Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/05/17 00:06:14
(Worth A Look)
There are plenty of reasons why I have remained mostly unenthusiastic about the glut of comic book-inspired superhero movies that have been flooding multiplexes over the last few years but two key ones spring to mind. The first is that many of them are so driven by the need to blow viewers away in virtually every single scene that they become exhausting after a while—even the more cheerful-minded entries are so determined to knock us out throughout that you can practically feel them sagging from the effort at precisely the moment when they should be soaring. The second—and this may admittedly be partly the result of my having never been much of a comic book kid during my formative years—is the insistence on the part of their producers that the films, rather than stand as individual efforts, all be seen as parts of grand multi-film “universes” that essentially require anyone who hasn’t studied the comics with the intensity that used to only be applied to the Talmud to not only rewatch all the previous films in order to catch every single plot point but to rewatch them all approximately five minutes before attempting to take in the new one. Occasionally one comes along to shake the formula up—the original “Superman,” the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan takes on Batman and Ang Lee’s glorious and sadly misunderstood “Hulk” come to mind—and when they do, the results can be glorious but for the most part, the genre, at least as of late, has become so formulaic and wearying that the fact that they have become the dominant form of cinematic storytelling of late is a development I find both baffling and depressing in equal measure.Given all that, not to mention the fact that I was not quite as over the moon with its predecessor as others were, despite its willingness to play with the known formulas and not take itself so seriously, I cannot say that I went into the screening of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” with much discernible enthusiasm. And yet, right from the get-go, the film proves itself to be the rare superhero sequel that is less concerned with adhering to the various formulas of the genre than it is in going about on its own oddball wavelength by deploying a lot of humor and telling a story that does not spend most of its time tortuously trying to tie itself in with previous films in the universe. The results are not always perfect but in terms of providing genuine entertainment rather than simply servicing the fanboy contingent, it has a higher batting average than most and manages to kick off the summer movie season on a relatively high note.
The film actually kicks off with what proves to be one of its most clever and ingenious sequences. The setup is familiar enough as our heroes—the amiably goofy Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), the cooly competent badass alien princess Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the ridiculously unfiltered muscle-head Drax (Dave Bautista) and the surly and borderline psychotic raccoon Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper)—have been hired by a super-elite race known as the Sovereign to guard a cache of precious batteries from a grotesque monster determined to take them. An over-the-top battle between the Guardians and the creature quickly develops but instead of just giving viewers another action spectacle to kick things off, returning writer-director James Gunn has instead elected to move all of the ensuing chaos—which is elaborate enough to serve as the big climax of most normal films of this type—to the background where it is largely shown as a blur in order to focus exclusively on Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), the spawn of the heroic, if not especially verbose, giant walking tree that nobly sacrificed itself in the previous installment, as it wanders around the periphery of the scene bopping to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” The scene is hilarious—it reminded me of that classic bit in “Victor/Victoria” where a cockroach got loose in a fancy French restaurant and director Blake Edwards cut to the street so that we could witness the ensuing chaos from afar—and it also suggests that this will be the rare tentpole epic that is willing to put the fireworks in the background and concentrate on the humor and the characters instead.
As the gang leaves the Sovereign, taking Gamora’s extremely estranged and wanted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) it turns out that one of them has pilfered some of the precious batteries and Golden High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends out an army of drones to stop them. Although disaster nearly occurs thanks to some bickering between Peter and Rocket, they manage to escape and crash-land on a distant planet with the aid of a mysterious ship that follows them. When the pilot emerges from the craft, he announces that he is, in fact, Peter’s father, the alien being who visited Earth and swept his late mother off her feet. Peter is overjoyed, partly because he is finally meeting his father for the first time and partly because dear old Dad is played by none other than the legendary Kurt Russell at his most Kurt Russellest. (We even get to see a digitally de-aged version of him making Peter’s mother swoon to the tune of “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” in a sequence that suggests “Death Proof” rejiggered into a romantic comedy.)
Gamora, on the other hand, suspects that something is not quite right. For starters, Dad’s name is Ego. Secondly, when he whisks her, Peter and Drax to his home planet while Rocket repairs their ship, it turns out to be a planet that is literally of his own creation. It seems that Ego is a god of sorts and wants his son to be at his side to help rule the universe. While all this is going on, the supremely pissed-off Ayesha searches for someone who can bring the Guardians back to her and recruits Yondu (MIchael Rooker), the intergalactic thief who served as Peter’s anti-father figure for years, to track them down. He manages to locate Rocket, Baby Groot and Nebula at the crash site but at that point, his men, who are increasingly disenchanted with how he tends to go easy on Peter for his transgressions, usurp him and lock him away along with Rocket and Groot. And if that wasn’t enough familial (blood or otherwise) drama, Nebula is freed by Yondu’s treacherous crew and goes off in search of Gamora to avenge what she feels to be a lifetime of hurts that she blames on her sibling.
The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” didn’t quite work for me—it started strong and demonstrated a cheerful willingness to go off the beaten path before choosing to adhere to that very well-worn path in the second half and while Gunn’s direction was good in the more character-driven scenes, he seemed largely at sea when it came to the more effects-heavy sequences. In fact, when I wrote my original review, I concluded it by stating “With any luck, when the all-but-inevitable sequel comes around, the filmmakers will create a followup story that avoids the stumbles and lives up to the full potential of its premise.” That is pretty much exactly what has happened this time around. Oh sure, there are a couple of brief references to things from past entries and a couple of others—including the introduction of a briefly seen character played by Sylvester Stallone—but for the most part, “Vol. 2” is a self-contained narrative and is all the better for it because it gives us the sense that we are watching a fully thought-out story that has more on its mind than simply adding squares to the ever-expanding MCU quilt. Some might suggest that it owes maybe a little too much to the second installment of another vaunted sci-fi film franchise at times but Gunn’s screenplay (a solo effort this time around) does an admirable job of balancing the necessary spectacle with the goofball humor so that neither element ever feels as if it is encroaching on the other’s turf. The film even goes for a couple of moments of genuine pathos towards the end and they actually pay off as well because it has actually earned them. (Suffice it to say, if you see only one mega-budget film this year featuring Kurt Russel and Vin Diesel in the cast and much discussion about the concept of “family,” make it this one.)
In much the same way that the film as a whole is better this time around, the performances have also improved, partly because the cast is working with better material this time and partly because the actors have done a better job of finding just the right approach to the material that lets them score with both the laughs and the heroics. That is especially true in the case of Pratt, whose work here is not only a success on its own but goes a long way towards reestablishing the likability factor that he almost entirely squandered away just a few months ago with his appearance in the utterly loathsome “Passengers.” Largely wasted the first time around in what was essentially the straight man part, so to speak, Saldana gets more to do this time around as her character deals with her strange relationships with both Peter and her sister while still serving as the most cool-headed member of the Guardians and proves to be up to the task. Bautista is very funny throughout as the wildly inappropriate Drax and both Cooper and Diesel score big laughs from their vocal contributions—once again, it is impressive to see just how many laughs the latter can wring out of exactly three constantly repeated words of dialogue. Of the newcomers, the main attraction is Kurt Russell and, as usual, he is pretty much a blast throughout as the appropriately named Ego—if you ever saw the film of Russell’s long-ago screen test for “Star Wars” and wondered what he might have been like in the part of Han Solo, his work here should help to satisfy that craving.“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” only begins to step wrong during its climax when the very things that make it work for the most part—the cheeky wit and the character interactions—finally end up taking a back seat to the usual orgy of special effects nonsense. This part is done well enough and is moderately exciting, I suppose, but considering the myriad ways in which the film managed to adroitly skip most of the pitfalls of most comic book movies and most ultra-expensive effects-heavy franchises, I was kind of hoping that it would find a new way to bring things to a conclusion. (That said, the finale fireworks that most people will remember the best are the ones with genuinely emotional underpinnings.) For the most part, however, the film does most of the things that something of its type are supposed to do and which so few of them manage to accomplish—it supplies plenty of laughs and entertainment to comic book fanatics and newcomers alike, it never becomes too oppressive for its own good and it will leave most audiences with a taste to see further adventures of the Guardians. Hell, it even manages to pull the silly Silver pop confection “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” out of obscurity in order to expose its charms to a new generation of listeners. For that alone, it deserves to be at least slightly venerated.
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