Power Rangers (2017) [dir. Dean Israelite]

Posted: March 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Nostalgia aside, can we all agree that the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” TV show is ridiculous garbage. I was about 9 or 10 when the show came on, and as a kid I loved it. As an adult, the show does not hold up one iota. There are few things I loved in my childhood that hold up LESS when the nostalgia goggles are removed than MMPR. Hell, the “Howard the Duck” movie holds up better. The concept was always pretty stupid: a powerful alien imbues five squeaky-clean middle-class teenagers with super powers so that they can karate chop golems and fight giant monsters on a weekly basis, while an evil sorceress who lives on the moon (or something) keeps trying to defeat them and conquer Earth. Trying to turn that concept into anything that is not dripping with cheese and campiness is quite a feat.

You could argue that the original series was never meant to be good. A company took footage from a Japanese TV show and spliced it in with new footage shot in America to create a cheap show that would be profitable and follow in the success of similar programs like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Captain Planet”. Then the show became ridiculously popular, spawned two terrible feature films, and is apparently still ongoing, even if it has generally left the cultural zeitgeist except as a memory in our now-nostalgia-soaked heads.

But, since everything my generation once loved is being rebooted, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that we now have a new “Power Rangers” film, rebooted with better production quality and strained of as much campiness and cheese as possible. I am pretty shocked to report that this shitty TV show has been adapted into a pretty decent, fun film. The concept is still stupid, but by focusing on a cast of likable characters and approaching the material as a quasi-“Breakfast Club” with superheroes, we end up with a film that is shockingly successful at being a fun B-movie.

Our five main characters, in a “Breakfast Club”-like fashion, are a jock, a geek, a princess, a rebel, and an outcast. Three of them even meet in detention. We’re first introduced to Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the captain of the football team who is kicked off of the team and has to wear an ankle bracelet after a stupid prank goes wrong (there’s even a joke about accidental bull masturbation…yeah). Jason defends an autistic nerd named Billy (RJ Cyler) in detention, and soon they’re going to the local gold mine (just go with it) where Billy accidentally uncovers some glowing alien coins (just go with it). Also at the mine at the same time, in what the film suggests is not as coincidental and convenient as it seems, are former cheerleader turned social pariah Kimberly (Naomi Scott), sort-of rebel Zack (Ludi Lin), and a brooding outcast named Trini (Becky G). They each end up with a color coded coin and have super powers like abnormal strength and jumping abilities.

As the plot unfolds, then end up in a millions of years old alien spaceship underneath the mine, which is watched over by a robot named Alpha Five (Bill Hader, sounding like Patton Oswalt for some reason), and the appearance of the kids leads to the awakening of Zordon (Bryan Cranston…yeah, he’s in this). See, Zordon was once a Power Ranger (the stupid name “Power Rangers” can possibly be chalked up to a translation issue from Zordon’s native language into English) but his team was defeated by the evil Rita Repulsa (a hammy Elizabeth Banks). That the name Rita is apparently alien in origin and millions of years old is humorous. Anyway, Rita apparently wants some crystals so that she can have the power to control the universe, but the crystals are hidden somewhere in the vicinity of Angel Grove, the town our five main characters live in. Zordon was able to imprison Rita in the Earth, I guess (the film doesn’t really explain this, or how Rita is resurrected), but now she’s back and will obtain the crystals and destroy the world unless our five kids can learn to work together, and all of that touchy-feely “Full House” type stuff.

This concept is stupid, but the film does its best to patch over the stupidity. Zordon finds it unusual that the coins, which apparently choose the people worthy of being Rangers, selected give teenagers. It’s always been weird that middle-class teens of all possible people would be endowed with alien powers, but the film makes it work by addressing the absurdity. We also get decent explanations for why the Zords (vehicles used by the rangers) look like prehistorical animals, and why they don’t just start off as the Megazord right away (always my complaint with the original show). The film also makes Alpha Five far less annoying, and even funny, though he does deliver his catchphrase of “Ai-yi-yi-yi-yi”. The film even finds ways to incorporate the dialogue of “it’s morphin time” in an almost organic fashion, and we do get a few bars of the iconic theme song.

Where the film doesn’t succeed is in Rita Repulsa. She’s given a backstory that works (I’m told it comes from one of the comic book series that reinvented the Power Rangers mythos), but the character spends most of the film hunting for gold in a manner that reeks a bit too much like Warwick Davis as the Leprechaun. See, Rita hunts gold because it seems to give her power (why?) and also so she can build a giant gold monster to help her find the crystals. I’m sure there might be some symbolism behind the main monster being a literal being of molten gold, as opposed to the original Goldar, who was kind of a primate in gold armor with red eyes, but the whole gold aspect is the weakest part of the script. Banks is obviously having fun playing the character, and reimagining Rita as a sort of witch who has gone insane from a mixture of being evil and cosmic power mostly works, but that gold stuff is a bridge too far. Having Angel Grove have a gold mine I can excuse, as it provides an excuse for Zordon’s alien ship to be underground and for the main characters, mainly Billy, to be poking around in there, but the gold itself didn’t have to be this big a part of the plot. Gold plays as much a part of the plot of this film as it did for the movie literally titled “Gold” that came out in late 2016.

While the third act of the film involves all of the general silliness we associate with the TV show, where our Rangers are suited up and piloting their Zords while a big monster terrorizes the town, most of the film fits the general outline of a superhero origin story, as our characters try to overcome their own inner struggles and adversity to embrace their newfound powers. The actual process of obtaining and discovering their powers is vaguely similar to “Chronicle”, which might be because that film’s screenwriter, Max Landis, took a stab at writing this film before the producers went in a different direction (five different writers ended up with on-screen credit for the finished product). While origin stories are getting more and more boring as Hollywood continues to pump out dozens of superhero movies a year, “Power Rangers” works because the characters, while by no means deep, are genuinely likable. The film even explicitly tells us Billy is on the autism spectrum, making him the second positive autistic role model in a film in recent history after Ben Affleck in “The Accountant”, though that latter character is a multiple murderer. Trini isn’t explicitly identified as gay, but she does mention not believing in labels, and it’s fairly obvious that if she isn’t gay, she’s at least bi or pan, which is also a nice progressive step for the film to make.

Overall, the film is quite charming. The film threads the needle between trying to teach potential child audience members good lessons and keep that wholeheartedness the original show had, that after-school special morality, without being outright lame. The film could have easily tipped over into groan-inducing moralizing, but it carefully finds the right notes as it proceeds through the plot machinations. Even when one of our characters is revealed to have not been the best person in life before the events of the film, the movie steers clear of Lifetime TV movie territory or “Dawson Creek”-level schmaltz and lets the character arc play out nicely. I’m actually quite astonished by how many times this film sets itself up for failure only to end up successful at what it attempts.

The director here is Dean Israelite. The only other film of his I have seen is “Project Almanac”, which had a good concept (found-footage time travel film) that was undone by poor script execution. Here the script works, and his direction pulls it together. Even in the third act, where we watch digital monsters fight digital robots, he keeps the action focused on the characters so we don’t get bored, like I did when watching the latest “Kong” film. There’s also some impressive camerawork here, like in a scene involving a car accident at the beginning of the film where he spins the camera 360 degrees in what seems to be a single take (there’s probably some hidden cuts) to keep the action inside the vehicle and very kinetic. I have some issues with the film’s color palette, which is again that same washed-out blue/grey that makes us think the film takes place in Washington state under constant cloud cover, but it’s not as annoying here as in some other films.

Look, “Power Rangers” isn’t art, and the story is still pretty derivative and lackluster, but it gets by on likable and just-developed-enough characters. The humor hits the mark (even an insanely obvious product placement for Krispy Kreme and a jab at the “Transformers” films work), the CGI-fest third act is more fun than most of these things are lately, and I didn’t mind the logic gaps and stupidity of the underlying story as much as I normally do in movies like this.

If you’re going to see a movie based on the old TV show, this film is about the best we could have hoped for given how shitty the source material is. It’s true to the material, there is a decent amount of fan service, but the filmmakers recognized the weaknesses in that material and compensated for it. I went in expecting to hate this film and make fun of it, and I left having had a good time and being pleasantly surprised. I liked the characters, I laughed, I had fun, and I wasn’t bored. B-

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