By Érico Lotufo
BU News Service
In these cynical days, maybe no nostalgia property has been the butt of more jokes than “Power Rangers.” I mean, remember the stilted acting, bad effects and cheesy villains? What about the fact that it was a repurposed Japanese franchise (“Super Sentai”) with American actors to sell toys?
All that cynicism clouds most of the very good parts of the franchise: some seasons had great characters, the fight scenes were always great, and its moral (“teamwork is awesome”) was always a nice thing to have in a TV show aimed at kids.
Now, the Rangers are back. They never really went away. The show’s 24th season is airing right now on Nickelodeon. This time they have a big new trick up their sleeve: a budget. The end-product is a flawed, yet entertaining film held together by its charismatic main cast.
The story is a more grounded retelling of the main plot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” Season 1. Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) is arrested after a major prank and must spend his Saturdays in a special detention class. Adding to his disappointment is that it costs him his role as Angel Grove High School’s star quarterback. He was even being scouted by colleges before being caught.
There, and through other circumstances, he meets the rest of the Rangers: Billy (RJ Cyler) is the nerd, Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is the popular girl, Trini (Becky G) is the rebel and Zack (Ludi Lin) is, well, sort of crazy. If this sounds a lot like “The Breakfast Club” with superpowers, that’s because it is (and honestly, that comparison has been done too much already).
After they find strange coins in a mine that give them powers, the “teenagers with attitude” discover that it is their destiny to take on the mantle of the Power Rangers and defeat Rita Repulsa (played in the perfect balance of cheesy and threatening by Elizabeth Banks). Zordon (played by Rangers alum Bryan Cranston) and Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader) guide them in their quest.
The movie, after that, stops almost to a complete halt. Instead of focusing on the more well-known actors, such as Banks or Cranston, the spotlight is given to the five kids and their problems. It’s a bold move: instead of giving them the power to morph in the second act, they must spend that time earning their suits before they can wear them. This means training and, most importantly, becoming friends.
It’s something that can make-or-break the movie. In one way, a lot of time is given for the characters to breath and develop. In another way, it does take awfully long for real action to take place. Training montages just don’t cut it.
While all five main characters get their backstories and depth, the true star of the show is R.J. Cyler’s Billy. His character, autistic in this version, is funny, smart and very excited with the prospect of becoming a superhero. Not surprisingly, he becomes the emotional center of the group – and the movie.
The acting is by far the best “Power Rangers” has ever seen. Casting unknown young actors was always a point in the TV show and was maintained in the movie. The closest a season’s acting ever reached this movie’s level, talent-wise, was “Power Rangers: RPM,” when Eka Darville (“Jessica Jones”), Rose McIver (“iZombie”) and Adelaide Kane (“Reign”) were part of the cast.
The teens, however, highlight another flaw: the tone is all over the place. While their levity towards adversity is an endearing trait, the film never really knows how to measure its dark moments with its lighter ones. In the end of the second act, for example, things take a dark turn very quickly. The contrast with the lighter, training/bonding time of the previous half-hour is jarring.
All of this sets up an action-packed third act that leaves you wanting more. It’s short, but not that sweet. The hand-to-hand combat portions, especially, disappoint with director Dean Israelite’s quick cuts and shaky cam making everything hard to follow. The Zord battles transform the movie into a mini “Pacific Rim” with worse effects.
Stil, I can’t help but believe that “Power Rangers” is a movie to watch with any kind of cynicism thrown out the window. That was true with the TV show and it stays true now: just enjoy the young, engaging characters and some cheesy performances like Banks’. It’s enough for you to have a good time in this cynical world.