Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mighty Morphin Nostalgia: "Power Rangers" goofy but better than expected

Power Rangers (2017) 
124 min., rated PG-13.

Every generation has its nostalgic property, but how does one reboot a cheesy, admittedly uncool 1993 Fox Kids TV show about a team of color-coded superheroes mentored by an alien wizard for a 2017 audience? Lionsgate put their faith in the vision of director Dean Israelite (2015’s “Project Almanac”) and screenwriter John Gatins (2012’s “Flight”), and while there’s always room for improvement, this isn’t a bad start if the studio wants to rake in money and build a franchise. Even having watched the show as an undiscriminating child, seen the 1995 motion picture in theaters, been the red ranger for Halloween one year, and made my parents take me to see a live show, there wasn't any overwhelming desire to see “Power Rangers” for this writer, so within that context, expectations are mostly exceeded. No one should be going into it expecting anything more than a silly sci-fi adventure geared for teens, but as corporate filmmaking goes, it actually looks and feels like a legitimate feature film. 

About 65 million years ago during the Cenozoic Era, Power Rangers were tasked to protect Earthlings and look after a magical crystal. The Green Ranger, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), rebelled against her team and in a war against the Red Ranger, Zordon (Bryan Cranston), gets blown into the ocean. Now in the present-day in the small coastal town of Angel Grove, a new team of Power Rangers will have to assemble. After a school prank that loses him a potential football scholarship and leaves him under house arrest, star quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) ends up going to detention. Amidst the room of troubled misfits are recently unpopular cheerleader Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott) and on-the-spectrum genius Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler). When Jason, Billy, and Kimberly end up in a restricted area of a mine, they also meet up with daredevil Zack (Ludi Lin), who lives in a trailer and takes care of his ill mother, and angsty rebel Trini (Becky G.), the new girl in town. The five kids unearth color-coded power coins and come across the alien ship of Zordon, thus realizing the super strength and other powerful abilities they’ve adopted will be put to great use. Meanwhile, once the corpse of evil incarnate Rita is reanimated, she is hellbent on finding the Zero Crystal that is hidden underneath a Krispy Kreme (yes, the donut chain) and destroying the planet. With the fate of the universe at the hands of these teens, will they learn to work together and be able to morph into their warrior armor? Can they defeat Rita so she doesn’t return for the sequel?

After an unpromising, albeit brief, joke involving masturbating a cow, “Power Rangers” wants to be a somewhat grounded and grittier iteration of the ‘90s brand before embracing the kitschy tone of the for-kids-only TV show. Playing like “The Breakfast Club” by way of “Chronicle,” the film follows an origin story template with loose similarities to the 2015 rebranding of “Fantastic Four.” The high school drama involving Jason’s failed football career and tempestuous relationship with his father (David Denman) is of the “Varsity Blues”/“Friday Night Lights” variety, and Kimberly’s falling out with her squad is heavy-handed where her former friends meet her in the school bathroom to literally cut her out of a group photo. There is fun and wonder in the early sections of the kids figuring out their powers, as well as jumping between a mountainous crevice and finding a watery cave that leads them to Zordon’s spaceship. The viewer also eventually finds an emotional investment—it’s not deep but it certainly exists—in these five teenagers who become unlikely friends and an unlikely team of superheroes; a surprisingly touching use of Bootstraps’ cover of “Stand by Me” works in the film’s favor after the stakes get real. And while there is shameless product placement (read: don't forget to grab a Krispy Kreme donut after the show), it amusingly finds its place as a plot point.

Of the diverse but CW-ready actors, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott are naturally engaging as Jason and Kimberly, while RJ Cyler (2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) proves to be the scene-stealing standout with the most charisma as Billy. Ludi Lin is likable as Zack, too, and Becky G. is eye-catching as Trini but a little stiff around the edges, but these latter two get less of a chance to form their characters or leave much of a mark. Bryan Cranston somehow brings gravitas to Zordon, a holographic face on a pin-art wall, while Bill Hader is passable comic relief as robotic sidekick Alpha 5. Above all else, a half-menacing, half-goofy Elizabeth Banks is undoubtedly having the most campy fun out of her castmates as super-evil villainess Rita Repulsa, and with a name like that, how could she not? Chewing scenery full-tilt like it’s a delicious dessert, she prowls around with her staff in hand and even slurps down pieces of gold at one point.

“Power Rangers” isn’t exactly a quote-unquote “good” movie, but it is the closest to what fans will ever get. Save for an early dizzying single take of Jason getting into a car accident, the cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd is unspectacular, taking on a junky shaky-cam shooting style and adding a few canted angles. Otherwise, in comparison to 1995’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” the production values are slick and more sophisticated without the look of Styrofoam sets. And as for the performances, they are acceptably earnest rather than terrible. Action sequences are fine but all move in the same stylistic fashion with slo-mo until the big showdown in the heart of Angel Grove when our heroes inside their dino Zord vehicles take on Rita and her monsters. The TV show’s theme song also gets less than thirty seconds to shine, and only fans will recognize the cameos turned in by two of the former Rangers in a crowd shot. As a vehicle for something that was pretty lame in retrospect, “Power Rangers” might even be too good for its source material.

Grade: C +

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