Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Just as awesome!

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for sci-fi action and violence, and mild profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.5.17

Overloading slapstick action and succumbing to an enhanced case of the “cutes” has doomed many a sequel; we need look no further than Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

After crash-landing on a forest planet when their ship is damaged by a pursuing attack
fleet, our heroes — from left, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the shackled Nebula (Karen
Gillan), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon — prepare
to face yet another threat.
Happily, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 doesn’t fall victim to the dread sophomore curse. Granted, the concept isn’t quite as fresh this time, and the film does indulge in some wretched excess — at a bloated 136 minutes, it also overstays its welcome a bit — but there’s no denying the fun factor. These rag-tag characters are a hoot, and they’re well played by a savvy ensemble cast.

Most crucially, writer/director James Gunn — reprising both responsibilities from the first film — capably weaves a massive tapestry that includes half a dozen heroes; ongoing interpersonal squabbles; several new associates; bad characters who turn good; a good character who turns bad; an enemy who threatens no less than the entire universe; and a couple of large-scale armadas out for revenge because, well, the Guardians have a tendency to annoy people.

All that said, Gunn hasn’t overlooked the key elements that made the first film so entertaining, particularly expatriate Earth guy Peter Quill’s fixation on the retro 1980s. Indeed, the title’s “Vol. 2” refers not only to this film’s sequel status, but to the second “awesome mix tape” that Quill found at the end of the group’s previous adventure, and the link it provides to his deceased and still mourned mother, since he uses his prized Walkman to hear the songs that meant so much to both of them.

But this new saga’s 1980s, Earth-bound prologue focuses not on Peter, but on an unexpectedly youthful Kurt Russell, wooing Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) during a larkish country drive, as their car radio blasts the iconic Looking Glass hit, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”

This being a Marvel Universe story, Meredith seems untroubled by the notion of being courted by a “space man,” but perhaps she can be excused, given Russell’s charm. But wait: What’s that strange-looking shrub that he has planted in the woodsy glen bordering Meredith’s home town?

Flash-forward a quarter-century, and countless star systems away, as Peter (Chris Pratt) and his misfit comrades — the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the brutish Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) — struggle to fulfill their latest commission: to repel a massive, tentacled, space-faring, energy-eating monster that wishes to devour the precious anulax batteries that power the planet inhabited by the xenophobic, perfection-minded, gold-skinned Sovereigns.

And even though their queen, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gets flirty with Peter — and he with her, much to Gamora’s disgust — that doesn’t save the group from her wrath, when she discovers that Rocket has swiped a few of said batteries.

Cue the first of several space-faring chases.

Elsewhere, the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been exiled from the society of interstellar mercenaries known as Ravagers, for the “heinous crime” of having helped Peter and his team defeat the first film’s Big Bad. Yondu had cause, having served as a paternal Fagin to Peter’s Oliver Twist, during the latter’s formative years. Even so, Yondu reluctantly concludes that finding and capturing Peter represents his only chance for redemption with the Ravagers.

And, so, Yondu leads a squadron of hilariously uncouth thugs — think Star Trek Klingons, without any of the warrior pride and integrity — whose number include the hideous Taserface (Chris Sullivan) and the unexpectedly sympathetic Kraglin (Sean Gunn, still remembered for his long run as Kirk Gleason, on TV’s Gilmore Girls).

As if all this weren’t bad enough, Gamora still has to deal with Nebula (Karen Gillan), the long-estranged sister who has vowed to kill her.

But all of this soon takes a back seat to the reappearance of Russell, now looking his actual age, and calling himself Ego. And, goodness gracious, introducing himself as the true father whom Peter has sought, for lo so many years. Could it be true?

While this issue is debated, Ego brings the gang to his planet — and the phrase “his planet” has an intriguing context, in this case — where they all meet Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a diminutive, oddly fragile and antennaed empath with a somewhat mysterious connection to Ego.

If all this begins to feel like expository overload, well, yes; guilty as charged. But Gunn keeps all the plates spinning, and it’s never difficult to follow the various plot threads.

Considerable screen time also is given to the adorable antics of “Baby Groot,” the tree-like alien that sacrificed itself to save everybody in the previous film. Rocket was able to plant a remnant, which now has “matured” into a rug rat-size Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel). Whenever the action gets too heavy, Gunn cuts to Baby Groot, still learning how to handle all this excitement and disparate environments.

Perhaps a bit too frequently, but that’ll depend on individual viewers.

All such universe-spanning excitement notwithstanding, this film’s heart — as was the case with its predecessor — rests with the snarky banter and prickly relationships between Peter and his scruffy companions. They’re no longer strangers thrust together, but they’ve not yet matured into actual “friends” ... at least, not to the degree that they’d admit as much.

Pratt’s comic timing gets ample use with Peter’s retro pop-culture take on everything, whether nurturing a fantasy that his actual father is as cool as David Hasselhoff was, on TV’s Knight Rider; or comparing his frustrating relationship with Gamora to the antics of Sam and Diane on TV’s Cheers, when they couldn’t acknowledge their mutual attraction because the ratings would suffer. This film never breaks the fourth wall entirely, but Gunn’s script pokes considerable fun at many of the sillier aspects of our real-world behavior.

Saldana continues to be cool, reserved and graceful with Gamora’s weaponry and hand-to-hand combat skills; we also get a sense that she’s beginning to thaw, where Peter is concerned. Bautista is a stitch as the brute-force Drax, whose unfiltered candor is both hilarious and embarrassing; when he later teams with the similarly socially inept Mantis, their repartee becomes even funnier.

Russell has reached a career peak where his very presence enhances this sort of way-out saga, and — to his credit — his Ego radiates coolness despite being saddled with so much high-falutin’ dialog. Debicki is appropriately waspish as the condescending Ayesha, and Sean Gunn’s role expands nicely, as the story slides into its thunderous third act.

Both Rooker and Gillan add a tragic element — and some welcome depth — to (respectively) Yondu and Nebula.

The special effects are stunning, once again representing world- and universe-building on an impressive scale. Even “ordinary” sequences are striking, such as cinematographer Henry Braham’s captivating tracking shot during the prologue, as we zoom in on the car containing Russell and Haddock.

The soundtrack is terrific, with the well-placed use of iconic classics such as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and — at a particularly poignant moment — Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.”

Longtime Marvel Comics fans also will appreciate cameo appearances by the Watchers and a certain cigar-chomping mallard.

All the fun aside — and this has become a frequent problem with Marvel Universe movies — the climactic battle goes on and on and on, indulging a special-effects excess until the cataclysmic bombast becomes tedious. Expecting the laws of physics to apply under such circumstances has become a fool’s errand, as is any notion that such furious skirmishes might result in a broken bone or two. We simply have to take invulnerability for granted.

That’s to be expected, with a big-screen comic book. Bearing that in mind, James Gunn deserves credit for getting any dramatic gravitas out of such larkish hijinks; there’s no denying the emotional power of one final scene. Given the rip-snortin’ escapades that precede this moment, nobody was surprised when the full-capacity audience at Monday evening’s preview screening cheered the end-credit promise that “The Guardians of the Galaxy will be back!”

Hey, I’ll be there.

No comments:

Post a Comment