Director: James Gunn
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn and Kurt Russell.
Runtime: 136 mins
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Comic-Book, Comedy
Review by Lloyd Marken
A great script is a key necessity to making a great film but good characters go a long way in engaging an audience and instant chemistry is as hard to create as capturing lightning in a bottle. In 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy arrived with some of the most lovable characters in the universe. Some recognised the promise of the film early on, others came around that summer but either way expectations are high for James Gunn’s sequel. The follow-up expands on things set up in the first film like Peter Quill’s parentage but has less the sense of fun and brisk energy that its predecessor boasted. Fans will dig it and the uninitiated should be charmed enough by the actor’s comic timing and the visual spectacle. Few will disagree that director James Gunn aims for an emotional response and earns one, possibly making the sequel a more rewarding experience, but the plot does hang on a wire thin framework.
Set sometime after the first movie, the Guardians remain guns for hire in a cosmic universe of colourful horizons and grotesque monsters. The opening set to Electric Light Orchestra features the walking talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel) sauntering around like a toddler while his fellow Guardians do battle with said grotesque monster using anything from simple swords to hi-tech rocket packs. The group’s chemistry is alive and well as they bicker about weapons, setting up of amps and sensitive nipples. They defeat the monster for the alien race known as the Sovereign; beings genetically engineered to perfection with skin so golden that you may not recognise Aussie actress Elizabeth Debicki stepping up to the big leagues as their leader Ayesha. Our anti-heroes are rewarded for their actions with the prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), sister to Guardian Gamora (Zoe Saldana) of whom both are the daughters of Thanos (next year’s Avengers: Infinity Wars big baddie). Being anti-heroes, one of them can’t help but steal from the species they just worked for and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper with body movement by Sean Gunn) as a result incurs Ayesha’s wrath. If the Sovereign were too lazy to deal with a creature chomping on their power source, they seem quite happy to throw everything they have at the Guardians for this personal betrayal. In the resulting desperate escape the Guardians come across a powerful being known as Ego (Kurt Russell) who claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father.
As the writer of the film too, James Gunn makes a bold choice to split our heroes apart but it does lead to some interesting pair-ups. We come to understand more the relationship between Nebula and Gamora, that Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Rocket have more in common than either is willing to admit and Drax (Dave Bautista) lacking in human decorum takes on the role of advising Ego’s servant the innocent Mantis (Pom Klementieff) how to interact with others with equally funny and poignant results. That leaves Quill to get to know his old man and Russell seems to be having the time of his life playing the charming Ego who alternately can’t deal with Quill’s simple question “Why did you leave us?”. Pratt too has truly come of age as a movie star able to project effortless cool but draw you in with heartfelt emotion.
Without giving away spoilers, great emotional resonance in the finale comes from the relationship between two characters who have shared very little screen time together across both films. Yet all involved makes small choices that create that resonance, a petulant sister’s face over the other’s shoulder during a hug she really does want, Rocket’s attempts to win approval or evade judgement from his team members and the way that Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) acts around Drax. This gang of outsiders found each other in the first film but the cast and crew go deeper here with the theme of making your own family. People tend to do that when their own home was broken and the sequel deals with that while proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Every single actor on screen brings their A game creating fully realized characters we believe, in particular Sean Gunn does a lot with very little as Ravager Kraglin. When we see Yondu (Michael Rooker) again for the first time he is looking out a window on a drinking hole planet completely devoid of joy and utterly lost. Gunn gifts the character a great arc in this story and Rooker makes the most of it articulating the characters pain but also joy in his moments of victory. You’ll be humming Stand A Little Bit Closer To Me by Jay and the Americans for the next week. The soundtrack is every bit as good as the lauded first one, with carefully chosen hits that are right on theme with what is occurring on screen with Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain getting two significant plays.
Other trademarks of the franchise are the spectacular visual effects which are used effectively here to create a cosmic adventure of unlimited scale, a full spectrum of colours and a range of possibilities. It would be nicer perhaps to have more practical sets and effects but the action has weight and there is true concern for the characters in the action scenes. The wit of the original remains which is just as well because the film does occasionally show some darkness when dealing with space criminals even if Rocket is happy to mock their names to his last breath.
Sometimes Marvel Studio films are criticized for all having the same look, with their director’s visions compromised to fit within the shared cinematic universe but Gunn’s Guardians films remain unique and true to his sensibilities. They’re funny, occasionally gross and as Cat Steven’s Father and Son plays in a gloriously lit up galaxy far, far away they are moving – oh so moving. This is one of the year’s best.