If you ventured to the multiplex to see a certain kind of end-of-year popcorn movie a while back, you were likely treated to the trailers for Power Rangers and Logan, perhaps back-to-back. Both featured songs performed or written by Johnny Cash* (“Hurt” in Logan, a Halsey cover of “Walk the Line” in Rangers) and portentous fade-in, fade-out cuts of superhero hijinks. Both seemed to hit the same note trailers have been hammering since The Dark Knight: “This is the thing you liked as a kid, but serious now.”
It’s true that Power Rangers, which is rated PG-13, flirts with edgy material; there’s a leaked-nudes subplot, and our teenage heroes utter the word “shit” a couple times, though practically sotto voce, as if they’re afraid lurking parents might hear. But the angst teased by the trailer is mostly of the John Hughes variety, and the power of friendship is what binds the five rangers together like so much glowing, neon CGI magic dust. This is the anti-Logan. “Are we Power Rangers? Or are we friends?” asks Black Ranger Zack (Ludi Lin) with piercing earnestness during a campfire bonding session. It’s perhaps a rhetorical question, but it’s the optimistic beating heart of what would otherwise be a completely cynical cash grab.
Make no mistake, Power Rangers is a cash grab. Nobody asked for an update of the ’90s after-school staple, not even the core millennial demographic at whom its nostalgia is aimed with intermittent accuracy. That group’s pleasure centers are likely already zapped after last week’s live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, anyway. But as cash grabs go, this one is delightfully unconcerned with coolness, neither shying away from its chintzy roots nor ironically embracing them. It’s nostalgic, but more for a lost era of friends-forever sentimentality that was the bedrock of everything from The Baby-Sitter’s Club to Captain Planet.
The movie opens with a borderline-incomprehensible prologue in which a prehistoric group of Power Rangers are defeated in battle, and Zordon (Bryan Cranston, painted blue and committing his ass off) buries some crystals for a future generation to find. We then jump to the present, where Jason (Dacre Montgomery,) a golden boy quarterback, turns delinquent after a locker-room prank gone exorbitantly awry. (It involves a cow; there’s a joke about bovine masturbation five minutes into the film. I didn’t say this movie wasn’t weird.) He’s banished to a lifetime of detention, where he meets spectrum-y nerd Billy (RJ Cyler) who helps him disable his ankle bracelet and then takes him to a rock quarry, where several of their fellow detentees are hanging out — practicing kung fu, doing yoga, and listening to heavy metal. You know, teen stuff. Billy triggers an explosion that exposes the buried crystals, and our five ne’er-do-wells find themselves imbued with super strength and speed. Soon they find Zordon, uploaded to the memory of a buried spaceship, and robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Bill Hader,) who tell them of their destiny and guide their Ranger training so that they can eventually “morph” into those iconic candy-colored suits.
Montgomery is perfectly serviceable as a Zac Efron look-alike and the purported leader of the group (the Red Ranger, if you haven’t brushed up on your mythos lately), but the film very quickly cedes the floor to Cyler, whose twitchy and sympathetic Billy (the Blue Ranger) is the true heart of the film, and who triggers most of the discoveries and acid-logic plot points along the way. Lin, the Black Ranger, needs to be cast in a Fast and Furious movie pronto — as a tough guy who really just loves his ailing mom, he delivers an action-hero performance the likes of which you truly do not see anymore. Becky G’s Trini (the Yellow Ranger) is the Ally Sheedy of this Breakfast Club Megazord, and does what she can do with that one note. Naomi Scott plays Pink Ranger Kimberly, a reformed mean girl, like she’s auditioning for a Josh Schwartz teen drama. It turns out this is exactly what the film needs.
But all these generally appealing performances pale next to Elizabeth Banks’s Rita Repulsa, who is having so much fun I felt bad for everyone in the film who wasn’t her, including the audience. She’s a scepter-wielding, cackling alien witch with a flawless high pony, who is obsessed with crystals and gold and aggressively caresses the face of anyone unlucky enough to meet her with long, gold-tipped talons. Once she’s onboard, the film turns breathtakingly nutty, and the final extended battle wisely looks to the broad-daylight tokusatsu roots of the original show’s fight scenes for inspiration. It’s bright and fun and doesn’t look like any climactic fight of a superhero movie in recent memory. It is also, jaw-droppingly, one long Krispy Kreme commercial — the Power Rangers product-placement game is strong. This movie is out of its goddamn mind. But if we’re going to continue to be sold empty nostalgia calories, they may as well taste this sweet.
*This review originally misstated the songwriter of “Hurt.” It was written by Trent Reznor.