steel”). Cast changes and inconsistencies muddled what was otherwise a fun but ultimately silly and forgettable take on superhero culture, mostly notable for its attempts at diversity, deliciously tacky music and Godzilla-like boss battles. On the big screen, director Dean Israelite brings a decidedly dark and muscular tone as he crafts an origin story for the colour-coded superheroes and surprisingly succeeds in blending the campy qualities of the TV show with a template obviously built around this era’s saturation of brooding superhero stories.

In creating an atmosphere that’s never been applied to the Power Rangers before (outside of a brief online-only satire by Director Joseph Kahn), Isrealite manages to take this project beyond it’s low expectations, despite the hallmarks of a teen action flick – the most noticeable of which is the almost unbearably cheesy dialogue and imbalanced character sketches. The result is the overlap of something like The Breakfast Club and Chronicle, with the main mistake found within the pace, a poor choice that was obviously made to leave room for a hopeful sequel.

Writer John Gatins has obviously gone and changed a few niggling elements of the central team to avoid controversy. For example, instead of the black ranger being a rebellious black actor, the team’s wild card is now an Asian American portrayed with playfulness by Ludi Lin, a sensitive take on Zach. Furthermore, the yellow ranger is no longer Asian, but Latina singer/actor Becky G, and talented young black actor RJ Cyler is now Billy Cranston, the scene-stealing and genuinely likable blue ranger. Rounding out Power Rangers is default leader/slash white male quarterback/red ranger Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) and pink ranger Kimberley Hart (Naomi Scott) who has been ripped out of a Mean Girls storyline and is in after-school detention (where three of the five first meet) for callously spreading nude pictures of her ex-bff. All five young actors slip into their roles well, particularly Lin, Scott and Cyler, although none can quite rise above Elizabeth Banks who seems to have such a glorious time eating gold, ripping out teeth and taking part in an overdone Krispy Kreme commercial as over-the-top villain Rita Repulsa.

Also on the cards is Bryan Cranston who plays exposition-tron-9000 AKA Zordon and his robotic assistant Alpha 5, voiced by Bill Hader. Both are guides for the five teens once they discover that they have been pulled together by fate – fate being five different glowing rocks buried by an able-bodied Zordon after he is killed by Rita in the film’s prelude. The O.G protector of the all-powerful (for reasons barely explained) Zeo Crystal appears mostly via supersized pin art (a much more stylish choice than some hologram in a giant blue tube) and espouses, often unwillingly, these five teens as the new saviours and the only ones who can stop Rita from getting her hands on the crystal, which as it turns out is buried under a Krispy Kreme. You know, regular “chosen one” and product placement stuff.

Aside from a sincerely heartwarming sacrifice that gives the film the kind of depth it struggles with in it’s first half, Zordon is mainly there for checklist purposes, a necessary though largely unforgettable character who has a strange resistance to providing details at the times when they could have been the most useful. As such we get the film’s most frustrating roadblock which is how these five teens take their Power Ranger status to the next level and “morph” into their candy-coloured suits. At a time when the film is already fighting an uphill battle, on account of no one actually asking for a Power Rangers reboot, it does appear to be a bad idea to focus on a sci-fi coming of age story for three-quarters of the film and stall when it comes to the franchises best known beats: the morphing, the “zords”, the mechazord, Rita’s “make my monster grow” desperation – the fun stuff. The purpose is to slowly build a heavy-handed message about teamwork but the sentiment is much too unoriginal to have any resonance.

Thankfully when the film does take things to the next level – complete with that oh-so-cheesy theme song (for a few seconds) – it’s the kind of goofy-grinned nostalgia reboots like this were made for, an incredibly fun and colourful battle which pits five out-of-depth teenagers controlling a gigantic robot against Rita’s wonderfully built Goldar (minus the comical blue face from the TV show), who gets his brilliant design from the Oscar winning digital theatrics of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.

A push away from the TV show has also given room for some interesting ideas which elevate the franchise to new levels. For example, putties (Rita’s generic, mass-spawned henchmen) are no longer ridiculous walking garbage bags who inexplicably make turkey noises, but hordes of rock golems who actually look menacing. Though, it’s the kind of smart evolution that contrasts with and is overshadowed by several missteps, like forgetting to develop the yellow and black ranger until the eleventh hour, instead placing them at the quarry (the fateful site where all five discover the glowing rocks) in some kind of contrived way to have everyone together at the same time.

It’s this lack of balance that holds the film back from what surprisingly turns out to be a potential no one saw coming, but at the end of the day at least Isrealite managed to offer an interesting and incredibly fun reinterpretation of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Power Rangers is out now.