Friday 7 April 2017

REVIEW: Power Rangers (2017)

Who is this film meant to be for, I wonder? Power Rangers starts with an extraterrestrial battle scene at the dawn of the Cenozoic Era, which is followed by a teen comedy scene with a joke about wanking off a bull. It's based on a TV series designed to sell toys to small boys, but makes an attempt to be a serious, modern teen drama, and occasionally drops moments of effective horror. Tonally, it's all over the place, the writing is, to put it generously, unsophisticated, and like so many action movies, it puts spectacle ahead of substance. And yet... I really enjoyed it.

Power Rangers is a better film than it has any right to be, but that's very different to being a good film. Considering that's it's the latest in a long line of cynical updates of older TV properties it's much better than it should be. Like the long-running TV franchise that spawned it, it's stupid, uncomplicated fun for the most part, and that's the best way to enjoy it, but there's a little more going on underneath. The characters are much as you'd expect from any such kid-friendly actioner: the jock who's a decent guy really, the awkward brainbox, the popular girl who's fallen from grace, the drop-out with a heart of gold, and the kinda weird cute girl outsider. It would be easy for the script to be completely vacuous, and it certainly veers that way on several occasions, but there are some stronger moments that come out of the blue. Billy Cranston (R.J. Cyler), the Blue Ranger, is explicitly on the autistic spectrum, and the script makes real efforts to explore how this isolates him from his peers but never makes him out to be a freak, or an emotionless cypher, or a stereotypical geek. Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, got busted for sharing a friend's naked pics. It's pretty brave for a film like this to explore the sexting and cyberbullying controversy.

Trini Kwan (Becky G), the Yellow Ranger, is almost certainly gay, although less is made of this in the film than the hype would suggest, and it's the stronger for how little a deal it is. Zack Taylor (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, is the simplest character, but even he has a backstory in which he cares for his severely ill mother. This leaves Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery), as the Red Ranger, the group's leader, and he's easily the most straightforward character, but still has some strong moments as he wrestles with his family, his future and his new role. The film goes the tried and tested route of casting a bunch of twenty-somethings as high schoolers, but all five of them are pretty strong young actors, and it's good to see an ensemble film really work at diversity instead of just paying it lip service.

The supporting cast includes some big hitters. We were all pretty astonished to learn Bryan Cranston would be playing Zordon, the big ol' face in the wall, but one of his earliest gigs was providing voices for the monsters in the original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers series (they liked the guy so much they named Billy's character after him). He adds a little gravitas to the proceedings, which is needed because he gets lumbered with some really dire lines. Bill Hader is... fine, I guess, as Alpha 5, the annoying robot. He's less annoying than the original, at least. The best is Elizabeth Banks as arch-villainness Rita Repulsa, former Green Ranger in this version. Banks plays the scheming supervillain exactly as she should do, which is to say, completely over-the-top. She's a hoot (and she gets to say, "Make my monster grow!" which is always hilarious).

Critics have mostly dismissed Power Rangers as fluff, which is fine, because at heart that's what it is. The real criticism has been from fans. I was just about the right age to get the most from Mighty Morphin' when it first aired, until it was banned in our house for sending my brother into flurries of kung fu kicking violence. I enjoyed it, I wanted the overpriced toys, but I was never a fan. So I've never taken it seriously enough to care if this reboot is "right." I don't care enough if the Zords don't look like they used to, or the costumes aren't colourful enough. I've read people who decry that they're not taking Rita Repulsa seriously. She's called Rita Repulsa, for god's sake, and you want someone to take her seriously? I've even read one reviewer who attacks the film for allowing the Rangers' faces to be seen when they're in uniform. The only reason we weren't allowed to see their faces during the TV series is because they were reusing footage from Super Sentai and the Rangers were completely different actors when they were in costume. There's no point casting five pretty decent actors if you're going to hide them behind helmets the entire time (and you don't cast someone as beautiful as Naomi Scott and then make her hide her face).

If you're a fan of the originals you'll enjoy a little cameo from Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnson, two of the original Power Rangers (Green/White and Pink), and probably seethe at the reimagined versions of Goldar and the Putty Patrol, although I though they worked pretty well. Some people will be put out that we don't get very much time with the suited-up Rangers and their Zords, but this is a superhero origin movie. They're planning at least six of these to follow. Sit back and enjoy some stupid fun - it'll make the occasional clever bit all the better.

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