Well, this is a surprise. But as crazy as it feels to be typing these words, Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers is perfectly okay. In fact, you know what? I’d even go as far as to say it’s pretty good. It has problems, obviously, some of which are pretty damaging, and your mileage will no doubt vary, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have quite a good time with this thing.
Maybe it’s just me. I’m exactly old enough that Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was a fairly significant part of my formative years, and even though it was news to me that the show even continued beyond that point (and as far as I know it’s still going), I nonetheless have a degree of sentimental nostalgia for the idea of superpowered teenagers stomping around in their mechanized dinosaur buddies. What can I say? I’m still a big kid at heart.
Then again, this movie isn’t aimed at me. Can’t be, really. It only becomes a Power Rangers movie in the last 15-or-so minutes, and it runs for two hours. Sometimes it even feels a little ashamed of the association. But having said that, it’s certainly not for the kids who’re into the current version of the show. Again, can’t be. It’s too long, too downbeat, too talky. It’s too depth-averse for the older audiences who’d be interested in a more explorative, mature take on the premise. In all honesty, I don’t know who Power Rangers is for.
Still, here we are. The original premise – that of five teenagers defending their hometown from various wrong ’uns – has been given the usual grim and gritty modern reboot makeover. Now, instead of sunny, well-adjusted besties taking up the world-saving mantle, the Power Coins (don’t ask) have selected a random quintet of detention-seeking misfits who all initially hate each other. Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) is the future Red Ranger, which is Power Rangers for “leader”, and he’s a juvenile delinquent who stands up to classroom bullies; Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), aka the Pink Ranger, aka Every Young Lad’s First Crush, is embroiled in what all available evidence seems to suggest is a revenge porn scandal; Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler – genuinely fantastic) is an autistic technological tinkerer, and the Blue Ranger; Becky G is the Yellow Ranger, and presumably gay, which her parents don’t like; and Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, has a genuinely tragic backstory but doesn’t get enough screen-time for the movie to make any real use of it.
You’ll recognise the usual flavours of emotional baggage from various other Breakfast Club-style teen-angst movies, but you have to give Power Rangers some props for being matter-of-fact about the Blue Ranger being on the spectrum, and the Yellow Ranger not being straight. It’s certainly an improvement on some of the original series’ catastrophically short-sighted casting, which saw the Black Ranger as a black guy and the Yellow Ranger as a Chinese lady. (The pilot even cast the Red Ranger as a guy with Native American heritage, incredibly.) The problem here is that in an effort to completely encapsulate hardscrabble middle-American impoverishment, Power Rangers does tend to equate real issues like sexuality and mental illness with non-issues like the Pink Ranger being kind of a bitch and the Red Ranger being kind of a dick, neither for any real reason. Still, credit where it’s due.
As insufferable as all this sounds, it’s surprisingly tolerable – partly because the actors are all game, but mostly because John Gatins, who wrote the screenplay, is able to inject moments of genuine wit and pathos while openly acknowledging the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. The sincerity is palpable. You always get the sense that Power Rangers believes in itself and its convictions, so whenever it inflicts bodily harm or melodramatic turmoil on the Rangers you’re stunned by how much you’ve come to care about them. It can turn something completely hokey – the Black Ranger bellows about how much he loves his mother – into a legitimate tear-jerker. There’s a patience to the storytelling that you rarely see in an action blockbuster – especially one adapted from a children’s TV show nakedly designed to sell toys.
People have complained, obviously. And I must admit that most of the criticisms are justified. A lot of the humour does tend towards crudity for easy laughs, it does take too long for the Rangers to get in their armour, and the product placement is egregious (a whole plot point is built around a crystal hidden underneath a Krispy Kreme.) But what Power Rangers nails is the series’ overarching tone of togetherness; of putting aside differences and working as a team. It takes a good long time for the inevitable side-by-side slow-motion walk of triumph, but when it finally arrives the fucking thing brings the house down. (So does a brief blast of the original music, at which point I almost hit the roof.) It’s easy to be snarky and cynical about a movie like this, and if you pay too much attention to Bryan Cranston’s wall-mounted Zordon, who trains the Rangers, it’s easy to buy into the idea that everyone involved in the production feels that way too. But the rest of the supporting cast are having fun, and it shows. Elizabeth Banks’s villainess, Rita Repulsa, takes great pleasure in moulding her beloved stone golems, and Bill Hader’s perennially-annoying robot tutor, Alpha 5, is likeably droll.
You have to ask yourself how much thoughtfulness and artistic integrity you were really expecting from such a blatant merchandising opportunity, and if it’s more than what Power Rangers provides, you need to lower your expectations. For what it is, its fine. It could stand to be better-made, I’ll admit. Some of the characterization requires the audience to connect too many dots, and whenever there isn’t an action scene happening (which is almost always) the filmmaking is nervous and overedited. But there’s a heart beneath the power armour. There’s a brain beneath the helmets. And when you do get to the finale, and all the stuff you presumably came to see, I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed by it. If you ever wanted to behold an episode of the show that has the full weight of Hollywood behind it, you have your wish. And you even get a 105-minute movie attached to it.
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