Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

If there's one charge that it is impossible to level against the films of Marvel Studios, it's that they don't know how to have fun. The Marvel brand in the last few years has been associated with not only a sprawling continuity the likes of which had scarcely even been dreamed of in film, but with an overall lighter tone than many of the summer blockbusters out there, almost something of a reaction against the more self-serious attitude of many recent superhero films and action movies in the wake of The Dark Knight. Say what you will about the fact that Marvel tends to enforce a fairly uniform cinematic style on their movies (often to the consternation of their directors), or the possibility of a continuity lockout emerging for those who haven't been following the series religiously since Iron Man (which they've been more or less good about so far, but which did hurt them on at least one occasion), but Marvel movies tend not to go up their own ass with pretentiousness. Even when tackling heavier themes, like in the Captain America films, a constant of Marvel movies going back to the start has been their witty banter, their lovable characters (or love-to-hateable, in the villains' case), and their often-ridiculous action and set pieces. It's one case where having a pre-built universe works to their advantage, as they don't have to spend as much time setting up what's happening and can just get to the action and one-liners. They know that they're making burgers and not steaks, so they set out to make the finest burgers they can rather than try and fail to make a filet mignon and end up with nothing but a dry, burned slab of beef.

Their latest film, Guardians of the Galaxy, is a bit of an odd duck for them, but if it does anything, it proves that they have no problem working outside their superhero comfort zone. Granted, Guardians isn't too far outside their sci-fi wheelhouse, containing all the big explosions and alien villains one expects from a film like this. But at times, it almost seems like Marvel and director James Gunn are trolling, daring themselves to see what they can get away with in the confines of a big-budget blockbuster released in the heat of summer. When one of your main characters is an intelligent raccoon voiced by a show-stealing Bradley Cooper with a hair-trigger temper and an affection for really big guns, you know someone must've spiked the punch over in the Marvel boardroom. Not having access to some of their biggest characters, like the X-Men (whose film rights are owned by 20th Century Fox) and Spider-Man (owned by Sony, unfortunately), forced Marvel to take chances on turning some of their B-list superheroes, like Iron Man and the Mighty Thor, into bankable superstars, and that necessity became the mother of something great. Given that Marvel is now a superstar studio in its own right, the fact that they were willing to roll the dice on a comedy version of Star Wars indicates that, even though they've joined the Hollywood machine, at least some of that spark is still alive. Guardians of the Galaxy is a rollicking good space-opera action flick whose seemingly disparate elements -- its comedy and its very human core -- reinforce on another and produce one of the best experiences I've had in theaters this year.

In 1988, a young boy named Peter Quill is having a very bad night. Not only has his mother just died of cancer, but he just got abducted by aliens. Fast-forward to the present day, and a grown-up Quill (Chris Pratt), now calling himself Star-Lord, is working for his captors, a group of space pirates led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), seeking to steal an orb-shaped alien artifact from the ruins of a desolate planet and sell it to the highest bidder. When things go wrong, Quill lands up in jail, but soon breaks out with the help of four fellow inmates and unlikely allies: the genetically-modified raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and his sentient tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), a pair of bounty hunters who got thrown in jail with Quill when trying to capture him and are enticed with the promise of getting rich selling the orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin trying to steal the orb for her patently evil boss Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) but who has her own agenda, and Drax (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista), an inmate who hates Gamora for her association with Ronan, the man who killed his family, but is roped in with the promise of getting to kill him when all is said and done. Upon learning that the orb contains a dangerous weapon capable of destroying worlds, the five of them realize that they cannot just let it fall into any hands, and resolve to deliver it to the Nova Corps, the space police, despite knowing the legal trouble they're in. Ronan, meanwhile, furious at Gamora's betrayal, sets out after them with his most trusted assassin, Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), at his side.

As stated, what makes this movie, like so many Marvel movies, work is not the plot, but the characters, and more specifically their interactions and the team that they build. They're a motley crew at the start, united only because the greed of some of them lines up with the others' desire for revenge. The real story of the film isn't the quest to stop Ronan and Nebula from getting their hands on the orb and destroying their enemies' homeworld with it; while Pace and Gillan both get a fair amount of development and moments to shine on their own (the latter getting extra props for her dedication, shaving off her gorgeous red hair for the role), that is just a framing device for the quest to bring Quill, Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Drax together into an outer-space version of the Avengers. Every character feels like a fully fleshed-out... well, only Quill is technically human (even if Gamora and Drax are pretty much just Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista with colored skin and funny-looking foreheads), but "sentient lifeform" works just as well. All of them have something they've lost -- Quill was taken away from everything he'd ever known, both Gamora and Drax lost their families to Ronan, and Rocket was pulled away from the peaceful life of a raccoon and subjected to ungodly experiments. (Groot is... well, he is Groot.) As Quill pointedly notes, they're all losers, people (and animals) who'd been given the short end of the stick, but by coming together, they're reclaiming their destiny. It's appropriate that the film's real climax wasn't the big battle over the Xandarian city (though it was impressive), but rather, when the Guardians of the Galaxy came together to kick Ronan's ass in epic fashion. The Guardians are all impressive on their own, but together, they're great.

You know what's also great? Writer and director James Gunn's work on this film. Having previously made Troma films, the cult classic superhero parody Super, and the underappreciated horror-comedy Slither, Gunn took a big step up to the major leagues here, and his sensibilities were perfect for the material. Guardians is a very funny movie, with most of the film being played for a lark and getting some very big laughs. Much like with the story, the laughs here come mostly character-driven; I've heard it compared to classic Robert Altman, of all things, with its rapid-fire dialogue and frequent disregard for genre boundaries. He gets great performances out of everybody involved, with Chris Pratt bringing a rogue-ish, Han Solo-esque cool to Quill, Zoe Saldana giving off an icier sort of cool as Gamora without becoming flat and bland, and Vin Diesel being surprisingly lovable and tough as the voice of Groot with only three words of dialogue. The standouts, though, were Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket and Dave Bautista as Drax. Cooper was absolutely nuts as the little raccoon, reminding me more than once of the psychotic Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V with his love of violence and his dangerously unhinged personality, while Bautista, even in blue body paint, played a classic, '80s-style action hero better than just about anyone since the glory days of '80s action movies. If he avoids the mistakes of Dwayne Johnson and his co-star Vin Diesel, Bautista could have a bright future in action cinema. Speaking of, Gunn shoots the action here with an assured hand, indulging in big explosions and laser blasts that look gorgeous up on screen without losing the film's soul in the process. And that was seeing this in 2-D standard definition; I don't normally shell out extra for IMAX 3-D, but tonight, when I see this again, I'm making a big exception.

Finally, given that this is a Marvel movie, there's always the question of how it will play if you haven't been following this series regularly, as well as that of what new wrinkles this brings to the 'verse for fans. To answer both questions: either way, you'll love it. Guardians is remarkably, and refreshingly, light on continuity with the other films when it comes to the main story; it's a straightforward space opera in the mold of Star Wars, and you'll be able to understand everything even if you've never read the comics and this is the first Marvel movie you've ever seen. It is entirely self-contained as its own film, explaining everything it needs to and building its own unique, interesting, fully fleshed-out world on its own merits. However, if you are a Marvel fan, the fringes of this film are filled with all manner of in-jokes and Easter eggs hinting at directions that later films may take. Taneleer Tivan, the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who made a brief appearance at the end of Thor: The Dark World collecting the Aether from Sif and Volstagg, plays a small but pivotal role here. And while Ronan is Guardians' main villain, he is shown to be taking orders from Thanos, the baddie who showed up during the post-credits scene of The Avengers lamenting the failure of the invasion of Earth.

And speaking of post-credits scenes... don't miss this one. It doesn't provide any critical information continuity-wise, outside of inserting into the movie universe the last Marvel character you'd expect... but it was easily among the funniest stingers I've seen in any of these films, and meshed perfectly with this film's whacked-out sense of humor.

Score: 5 out of 5

Hilarious, action-packed, and possessing a big heart and great characters, Guardians of the Galaxy continues Marvel's hot streak and proves that it can make more than just superhero movies. One day, Marvel's luck will run out and they'll make a bad movie, but this is not that day.

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