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Friday, May 19, 2017

Film Review - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

“I’m gonna make some WEIRD shit!” That exclamation, blurted out, eyes agog and mind visibly racing, by Chris Pratt’s ever-ironic Star-Lord shortly after reuniting with his God-like father Ego (Kurt Russell), perfectly sums up the insanely energetic mindset of writer/director James Gunn on his return visit to the Marvel cosmic universe. Following up his surprise smash 2014 origin story, the helmer maniacally kicks into hyperdrive with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, doubling down on the irreverent hilarity of the first entry and ratcheting up the comic-book crazy to bracingly madcap effect. Remembering when we questioned whether Thor was a step too far for mainstream audiences to accept? Ah, how gently naive we all were.

Whereas the first time around Gunn was bolted down by the now boilerplate Marvel plot structure, complete with a magical item hunt motivated by a vaguely defined villain in Lee Pace’s Ronan, Vol. 2 sees him cutting loose and embracing the groove of his off-beat creation. And, unlike disappointing studio sequels such as Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2, the pressure to re-perform doesn’t hobble the movie, it liberates it. Akin to how Captain America: The Winter Soldier evolved from First Avenger, this return of the titular space-faring bad-asses deepens our understanding of the characters and their world, while opening genuinely exciting avenues for future excursions. It leaves one dizzy and salivating for Vol. 3, not brainstorming course corrections.

When we last left Guardians Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Groot (Vin Diesel) they were victoriously blasting off from Xandar in search of “something good, something bad… a bit of both.” They’ve found it, at the beginning of Vol. 2, after valiantly protecting the invaluable battery supply of the aristocratic gold-skinned Sovereign people from a giant slobbering space beastie. However, during the formal process of collecting their reward – Gamora’s evil adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillen), who has a considerable bounty on her head – unscrupulous mistakes are made and the gang are fast on the run from the planet’s haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, an ideal blend of camp and self-seriousness) and her army of warships.

During a frenetic escape through an asteroid field, the team encounters Quill’s mysterious biological dad, a celestial being who is in actuality a living, thriving planet. This revelation leads Star-Lord on a quest to learn more about his heritage and his long-lost pa's origins and powers, while Drax bonds with Ego’s gentle companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a socially stunted empath with closely kept secrets. In the meantime, Rocket and Groot, with an indignant Nebula in tow, are reunited with disgraced Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker), and get swept up in violent space pirate drama. Ultimately, through shocks and surprises best left unmentioned here, these two engrossing tales intersect in a spectacular climax that delivers a rewarding mega-bomb of character growth and unexpectedly poignant emotional resolution.

For all of its triumphs and indisputable success both commercially and critically, Marvel has long established itself as a producer-controlled brand – not dissimilar from the Bond films under the Broccoli family - where the director’s vision takes a backseat to the grand company plan. And it’s hard to argue with the results for the most part! However, Guardians Vol. 2 feels like the first entry to truly be driven by the sensibilities and obsessions of the auteur behind the wheel. This movie could only have been made by James Gunn, and his peculiar punkish style – honed on several proudly Z-grade Troma productions (including Tromeo and Juliet!), as well as cult faves Slither and Super – is gloriously unleashed across every colorful frame. Striking a perfect balance of off-the-wall and sweet, he bombards the audience with fast-paced bursts of bizarro quips and sight gags, while never allowing the relentless humor to stand in the way of a strong emotional hook. He’s also, of course, a maestro of musical cues, knocking it out of the park again with a killer soundtrack that enlivens the already dynamic proceedings. Sequences set to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Jay & the American’s “Come a Little Bit Closer” hit all the right buttons, while the opening credits, featuring Electric Light Orchestra, launch the picture on a perfect crowd-pumping note. And while he lacks the action chops of the Russo Brothers, of Winter Soldier and Civil War fame, he smartly devises clever ways to undercut the more bombastic moments with unexpected reveals or running jokes.

As opposed to Vol. 1, the momentum here feels noticeably far more propelled by the characters than the plot. Frankly, this may just be Marvel’s answer to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo; a shaggy hangout film that sets up its story and then sits back and lets its heroes discover their own way to the conclusion, with plenty of amusing diversions along the way. For some this may prove frustrating. But Gunn and his actors understand these heroes and villains so deeply the pace never flags, and we gain priceless insight into their relationships and specific world views. Although the Fast and Furious series superficially crows on and on about the meaning of family, Guardians Vol. 2 is actively intrigued in exploring it, from the off-kilter dynamics between Quill and his dueling dysfunctional father figures Ego and Yondu to the resentful competitiveness dividing Gamora and Nebula. Every major figure has an interesting arc, from MVPs Rocket, baby Groot and Drax (Dave Bautista continues to be a surprising comedy weapon) all the way down to engaging second stringers Ayesha, Mantis and Sean Gunn’s antsy Ravager sidekick Kraglin.

There’s so much unbridled imagination, so much quirky joy running through Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 it often comes across as almost maddeningly effortless. Why can’t more colossal genre blockbusters hit equally rewarding notes or think outside the established boxes?! This is shaping up to be a very special franchise - so far the most confident and consistently winning among Marvel’s slew of very entertaining heavy-hitters – and Gunn leaves little doubt that wherever we find our heroes on their next adventure it thankfully won’t be anywhere safe or predictable.   

4 out of 5

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