Things seem to go in cycles, around twenty years. The directors who rose to prominence in the 80s remade and paid tribute to the b-movie horrors they loved in the 50s and 60s, and in the 90s the up and comers made films that paid tribute to the kung-fu and crime films of the 70s. In the early and to mid-2000s, directors made films that were tributes to the Spielberg and John Hughes movies of the 80s. Now there’s an influx of new films that are paying tribute to those from the 90s. Beauty and the Beast is currently playing in cinemas, but the biggest new release is the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, now just Power Rangers, rebooted as a sort of JJ Abrams Star Trek meets Batman Begins, with a Marvel Studios filter.
Much like the original series most twenty-somethings grew up on, the story concerns five teenagers who through plot contrivances and character development are brought together to become super powered heroes. The ins and outs of the plot are sort of silly, and most of the time don’t really make much of a difference.
The film itself plays out as a sort of mish-mash of the classic 80s/90s family friendly action sci-fi movies. There’s our hunky lead Dacre Montgomery as rebel-without-a-cause but ultimately good guy Jason Scott, who’s arrested and under tag for his part in a botched cow theft and car chase that messed his leg up nasty. The leader, meanwhile, is fairly bland and has little to do but be a moral centre. In fact, for the first half of the film, while he’s the detention where he finds his new friends, he’s more Emilio Esteves than Judd Nelson.
Naomi Scott makes a bid for superstar as Kimberly Hart, the sort of pretty girl with hidden depths that would have been played by Lindsay Lohan or Megan Foxx in days gone by. Even though her motivations for everything seem contradictory and have none of the power they should, she’s still an interesting character and played with increased passion.
Ludi Lin plays Zack Taylor, the manic overly enthusiastic member, and the most excited to be involved in the superhero action. Lin manages to channel early period Jim Carrey in her beginning scenes, being more than annoying, and gaining sympathy for a character that could have been a crazy side character.
Then there’s RJ Cyler as Billy Cranston, re imagined as an autistic nerd who is bullied for his perceived differences but is actually deep, emotional and forms the emotional heart of the movie. Billy is the stand out character in the film, not just being the token handicapped person, but becoming the heart at the core of the movie.
Finally Becky G rounds off the cast as Trini Kwan, the groups outsider member, and a lesbian. G does really well in her role, being both icy cool but also showing the depth hidden within, pulling off a role that few others could have done quite so well. The reluctance to be in the group could have become a grating exercise in padding out the film’s running time, but the fear and resentment present by her makes for a great coming-of-age story.
Then there’s the old hands of acting. Elizabeth Banks plays alien-witch Rita Repulsa, a role she plays like she’s appearing in a fairytale, chewing her words and spitting them out. Bryan Cranston appears as disembodied head Zordon, complete with booming exclamations of “silence!”, but there’s no comedy to the role, and really he’s wasted in it. Bill Hader also gets nothing to do as Alpha 5, much less annoying than in the original series, but by no means endearing. Sort of like a kid brother to C3PO with all the personality flaws.
The film is a mixed bag; the performances are solid, and the young cast really do have chemistry, they enjoy their roles and play them with passion and more importantly affection, but there’s also a feeling that they were promised a grittier movie than they have been given.
It’s great that in the 21st Century we have a blockbuster superhero film that is aimed at the mainstream that is as diverse as it is. Yes the leader (Montgomery) is a white man, but he’s an equal to the others, they are all valid. Scott herself is mixed race, half Gujarati Indian and half white, while Cyler is an African American, and of course there’s Becky G, a Latin American, and Ludi, a Chinese-Canadian. Plus, the story arc concerns one hero coming to terms with their sexuality, and the other owning their perceived learning handicap and realising it’s an asset, using it as a weapon for the betterment of his team.
But, for all the inclusiveness of the film, there is things wrong with it. The film can’t decide on a tone; it lurches from gritty Nolan-style seriousness that is grounded in the real world to over the top CGI scenes. It’s also hard to follow some of the editing of the film as it seems to cut very hard into another sequence seemingly as if the film was fast-forwarded without warning.
This isn’t just a storytelling problem, it’s also a character problem. There are hints of motivations but without exploring them; Scott’s father appears to be a stern but loving type, but their brittle relationship is referenced to begin with and resolved by the end with nothing in between. There are hints at abuse for both Hart and Kwan by their families, but it’s all background stuff, while the single mothers of both Taylor and Cranston are hardly reflected on.
There’s also clearly some version out there which has a harder edge to Rita Repulsa, her first proper appearance appears to be alluding to a horror inflected scare, but goes for gross out comedy, yet visions of her plans resemble the Sadako tapes from The Ring. Banks is torn between perverted witch and cartoon character without landing on one for very long.
There’s a terribly misjudged sequence that is far too harrowing and dark for the little kids, and even though the resolution comes fairly quickly, it’s not quick enough and is at odds with the more colourful moments in the film. It’s unlikely there’ll be a sequence in a film that’s more upsetting and out of place this year, unless of course Peter Parker suffers a heroin overdose half way through Homecoming, which is unlikely.
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As for the climax it’s a patch work of films we’ve seen before. The green clothed villain with a spear and a giant robot kick the crap out of a small town from the first Thor film (the action is as uneven as Branagh’s also), there’s the dinobots from Transformers: Age of Extinction, and then the big angry robot fights big angry robot from Transformers but also Pacific Rim. Funnily enough, director Dean Israelite who impressed with the intriguing but uneven Project Almanac is a cousin to Jonathan Liebsman who directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but this is a better film. While TMNT and Out of the Shadows tried to reinvent those characters for the 21st Century it couldn’t get over the leer of Michael Bay who similarly ruined Transformers.
At least Power Rangers attempts to be inclusive and not a total cliche, even if it does fall into those things, but unlike the boring Transformers films there are at a minimum three great scenes. The car escape from the woods which sees a mini-van become the centre of a high stakes race against time actually offers a real, exciting sequence that is the stand out. The campfire talk scene offers character depth, and moments for everyone to explore their characters, to inhabit them more, and of course the robot running to a certain 90s theme tune raises more than just a smile.
This is not a swing for the fences like so many big budget second directorial outings (this is not Kong: Skull Island for example), but there is something truly special about the spate of 90s nostalgia. A sequel could manage to iron out the kinks, pick a tone and allow for a little room to breathe with the characters. A failure, yes, but a loving one.