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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, direct by James Gunn.  Starring: Christ Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro.  Running Time: 122 minutes.  Based on the comics by Marvel Studios. 

Rating: 3.5/4 

            Like all cinephiles, I am prone to a certain amount of hype when it comes to certain films.  For me, it’s often the little touches that get me psyched beyond all rational measure, like Michael Caine quoting “Do not go gentle” in the spine-tingling new trailer for Interstellar.  And when looking at the general release list for this year, few films had larger hype trains barreling into opening weekend than Guardians, which is perhaps strange, given that nearly all the publicity prior to the film’s release consisted solely of a pair of admittedly expert trailers and seemingly self-generating buzz revolving around whether or not a movie featuring a talking raccoon and a living tree could possibly succeed.  Although, when you really think about it, given the earlier success of LOTR, the living tree part should never have been considered a hard sell, which really just left the talking ‘coon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, no less, although that was a casting choice to which my first reaction was, “Yeah, that make sense.”).  And while the box office results speak for themselves, and I am surprising no one at all in writing this, I have to say it anyway- Guardians more than lives up to the hype.  It is an awesome, well-crafted piece of giddy summer fun, and more than worth the extra money for IMAX if that is at all possible you. 

            While clearly an ensemble work ala Avengers, the focal point of Guardians, at least initially, is Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, a human abducted by aliens right after his mother died of…..How I Met Your Mother Syndrome, I guess.  Or, as he prefers to be known, “Starlord,” not that anyone else bothers remembering it.  Working for an interstellar gang of junkers, he picks up a small, metallic sphere with intent to sell it to a dealer on planet Xandar, ruled by the Nova Force, which had just recently signed a peace treaty with the Kree.  A bit of advice early on, don’t bother thinking too much about the Nova Force, the Kree, and whatever sort of conflict they had, because the movie really doesn’t care all that much, and neither should you. 

            Such a simple plan, and yet, it almost immediately hits all sorts of snags.  The sphere in question, we soon learn, contains an infinity gem, meant to complement the one in the cube from the earlier Marvel films.  Thranos, aka That Purple Dude from the end of Avengers, sends his minion Ronan the Accuser, a Kree himself, to defy his planet’s peace treaty and wage war on all he finds standing between him and the gem.  Accompanying him are Djimon Hounsou as Korath (in yet another over-the-top villain performance, his second of the summer), Zoe "One Day I Will Be Wonder Woman" Saldana as Gamora, and Karen Gillan as Nebula, both adopted daughters of Thranos himself.  Saldana gets plenty of time to strut all her stuff on-screen, but I can’t help but feel that Nebula is a bit underutilized, given that she’s supposed to be on the same level as Gamora.  But then again, they were so confident they announced a sequel before the damn thing even opened, so maybe we’ll get to see more of her next time around. 

            In the meantime, Quill learns the hard way that he has a hit out on his head (and that he’s carrying far more than just some ancient artifact) when he gets attacked by both Gamora and the now-legendary bounty hunting duo, aka The “Dude, So Random” Reasons Your Ass Is In A Theater Seat, Rocket (a talking raccoon) and Groot (a talking tree).  And yes, there really hasn’t ever been another duo quite like this pair in a movie before, and it works.  Figures I would never be fully sold on a Bradley Cooper performance until I didn’t have to see his smirking mug.  But be that as it may, he has never been more compelling.  This is a movie determined to be nothing but breezy, screwballey fun, but Cooper and the sound/special effects team manage to let Rocket steal away with a few scenes of real emotion before all is said and done.  Obviously, I enjoyed Vin Diesel’s Groot as well, but I couldn’t get too teary over his performance, since the character copies more than a few aspects (and scenes) from The Iron Giant

            At any rate, in the midst of their 4-way fight, they are picked up by the Nova Force and arrested.  They eventually arrive at a floating prison space station, where they encounter Drax the Destroyer, a maniac determined to use Gamora to get a shot at Thanos, who previously killed his family.  Dave Bautista is a magnificent presence as Drax, easily my favorite character in the entire movie.  Together, they decide to bust out of jail and bring the infinity gem to another buyer, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, to keep it out of the hands of both Ronan and Thanos.  And oh, how the hijinks ensue. 

            This is a good time, no deeper analysis needed, nor desired.  I love it when movies like this just toss us right into a new, strange, detail-filled world and don’t bother trying to over-explain things, so that we can get right to the adventure.  There’s even less expository dialogue than Pacific Rim, which HAD to start with its own short film in order for us to understand ANYTHING.  Here, the background info is just candy- if you are a fan of the comics or just love the minutiae of the Marvel universe, it’s there, but if you don’t care, you don’t need to. 

            As an adventurous screen trip, Guardians works as well as any summer action flick you can name.  Everyone on the cast brings it, not just Rocket and Groot, and the usage of oldie 70’s pop hits lends a carefree air to every scene, even the more serious ones, making it really, really hard to not spend most of the movie with a great big grin on your face. 

            It is not without its flaws- points off for yet another villain being far too hammy with far too little of interest in his character or backstory to make up for it, and even more points off for yet another climactic battle that is really just more of the same as far as pretty explosions and laser flashes are concerned.  That said, the way they actually resolve the final battle is the best conclusion to a fight I’ve yet seen in any of these films, so a few points given back for that.  It doesn’t really matter though, since the silly story and gaping plot holes are there but are never allowed to be of any real importance.  This is not a film banking on its story, so who cares if the whole affair is silliness piled on slapstick? 

            It is also a relieve to see an interracial cast finally getting their own flick to offset the extreme whiteness of The Avengers, with Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, and Dave Bautista offering up some of the best characters we’ve yet had in a Marvel- or indeed, any- comic book movie.  It doesn’t have the intelligent plotline of Edge of Tomorrow, nor the fierce visual flair of HTTYD 2, but it is fun.  Boatloads of fun.  And I love it for that. 

-Noah Franc 

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