If you grew up watching Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise, what elements from the Saturday morning show would you hope to see in Lionsgate’s 2017 cinematic reboot? If you demand mechas and the phrase “it’s morphin’ time,” you’re in luck. If you crave Elizabeth Banks menacingly whispering “Krispy Kreme” as she wreaks havoc on a soundstage, you are also oddly in luck.
Was “Rangers” appointment TV for you and your bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the 1990s? Are you a nerd who sought out the original 1970s “Super Sentai” episodes from Japan that birthed the franchise? Or do you not know your Lord Zedd from your Ivan Ooze? No matter your investment in the karate-kids-and-robo-dinos serial, you should know one thing. The Power Rangers concept is, at its Zeo crystal-powered core, about childhood wish fulfillment. If you were an ordinary kid, what would it be like if you and your friends were granted awesome powers to fight giant monsters? This, the stuff of playground dreams, is the question all incarnations of the Rangers seek to plant in the viewer’s head.
Director Dean Israelite’s “Power Rangers,” in theaters this week, sometimes remembers to answer this question. Sometimes it decides it’s more important to work a revenge porn subplot into a movie about rainbow-colored space ninjas. Mostly, it wearily welds together nostalgia money lines, the tones of two different movies and some of the most hilarious product placement in cinematic history. Then it throws a dark blue Instagram filter on it and calls it a (very long, disjointed) day.
The 2017 “Power Rangers” loosely patterns itself on the original American series, 1993’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” A veritable Breakfast Club of misfit teens from the hamlet of Angel Grove — disgraced football star Jason (Dacre Montgomery, Efron-esque), recovering queen bee Kimberly (Naomi Scott), nerdy Billy (RJ Cyler), sullen Trini (pop singer Becky G) and Zach (Ludi Lin), whose main characteristics seems to be “ambiguously ‘crazy’” and “lives in a trailer” — stumble into a secret lair. There, they are granted super powers, kicky costumes and thunder lizard robots by a floating head named Zordon (original series alum turned “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston, doing nothing that required casting Bryan Cranston) and a talking droid named Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader, doing nothing that required casting Bill Hader). Just in time, too, because a cackling intergalactic Broomhilda named Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) has just woken up, and she’s ready to do a little Earth destroyin’.
This being a 2017 reboot of a children’s show, “Power Rangers” spends the first three-quarters of its formidable two-hour-four-minute runtime flirting with edginess. There’s a lot tackled, to varying degrees of success: the aforementioned leaked nudes, autism, sexual orientation, ejaculation jokes, caring for infirm parents and more. And believe it or not, not a single helmet is donned until at least halfway through the movie, the curse of the modern superhero origin story (see also: 2015’s “Fantastic Four”). There’s much hemming about the meaning of friendship, much hawing about the nature of heroism. All this, and a color palette cribbed straight from “Twilight,” too.
Once the CGI morphing and the sweet, sweet punching finally happen, Israelite attempts to steer “Power Rangers” into the live-action-anime joy of the original series. There are the “only ’90s kids will get this” call-outs, including a familiar electric guitar theme song and the inevitable moment the Rangers’ zords go full Voltron. (To the movie’s credit, perhaps, it attempts to examine some logistical nits that the TV show hand-waved, including “Hey, who gets to steer the metal dinosaur chimera?”) But the shift to broad daylight kaiju pummeling — shocker — has a lot of its life sucked out by the film’s oppressive earlier attempts at seriousness. It’s also hard not to feel silly when (spoiler) the plot turns out to hinge on a Krispy Kreme store, and the characters cannot stop saying the words “Krispy Kreme” while they blow up rock golems.
Banks, as the film’s antagonist, thankfully realizes she is in a “Power Rangers” movie, and she’s the only one. She’s part Loki, part Gollum and completely having a blast scratching dour teen actors with her gilded claws. From the minute she appears, she’s legitimately scary, a nightmare vision in facial prosthetics and emerald couture. But when she hits a laugh line — intentional or not — in the script, Banks is smart enough to ride this train straight into the campy sunset. That includes her obligatory savoring of a fine ring of fried dough from, you guessed it, Krispy Kreme.
“Power Rangers” will no doubt inspire a new generation of aspiring teenagers with attitude, to crib a phrase from the original show. However, it could have gotten there a lot quicker with more wit, more morphing and less soul-searching. The product placement would be easy enough to overlook, as long as everyone was having a neon-hued good time.
And yes, I got a Krispy Kreme doughnut immediately after the movie. Glazed blueberry cake, if you must know.
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Slaughter, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights. Evo, Flix, Gateway, Highland, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Moviehouse, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate.