There’s a question every piece of intellectual property needs to ask itself before a new version is made: How seriously should we treat the source material?
There’s no right answer. There’ve been successful versions of both. Irreverent and meta takes on dated or impossible material have worked (usually thanks to Phil Lord and Chris Miller), as have deathly serious interpretations.
In the case of “Power Rangers,” that cheesy Saturday morning show that cobbled together shameless merchandising goals, dubbed Japanese action footage and sanitized high school shenanigans, they went mostly serious. And it might not have been the best call for a story that still involves a villain named Rita Repulsa who wanders around town eating gold. But we’ll get to her later.
Even with such campy morsels to play with, the vibe director Dean Israelite seems to be going for is “Friday Night Lights” meets “Fantastic Four,” which actually isn’t totally awful at the beginning as we meet the five high school students destined to wield their newly found superpowers to save the world.
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There’s the star football player, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), who’s rebelling against his good-boy image; the once-popular girl Kimberly (Naomi Scott, who looks like a combination of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Emma Roberts); the “on-the-spectrum” Billy (RJ Cyler); the mysterious new girl Trini (Becky G.); and the adventurous Zack (Ludi Lin). They’re angsty teens with secrets and zero perspective so imagine how weird things get when they all happen to be hanging out one night in a restricted mining area, stumble upon some jewels, get into a would-be fatal car crash and wake up with the ability to crush iPhones and scale mountains.
It’s hard to muck up the excitement of testing out your newfound superpowers, but then the ridiculous plot has to kick in (and all the requisite origin story clichés) and you can see the film struggling to maintain its straight face while Bryan Cranston’s pin art face bellows at the Rangers and Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa devours every piece of gold she can find.
Banks is actually fairly fun in the part — she snivels and sneers with campy glee under the pounds of zombie makeup as she fiendishly terrorizes some engagement ring shoppers at a jewelry store like she’s the only one who understands what movie she’s in.
But this film overstays its very conditional welcome. Israelite, who also made the occasionally riveting found-footage, time-travel pic “Project Almanac,” gives the images some grit and visual interest but the story just spends too much time on the maudlin coming-of-age and teambuilding. A little less therapy and a little more action would have gone a long way in the mushy middle section.
By the time the Power Rangers figure out how to morph, you’re already looking for a way to morph out of the theater, which is a shame because for whatever it’s worth, the cheesiest, most Power Rangers-y moments are saved for the final battle.
Much like the teens at the center, “Power Rangers” goes through some awkward growing pains in real time trying to figure out what movie it wants to be or even should be.
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Dean Israelite
Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Ludi Lin, Elizabeth Banks
Rated: PG-13 (sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, strong language, and crude humor)
Running time: 124 min.