Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content

Score: 4 out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 was a film that really shouldn't have been a surprise, but is still arguably the biggest risk that Marvel has taken, barring the decision to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. It was a film that eschewed most superhero tropes entirely in favor of a sendup of epic space operas along the lines of Star Wars, boasting a soundtrack of '70s and '80s classic rock and, among its five titular protagonists, an anthropomorphic raccoon and a sentient tree-monster. Three years later, it is still like nothing else in the MCU, and remains one of its single best films. For the sequel, the question wasn't whether it would be a worthy follow-up, with Marvel's track record, combined with returning writer/director James Gunn, pretty much guaranteeing that it would be at least good. Rather, the question was whether it would retain the qualities that helped the original stand out, its offbeat sense of humor, its aesthetic, and its campy, old-school tone. The first film was an experiment, but the sequel had the weight of much higher expectations on its shoulders. Would Marvel try to tamper with the film and fix what wasn't broken in an effort to homogenize it, or would they let Gunn and company make lightning strike twice?

Really, the only thing that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lacks that the original had was the novelty of it all, the knowledge that all of these outrageous places and characters existed in the same universe as Iron Man and Captain America. Because beyond that, this is pretty much everything I could have hoped for from a sequel. It resists the temptation to just be more of the same, telling a smaller, more personal story while still delivering the goods in terms of exotic locations and spectacle, arguably making for a richer story than its predecessor. It may not be the sudden, unexpected blast of goodness that the first film was, but it's still a great start to this year's summer blockbuster season.

After the events of the first film, the Guardians of the Galaxy -- the human rogue Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the proud warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), the explosives-loving critter Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and the freshly-reborn walking tree Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- are now heroes for saving the galaxy, allowing them to jack up their prices as heroes for hire. The film opens with them (specifically, Rocket) screwing over the Sovereign, a race of gold-skinned, genetically-engineered "perfect beings" led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), for being a bunch of stuck-up, patronizing, egotistical nancies. This quite understandably leads to a chase across the galaxy, one that ends with them marooned on a distant planet. Peter, Gamora, and Drax find themselves rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell), a human-looking man who happens to be Peter's father -- and is also a god-like being who created an entire planet for himself to live on. On Ego's planet, Peter bonds with his father while he learns more about his lineage and the powers he inherited, but at the same time, Gamora and Drax, thanks to Ego's assistant Mantis, begin to suspect that something's not quite right about Ego and his world. Rocket and Groot, meanwhile, are captured by the Ravager outlaw Yondu (Michael Rooker), hired by Ayesha to track down the Guardians and get back what they stole from her. However, Yondu has second thoughts about killing Peter, leading to a mutiny among his crew, and so he, Rocket, and Groot fight their way across the galaxy to get to the Guardians upon realizing that, in the hands of Ego, they might be in trouble. Finally, Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's estranged cyborg sister who Ayesha had delivered to the Guardians for their job (before they screwed her over), escapes from their captivity after the crash, joins the mutineers in Yondu's crew, and sets out after the Guardians herself, specifically aiming to kill Gamora.

The trademark retro flair and comedy of the first film are back in full force here. Right away, we get a sense of this film's style when we see that the Sovereign's attack drones are being piloted by people back on their home planet in a way that explicitly calls to mind classic '80s arcade games, right down to everybody gathering around the last guy the Guardians haven't blown out of the sky yet to cheer him on, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Mantis, an empath who can read people's emotions, triggers several awkward moments between the Guardians, and without spoiling anything, the final battle involves a giant Pac-Man. Chris Pratt, a former Parks & Recreation star, is fully in his element as Peter, a sendup of Han Solo and other handsome, roguish anti-heroes, while Zoe Saldana gives much the same lighter touch to the ice-queen action girl archetype as Gamora. Dave Bautista is hilarious as Drax, the badass and extremely emotive brawler who still can't quite wrap his head around other species' sense of humor, while Bradley Cooper brings the booms as the dangerously unhinged Rocket. Vin Diesel's Groot is... well, he is still Groot, even if he's now a baby version thereof who acts like a little bratty kid throughout. This movie is still as funny as it ever was, and kept me smiling from ear to ear throughout most of its runtime.

On the more serious, plot-related end, Karen Gillan once again shines as Nebula. She didn't go quite so far as to shave her head a second time for the role (the makeup was good enough that I didn't notice), but she still does a great job as a morally conflicted figure whose mess of emotions and upbringing concerning her sister Gamora have done a number on her. Michael Rooker plays Yondu as a badass with a mean high-tech, whistle-guided spear, but one who, after abducting Peter from Earth so many years ago, has come to see him as his adopted son to a great extent. This winds up forming the core of one of the film's driving themes, as Kurt Russell plays Peter's biological father Ego, a man who also sees Peter as his son but has something very different in mind for him. Without spoiling anything, the film comes down to the question of just who Peter's father really is, in a story that drives towards a heartbreaking, and well-earned, conclusion.

The resolution of that question, of course, can't happen without some spectacular special effects, which is where James Gunn's direction comes in. On his second go-around, he is just as in command of the action on screen as he was before, bringing numerous vibrant planets, bizarre species, and strange alien cities to vivid life on screen. The arrival on Ego's planet was filled with larger-than-life grandeur even in 2-D, like stepping into Oz for the first time, while the Sovereign's homeworld felt appropriately gaudy in its application of technology, as befits a species who used genetic engineering to color their skin gold. The action is put together remarkably well, a mix of space battles, hand-to-hand fights, and raging shootouts. Much of it is larger-than-life, starting with a scene where Rocket, stranded on a wilderness planet after Ego takes away Peter, Gamora, and Drax, booby-traps the crash site and takes out waves of Yondu's men in scenes that feel almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon with how the poor suckers get launched into the treetops over and over. It's awash in narrow escapes, hope-is-lost moments, and sudden comebacks, feeling as though Gunn is taking the Star Wars style and seeing how far he can go with it. The result is gorgeous, vibrant, explosive, and almost never feeling dull to watch. It also knows when to take its sweet time and slow down, spending most of its second act with the characters as they get separated and go off on their own. It's here where the film really shines, giving everybody, good and bad alike, an arc and a reason to march off to the film's final destination. Just like in the first film, I came to care deeply about these characters, even the villain (one of the better ones that Marvel's movies have seen), such that when it came time for this film to roar at the climax, I felt it in my seat as I genuinely worried whether they'd make it -- no matter how obvious it was that they would.

The Bottom Line

Even if it couldn't hope to surprise me like the first film did, Vol. 2 still flies high with its boundless energy, great humor, and a genuinely touching storyline. It's a follow-up that undoubtedly lives up to its predecessor and is easily worth the price of admission.

Oh, and of course, there are a whole bunch of scenes during and after the end credits. Only one or two of them are really important for sequel purposes, but they are all spirited and often hilarious, and that's not even counting the song.

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