Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 movie review.

This time three years ago, few people would have known who the Guardians of the Galaxy were. They were a particularly niche and obscure brand within Marvel Comics' storied history, given that their main cast included a tree man and a talking raccoon. So in an effort to expand on their ongoing cinematic universe, the company took a big gamble by giving the team of "A-holes" their own movie, which became a big hit back in its late summer release, becoming the company's breakout success.

The film played out like a long, unabashed love letter to 70's and 80's pop culture, becoming a Raiders of the Lost Ark of its day, and had one sweet soundtrack to go along with it. As the first big release of the summer movie season, director James Gunn is back to unleash his dysfunctional creations in one more quest to save the galaxy in Vol. 2, with all the irreverence that you would expect. So what have our fine heroes gotten themselves into this time?

It's just another day of business for the Guardians of the Galaxy (led by Chris Pratt's Peter Quill, and rounded out by Zoe Saldana's Gamora, Dave Bautista's Drax, Bradley Cooper's Rocket, and Vin Diesel's now Baby Groot), but when their ship is destroyed, they eventually cross paths with a mysterious figure from Peter's past, his long absent father Ego (Kurt Russell). With the team separated between visiting Ego's home planet, and others fending off a mutinous band of Ravagers and Sovereign squadrons, the Guardians soon team up with Michael Rooker's Yondu, Karen Gillan's Nebula, and Pom Klementieff's Mantis as they try to save the universe from calamity once again.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a breath of fresh air in 2014, as it came around at a time when studios were trying hard to recapture the dark spirit of The Dark Knight, but more often it felt like these films were taking themselves too seriously, and seemed to mistake grey camera tones for grittiness. The first film went in opposition to this mold, focusing squarely on pure escapist fun, which the sequel also delivers on in spades. If Vol. 2 of Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't match or surpass the original film in quality, then it certainly comes very close to it, consistently keeping to the beat of its usual oddball, snarky, lovably snappy attitude. It's only May, and we already have an early contender for the funniest film of the year, packing more laughs into any five or ten minute stretch than most pure comedies do in ninety, whether they be in obvious ways, or in subtle ways (like the Sovereign piloting drones that resemble arcade machines with Space Invaders soundbites). There's a very absurdist touch in Gunn's style, going so far as to satirize some of the sillier elements of the Marvel universe, while also playing into those tropes with a sincere, but still winking sense of self-awareness (and blasphemous as it sounds, does so in much more subtle ways than Deadpool). Once Gunn gets started with his jokes, he keeps them coming fast and furious, and if not all of them are zingers, a great many of them still left me in fits.

And that's largely thanks to the cast on display, as Guardians of the Galaxy has so far yielded the finest character writing of any of the MCU films, and with the characters having been built up in their previous go, Gunn continues to explore their personalities in more direct ways, crafting a much more personally driven narrative this time around. Much is surely to be made of the new developments for Peter, having adjusted from his thieving life living under the care of Yondu, to now becoming the leader of a ragtag family (that actually feels like one). But he's also been established as a clearly broken man, his world rocked by the passing of his mother that still lingers in the back of his mind, desperate for more answers to his heritage, which is where Ego comes to swoop in.

Kurt Russell is a perfect fit to say the least, given that Russell was something of a Chris Pratt of his time, and the actor does bring a classic sense of charm and presence to ground some of the character's all-powerful qualities, giving tenderness and gruff to a role that could have been very underplayed. He and Pratt share absolutely terrific chemistry, making you believe in these two as father and son, but Russell is also masked by mysterious questions and motivations. It may not exactly take a genius to figure out those secrets (and actually serves to rectify one of Marvel's most persistent problems, which I won't dare say for fear of spoiling), but there's quite a subtle brilliance to Russell's casting and the way he performs it, given his history of John Carpenter collaborations, most notably drawing influence from the paranoia of The Thing, a film where people are similarly not what they appear to be.

There's a very heavy theme of parentage and family at play throughout the film, as Peter's other prominent father figure, the very brash and temperamental Yondu, soon becomes entangled in the mission of the Guardians. Gunn and actor Michael Rooker take what could have been any other hot-headed bounty hunter caricature, and continue to expand on that storied and troubled history between the two, revealing a softer and more heartfelt side to Yondu, even as he faces mutiny led by Chris Sullivan's Taserface (a name so knowingly stupid, you'll forgive the film for indulging in blissful mockery of it), all the while squadrons of Sovereign (led by Elisabeth Debicki's Ayesha) crack down on the Guardians, largely existing to drive the plot, and eventually set-up for the MCU's future (which the film does an otherwise good job of staying clear of). It's those issues of family that truly drive the film home, capping everything off with a greatly touching last note, that surprisingly enough may be the only time an MCU film has made me teary-eyed.

But his father figures aren't the only ones with family issues, as his will-they, won't-they interactions with Gamora start taking on more heat, with Saldana often having to serve as a voice of reason to offset Quill, but often lost in feelings of confrontation and jealousy. As if that wasn't enough, Nebula is back for revenge on her big sister, with the two deeply steeped in aggressive and fuming bitterness, and despite Karen Gillan's otherwise unimpressive work in the first film, crafts a much more sympathetic and defined voice for Nebula this time out. Then we come to Drax, having avenged his family with the destruction of Ronan, who acts as the team's central unabashed heart, providing an infectious enthusiasm to the sights surrounding him, and wearing his emotions proudly through the film. But even more emotional to grasp is newcomer Mantis, an empathic who shares in the emotions of others by mere touch, who brings an adorable heart and innocence to the film as she rides through countless responses and experiences.

Which brings us to the duo of Rocket and Groot, the original breakout stars of Vol. 1. Rocket has always been the more antagonistic side to the team, tinged with bitter feelings over his past upbringing as a maniacal science experiment, as well as passing comparisons and insults that range from "vermin" to "fox". You can sometimes forget just how heartbreaking Rocket can be to watch (you will believe a raccoon can cry), in many ways not too different to Yondu that he spends much of the film paired with, but still keeping to his signature insanity and hilarity. And Groot is Groot. He's the same lovable, dumb walking tree he always was, but his appearance as a toddler brings an added level of innocence to his actions, delivering on some of the film's most heartwarming cuteness, as well as added hilarity given his obliviousness in performing important and seemingly simple tasks (made even funnier when you remember these childlike sounds are coming from Vin Diesel).

And it's when these characters are allowed to bounce off of one another and throw conversations back and forth that the film operates at the peak of its powers, both in simple conversation and in the wildly over the top and colorful action scenes, that teem with razor sharp wit as the eclectic cast bounce ideas off of one another. It's also what helps the film feel so breezy, with Gunn keeping a sharply focused eye between individual elements, managing to take what could have been a chaotic script and streamlining it without skimping on depth, even if he does get a tad too indulgent with his quirks from time to time. Even from a superficial point, the film is quite a thorough delight, with more of the impressive CGI - especially those of Rocket and Groot - shining through, another rocking and toe-tapping soundtrack tying to narrative (that despite what the cash-in Suicide Squad thought, was not just dropping pop songs at random), and even the makeup team going above and beyond in topping their already spectacular designs of the original.

We can only speculate how Gunn will intend to eventually close his tenure with a Vol. 3, but this second entry is another high bar to reach. While the work isn't always balanced and some of the absurdity can be indulgent, the same spirit that made me love the original film is still present throughout, delivering on those great popcorn thrills and nostalgic 80's influence, and showing a lot of heart and warmth underneath all the snark. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 starts out strong, and remains thoroughly enjoyable. Here's to the frickin' summer movie season...

**** / *****

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