When Guardians of the Galaxy was released in the late August doldrums three years ago, it was nothing if not a gamble for Marvel Studios, which was fully immersed in building its cinematic universe and was seeing huge returns from its ever-increasing stream of movies based on popular, but largely familiar comic book characters. Guardians posed a number of challenges, including the fact that the comic series on which it was based lacked decades of multi-generational fandom, having just debuted in 2008 (although it drew together marginal characters who had existed in various forms since the '60s). The film's director, James Gunn, was a graduate of Troma Studios who had directed mostly R-rated horror and comedy, while the film's lead, Chris Pratt, was an unknown quantity making his leading-man debut (he has since proved his bona fides). And then there was the irreverent tone, which flew in the face of the more serious-minded Marvel output (the studio's other release that year was the mostly dour Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Of course, Guardians went on to become a surprising smash success, paving the way for the impudent likes of Ant-Man (2015) and Deadpool (2016) and, yes, a Guardians sequel.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 returns all of the major characters from the first outing, as well as Gunn, who both wrote and directed, and so it would seem that all pistons would be perfectly positioned to fire with maximum impact. And, make no mistake, there are parts of Vol. 2 that are pretty fantastic, although as a whole the movie doesn't live up to its saucy predecessor-and not for lack of trying. In fact, part of its problem may be that Gunn and company appear to be trying a bit too hard, so that the jokes and throw-away gags and irreverent potshots at popular culture and action movie clichs and hero fantasies that felt so smooth and natural the first time around here feel more forced. There is also a ton of backstory to hash out in Vol. 2, including not one, but two major family conundrums that keep two of the main characters embroiled in all manner of interstellar melodrama.
The story opens in fine form, with the Guardians-rakish leader Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), green-skinned, stone-cold warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), hulking Drax (Dave Bautista), and genetically modified Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper)-getting set to take on an enormous, squid-like, and very mouthy monstrosity. When said monstrosity comes barreling through a time warp and the battle commences, Gunn cleverly shuffles the action into the background and instead allows the opening credits to unfold over a long take of Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), the pint-sized reincarnation of the first film's lovable tree-like heavy, grooving away to Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky" while all hell breaks loose in soft focus behind him. It's a perfect visual summation of Gunn's penchant for humorously undercutting formula, giving us exactly what we expect (all the returning characters immediately engaged in violent action) in a way we don't expect it.
Alas, the rest of the movie can't keep up with the excellent opening, as Gunn's screenplay scatters the characters among a series of subplots, the primary one being Peter Quill's reuniting with his true father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who at first appears to want to reconnect with his son, but eventually reveals a more nefarious intent. Meanwhile, Gamora is trapped in her own familial issues, as she captures her rogue, mostly cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who is nursing some serious resentment and wants nothing less than to use all her mechanical appendages to kill Gamora, for whom she blames all of her misery. Rocket ends up stranded with Baby Groot and Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter's blue-skinned, space-pirate, adoptive father who turns out to be a true daddy in the best sense (only the gruff, jut-jawed Rooker could pull off some of the sentimental claptrap with which he is saddled). Drax, meanwhile, develops a kinda-sorta relationship with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego's nave companion who is an empath, meaning she can both feel other people's emotions and manipulate them. Flitting around the margins of the story is Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), the leader of the pirate gang from which Yondu has been exiled, mainly as obvious set up for some plotline in Vol. 3.
Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham (The Legend of Tarzan) keep the movie bright and fast, a candy-hued ode to visual delight, fast talk, and big emotions. The sentient planet to which Ego takes Peter, Gamora, and Drax is a Thomas Kinkade canvas on acid, and like a lot of the movie it looks purposefully animated. There is an arch sense of artificiality in the movie's expansive settings that plays into its sense of meta-humor and sarcastic bombast. Pratt doesn't have quite as much self-deprecating humor, as he gets caught up in his daddy issues for a significant chunk of the film, but some of that void is filled by Rocket, who's always ready with an bristling, snarling quip, and Drax, who is amusingly over-honest in his misplaced assessments. Gunn relies a bit too much on the cute factor supplied by Baby Groot, whose pip-squeak "I am Groot!" statements have a diminishing "awwwwww" factor, although his big dewy eyes continue doing their Bambi best right through the end. Thankfully, unlike the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not slide into banal save-the-universe machinations, although there is quite a bit of mega-destruction in the final reels. One can only hope that the deficiencies of this sophomore entry work as meaningful set-up for the third installment to get things back on track.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Marvel Studios
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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