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Friday, March 24, 2017

Power Rangers

I feel I should begin this review by saying I have no personal connection or history with the original Power Rangers TV show, or its numerous spin offs over the past 20 years or so.  I was 16 when the show debuted in 1993, and while I could see the appeal of the show for kids and figured I would have loved it if I was in the right age group, I was never able to get into its combination of Japanese monster footage, and American teenage sitcom tone.  Besides, I was heavily into Japanese anime fandom at the time, so when it came to superheroes fighting cheesy monsters, I preferred the Super Saiyans of Dragon Ball, or even the Sailor Senshi of Sailor Moon.

So, I was not exactly pumped to see a cinematic reboot of the original franchise, especially since most of the trailers seemed to be trying to make the film look unnecessarily dark, gritty and serious.  Even if I did not follow the original show regularly, I did know enough about it to know that dark and gritty it was not. (I seem to remember one episode where the heroes battled a rapping pumpkin monster.) Perhaps it was the lowered expectations I walked in with, but I honestly ended up having some fun with this movie.  It's not a great film by any long shot, but it's energetic, has some bright young actors at the center, and does kind of work at what it wants to be.  This may be a soulless cash grab film designed to pluck the nostalgic heartstrings of the fanbase who are now in their 20s/30s, but as far as soulless nostalgic cash grabs go, I've seen a lot worse.

I was actually surprised by how character-driven the film ended up being.  The movie is much more about the five kids behind the Power Rangers, than it is about the Rangers themselves.  In fact, the kids don't even don their armored suits and battle monsters until the last 20 minutes of the movie.  This will likely be a disappointment to some fans, but I appreciated this approach, especially when that action climax sequence came, and it ended up being about as dumb and loud as you expect.  I don't know if I could have taken an entire movie made up of that kind of material.  Should a sequel be made, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more giant monster battles, so fans can take heart.  Everyone else should probably take Advil.  This is essentially your standard "origin movie", where we're introduced to five largely outcast kids, who are brought together to save the world by a 65 million year old alien named Zordon (Bryan Cranston, who has a history with the original TV show before he became famous, and shows he's a good sport here), and his wise cracking robot sidekick Alpha 5 (voice by Bill Hader).

Our teen heroes include troubled football jock Jason (Dacre Montgomery), who has a passion for delinquency, disgraced cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott), who has lost her popularity and her friends, and nerdy Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic kid who is basically seen as the school reject.  These three happen to meet in a Saturday detention that takes so much inspiration from The Breakfast Club, John Hughes should have gotten a mention in the credits.  After detention, all three happen to turn up at a rock quarry for one reason or another, where two other kids, Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (pop singer Becky G), also happen to be hanging out.  Billy manages to trigger an explosion which unleashes multi-colored coins that the kids collect, and wind up giving them superior strength and other superhuman abilities.  They return to the rock quarry to investigate, and discover a long-buried spaceship, where the alien Zordon resides, and informs them that they are destined to become the Power Rangers, and battle an evil force that has recently been awakened, and is going to set about destroying the Earth in about eleven days.

The evil force in question is Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former Ranger who betrayed Zordon, and nearly set about the destruction of Earth those long 65 million years ago.  She needs gold and other precious metals to not only restore herself to her former beauty, but to also create her towering golden monster who can help her obtain an ancient crystal that will give her infinite power.  And honestly, Banks is having a bit too much fun with this role.  She's completely off the rails, and chewing every bit of scenery she can find, and it's kind of wonderful in a total cheese sort of way.  She knows what kind of movie she's in, she knows she's playing an over the top villain, and she goes full into it with total gusto.  I guess there's no way you can play a character named Rita Repulsa with any sort of subtlety, and Banks is clearly having the time of her life.  She gets to be dark and sinister (she spends a majority of her screentime murdering hapless civilians for their gold valuables), while also strutting around like a cartoon drag queen on some kind of power trip.

As for the kids themselves, they are all fresh faced and likable, with their own tragic backstories. (Zack, the future Black Ranger, is caring for his sick mother, Trini the Yellow Ranger is an outcast at home and at school, etc.).  But it is Cyler as Billy who gets the sympathy of the audience, and largely serves as the heart of the film.  For all the craziness that happens in this movie, the kids are fairly grounded in reality.  These aren't deep characters, and they're nothing we haven't seen before in other teen dramas, but they are likable, and the young cast fills their roles well, and even get to play off one another.  The fact that the movie is mostly devoted to these five teenagers coming together and becoming friends and eventual superhero team despite their differences is the strongest aspect of the screenplay, in my opinion.  For all the aliens and giant gold monsters that inhabit this movie, it was the kids and the relationships they build that caught my interest.

Like I said, maybe some fans or former fans will see this as a downgrade, and will just want to see the cheesy action.  Well, the last half hour gives us plenty of that, kicked up to Michael Bay levels.  But even when the movie turns into a mindless special effects reel during the closing moments, I still had to admire how the filmmakers still kept their sense of humor.  Our heroes learn that the ancient crystal of power that Rita is seeking happens to be located underneath a Krispy Kreme shop.  In terms of product placement, seeing the Power Rangers battling a giant monster in a climax centered around a tiny little doughnut store is the kind of silliness I can embrace. 

As expected, this is basically a large-scale reboot of the original Power Rangers TV show, done in the style of the Marvel movies, or perhaps the live action Transformers.  It's certainly not anything original, but it does have a certain slyness to it that I enjoyed.  And also, the human characters don't get lost among the special effects.  That's probably the best complement I can pay this film.  I can only recommend this movie to a certain audience, and you probably already know if you're part of it.  But honestly, I had more fun with this than I ever expected to.

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