Based on the perennially successful “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” series that has been airing on TV in various iterations since the early ’90s, this new film attempts to update the costumed-samurai-who-ride-robot-dinosaurs premise for a modern audience — to varying levels of success.
Directed by Dean Israelite (“Project Almanac”), “Power Rangers” follows in that series’ footsteps by choosing to focus mostly on the five titular heroes rather then the wacky world around them. These aren’t the happy-go-lucky Power Rangers of yesteryear; these teenagers are troubled, and the film makes sure that the audience knows it. A cast of talented, more-or-less unknowns makes up the ranks of these new edgier Rangers, including Dacre Montgomery (“A Few Less Men”), Naomi Scott (“Terra Nova”), RJ Cyler (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Becky G (“House of Sin”), and Ludi Lin (“Monster Hunt”) who are joined by veteran actors Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live”), and Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect”) as the more ridiculous sci-fi characters.
Although it opens with a wacky sci-fi prelude in which Cranston’s Zordon becomes the last remaining original Power Ranger, the vast majority of the film’s runtime is spent focusing on the various familial and social problems that the teenagers are dealing with rather then the extraterrestrial threat of Banks’s Rita Repulsa. One of our heroes is a burnt-out star quarterback, one of them is caring for an ailing parent, one of them has autism, one was involved in a sexting scandal and one of them doesn’t believe her parents will accept her for who she really is. All of them are social outcasts; it’s teen drama to the 10th degree.
In the name of being realistic, “Power Rangers” ends up turning into an episode of “Degrassi” for long stretches of its runtime. Everything is played so seriously that when it is finally time for someone to shout “Go, go, power rangers!” and giant robot dinosaurs run across the screen, it’s hard not to completely laugh out loud. Tonal whiplash abounds, and yet somehow, against all odds, parts of it do kind of work.
Make no mistake, “Power Rangers” is stupid. Not stupid in the mindless destruction sense of “Man of Steel” or “The Avengers” or any other number of other recent superhero flicks, but stupid in that it combines a lot of different dumb stuff together. It’s got that dumb teenage melodrama. It’s got that dumb big action scene at the end. It’s got a pretty fun villain with a pretty dumb plan. But as dumb as it all is, the actors know it, the writer knows it, the studio clearly knew it and the director seems to have given but one direction to his cast: ham it up. The movie goes all in on every dumb thing about it.
But it’s hard not to respect that in a day and age in which every movie is trying to be the most important or the biggest movie of the year. This movie knows what it is. It’s a B-movie for kids. And kids will undoubtedly love it. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel from a narrative perspective, but it does bring some much needed diversity to the Power Rangers ranks in a way that is more understated and natural then similar attempts by other movies (the recent “Beauty and the Beast” comes to mind). Everyone (especially the older actors) is clearly having a ball, and the last third of the film revels in being about exactly one thing: the power of friendship. Yes, “Power Rangers” is a silly, dumb kids movie. But it never tries to be anything but that. In this day and age, that’s oddly quaint.