Of all the pop culture oddities that have endured for decades, none is more surprising to me than the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Somehow this low budget show that spliced in American actors into action scenes filmed in Japan has endured through many various incarnations of the show, maintaining a cult following since its debut. Now it’s time for the big budget Hollywood reboot with Power Rangers, the film from director Dean Israelite. This modern version is a conflicted movie, one that works best when embracing the campy nature of its source material and not the serious, grounded attempt at teen drama wrapped around youths empowered by alien technology. Just because the absurdity of “Mighty Morphin” has been dropped from the title doesn’t mean that any of the Power Rangers story isn’t wildly absurd.
The film opens in the Cenozoic Era as a battle rages between Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). Before Rita can declare victory a meteor comes crashing down on Earth, burying both of them beneath the Earth’s surface. In modern day Angel Grove, Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is the town’s elite football star who has just found himself on the wrong side of the law after a high school prank has gone bad. In trying to escape the authorities his car crashes and injures his knee, effectively ending his football career. Jason is placed in weekend detention which he has to share with Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a popular girl whose popularity has waned over some controversy, and Billy (RJ Cyler), a young outsider who is socially awkward because he’s on the spectrum. After quickly forming an unlikely friendship, Billy and Jason find themselves at a mining site on the outskirts of town where Jason finds Kimberly. While Billy is looking for something buried in the rock, they’re joined by Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G.) as the quintet of teens discover mysterious coins. They awake the next day each with superhuman strength and abilities, leading them to return to the discovery site where they find a massive spaceship lost for millions of years. There they meet Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and the saved psyche of Zordon. They are to become Power Rangers, and are tasked with training to defeat the resurgent Rita Repulsa and her nefarious scheme to resurrect Goldar, a massive monster of gold, to end all life on Earth.
A majority of Power Rangers is spent dealing with the five teenagers training to become their alter egos in what seems like a case of withholding for budgetary reasons. This leads to a lot of petty teen drama that consistently falls flat and plenty of mundane training montages. Attempts to tackle issues such as sexual identity, bullying, and the sharing of risqué teen pictures wobble under the film’s often wretched dialogue, though at least some credit should be given for trying to tackle serious issues. When the screenplay by John Gatins (from a story credited to Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Michele Mulroney, and Kiernan Mulroney) works best is when it’s aiming for fun, which sadly isn’t often enough. Too often Power Rangers is trying to have it both ways in having absurd, campy fun with grounded teen drama to an underwhelming effect.
Of all the issues with the story of Power Rangers, nothing is more egregious than the oversized role Krispy Kreme plays in the film. We’ve all become accustomed to product placement in blockbuster movies, but Power Rangers takes it step further than anything of recent memory, making Man of Steel look restrained in comparison. The film’s MacGuffin is buried beneath the doughnut shop and its brand name is constantly repeated and shown multiple times, concluding with Rita Repulsa sitting back and enjoying one of their delicacies. It could be said that Krispy Kreme is the sixth Ranger of the group, the chain plays that big of a role in the movie.
The burden of the film’s tonal issues fall on the shoulders of its cast, many of the younger actors playing the material to a deadly serious level. Dacre Montgomery comes across as a poor man’s Zac Efron, failing to turn his matinee idol good looks into tangible charisma. The best performances of Power Rangers come from the few actors who have some kind of sense as to what kind of movie they’re in. Elizabeth Banks is a having a blast chewing scenery as the villainous Rita Repulsa. It’s an over-the-top, larger than life performance that isn’t hindered by trying to be grounded. It’s pure camp and she’s one of the few highlights of the film. As for the young cast, RJ Cyler steals the show from his fellow Power Rangers, providing the crew with all the heart and humor. Meanwhile, the rest of the young cast is saddled with painful dialogue such as, “Are we Power Rangers or are we friends?”
Dean Israelite’s film concludes with a bombastic, never-ending climax of CGI action. It’s a go for broke conclusion that becomes exhausting as it just continues to hammer away at the audience with all the mayhem it withheld for an hour and a half prior. It is during these scenes that the theme song from the original show plays and a couple of familiar faces from the past make brief, unobtrusive cameos. But the film shouldn’t have withheld its action until the final act. The audience and the characters are unfamiliar with what these Power Rangers can do with their powers and technology, and it results in a bombardment of unearned reveals about their abilities that doesn’t seem to emerge organically from the story. Everything happens at the end because it’s what’s expected to happen.
Power Rangers isn’t an all-out disaster, just a middling movie that’s mostly bad. At its heart is a conflicted personality that prevents it from ever finding its rhythm and allowing to freely entertain. My guess is that Power Rangers will please the devotees of the original series, giving them just enough to enjoy that they’ll come back for another installment. Other than that, Power Rangers is only likely to enthrall younger audiences that will be dazzled by the film’s overloaded conclusion. If there is a sequel to Power Rangers, let’s just hope they realize it’s all incredibly absurd and just fully embrace the campy tone.