“Power Rangers” is baloney through and through, but as baloney goes, it’s better than you might expect. It packs enough zing to make you forgive the origin-story clichés. And the predictable save-the-world stuff. And the insanely ubiquitous product placement.
(Seriously, whatever Krispy Kreme paid to be an actual plot point in this movie, they got their money’s worth.)
The latest American version of the Japanese show “Super Sentai” — there have been two previous movies, as well as something like 20 TV series — reboots the by-now familiar tale of five teenagers who discover colored coins that imbue them with special powers. Directed by Dean Israelite (“Project Almanac” — another tale of teens stumbling upon life-changing technology) and written by John Gatins (“Real Steel,” “Flight”), this new “Power Rangers” feels like a cross between “Chronicle” and “The Breakfast Club,” and that’s meant mostly as a compliment.
It’s probably at this point in the review that I should cop to being way too old to have been a fan of this franchise; my only previous encounters with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were to watch the comedy-dubbed “Dynaman” sequences on “Night Flight” and to pick up a used copy of the first movie’s soundtrack to get songs by They Might Be Giants and Shampoo. Still, as a newbie to this universe, I found myself more entertained that not by this mostly by-the-numbers kiddie adventure.
After a prologue set in Earth’s pre-history, in which alien Zordon (Bryan Cranston) summons a comet to stop the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) from stealing the Zeo crystal that gives all life to the planet — and yes, this is that kind of movie — we jump to the present day, where we meet the five adolescents who will find those brightly-colored coins that Zordon buried.
There’s Jason (Dacre Montgomery, “Stranger Things”), the small-town quarterback who’s trying to figure out who he really is; ostracized mean-girl Kimberly (Naomi Scott, “Terra Nova”), facing high school life post-popularity; self-described “on the spectrum” science geek Billy (RJ Cyler, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”); Zach (Chinese actor Ludi Lin), who often skips class to tend to his sick mom; and misunderstood outsider Trini (Becky G., “Empire”).
It’s a testament to these five actors and their collective charisma that they not only breathe real life into underwritten, cookie-cutter characters but also wind up being more interesting as regular teens then they are as color-coded superheroes. After finding the coins and discovering their enhanced strength, they wind up swimming to the bottom of an underground lake, where they meet robot Alpha (voiced by Bill Hader), who’s been waiting a million years for a new set of Power Rangers to come along.
Zordon, now existing only as a computer program, tries to train them, but the kids won’t be able to morph into Power Rangers unless they become close enough to lay down their lives for one another. And that had better happen soon, because Rita has also managed to come back to life, and she’s gathering a monster army (including rock beasts and a giant killer angel made of gold) to help her get that crystal. And just guess under which donut shop it happens to be buried?
Yes, this is silly stuff, although the movie manages to play most of it with a straight face. Cranston, for one, never indicates that he’s slumming, and Banks does some interestingly weird creeping about as Rita until she regains her full power, at which point she goes deep into Faye-Dunaway-in-“Supergirl” territory. And speaking of “Supergirl,” points to “Power Rangers” for not repeating one of that movie’s biggest mistakes; here, the small-town set that becomes the location for the big heroes vs. villain fight looks more town and less set than we frequently get, even in pricey superhero movies. (Take another look at “Thor,” and you’ll see what I mean.)
There’s plenty about “Power Rangers” that could have been improved, from the selection of the film’s least interesting (yet whitest) character as team leader to the clunky world-building that happens in any movie that’s thirsty for sequels. But the film has plenty of interesting little touches, like editors Martin Bernfeld and Dody Dorn cutting from an exploding building to a campfire. And when our teen heroes are opening up to each other around that campfire, we get a moment of genuine human contact that papers over the film’s many flaws.
This quintet of actors is so empathetic and engaging that they more than hold up the John Hughes end of the movie. And if you’re not seeing this for the acting, then at least you get five brightly-clad heroes driving dinosaur-shaped spaceships that eventually meld into one giant, sword-wielding robot. If that’s what you paid to see, then “Power Rangers” delivers it, dollars to donuts.