Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The ragamuffin Guardians saddle up for another easy-rock-scored galaxy-saving adventure whose heavier emotional content enhances, instead of distracts from, what a blast they and the audience are having.
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One of the best characteristics of James Gunn’s estimable Guardian movies so far is that their heroes dwell at such a far remove from the frequently tiresome Earthbound shenanigans of their fellow Marvel-ites. The movies are unburdened with the concerns of mutants versus humans or brewing civil war in the (let’s be honest, far too large at this point) Avengers clan. This leaves the Guardians gang, a gaggle of comic-book third-stringers who the average person couldn’t pick out of a lineup, free to skip nimbly among the planets like adventure-seeking heroes looking for thrills, loot and the odd opportunity to do good deeds. That freedom helped make Gunn’s first Guardians of the Galaxy such a breezy surprise hit three years ago.

The anticipation, then, couldn’t be higher for Gunn’s sequel, a movie that depends on being nimble on its feet. Those expectations are met, and then some, in a bigger, bolder outing that locks the audience in from a credits sequence in which Baby Groot (a computer-modulated Vin Diesel) boogies ever so cutely to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while barely avoiding being squished by the multi-tentacled monster fighting the Guardians in the background. The choice of starting a summer blockbuster by focusing on the teeny dancing sentient tree instead of the monster battle with jet packs and lasers taking place mostly off-screen might seem odd to some. But, as is said later on in the film, Baby Groot is just “too adorable to kill.”

Writer-director Gunn kicks things off with a couple of close calls for his heroes, whose dynamic remains chummy but fractious, particularly between “Star-Lord” Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the bioengineered sentient raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) who hates being called a raccoon (though he doesn’t take to Quill’s suggested name: “trash panda”). After that,Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 shifts swiftly into its main story. Earth-born Quill, never having quite recovered from the death of his mother when he was still a young boy, comes face to face with his father. Meanwhile, Quill’s not-so-secret crush Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the green-skinned ninja warrior and daughter of über-deity Thanos, tries to patch things up with her half-mechanized, blue-skinned assassin of a sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose sibling rivalry is expressed through heavy artillery.

If the movie were solely this bolting together of an ersatz family in between action sequences, there wouldn’t much to it. But Gunn paints on his mega-budget canvas with a winning exuberance, filling it with one beautifully realized world and alien race after another, particularly the Borg-like gold-skinned perfectionists the Sovereign (led by a queenly Elizabeth Debicki). The riots of color, sometimes literal fireworks, and swirling chaos of the battle scenes make this one of the most imaginatively broad and expansive space operas ever put on film. This universe will take many movies to creatively exhaust.

The movie also maintains a light sense of humor throughout which knits the whole thing together, even when the fate of the galaxy is in the balance. This is done in part by cutting to Baby Groot adorably screwing something else up whenever possible. But it’s also accomplished by the increased profile of the gang’s ever-enthusiastic and socially maladroit muscle, Drax (Dave Bautista, delivering an impressive amount of gusto), who takes on the job of needling the thin-skinned Quill whenever Rocket isn’t around.

Gunn strews references to 1980s pop-culture touchstones from “Knight Rider” to “Cheers” and “Masters of the Universe” everywhere, while falling back seemingly every few minutes on that ever-present mixtape of 1970s soft rock (deeper cuts this time, from Cat Stevens to Looking Glass and Glen Campbell). That, and the surprise presence of icons like Sylvester Stallone (a little underused) and Kurt Russell (capturing the screen with sheer movie-star panache as neatly as he did in The Hateful Eight) keep the movie feeling both familiar and off-kilter at the same time.

That same sensation goes for the higher emotional stakes at play here. While the first movie made an effort to bond this band together with a shared purpose, Vol. 2 doubles down on that material to a surprising degree, what with all the tearfully battling sisters and orphan boys seeking their dads. Fortunately, while the occasionally vague and action-driven story is itself not the strongest structure for such weighty emoting, Gunn has cast and written his universe so adeptly that even a strictly comic relief-seeming character like Yondu (Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned mohawked pirate with the inexplicable Southern accent, is given his time to shine. That generosity of storytelling is always rare, particularly so in the world of blockbusters, a usually creatively starved place where a gleeful and imaginative romp like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will always be a welcome surprise.

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