Friday, May 5, 2017

The A-Holes Strike Back: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” a satisfying sequel with more heart added to the jokes


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
136 min., rated PG-13.

Three summers ago, 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a breath of delightfully fresh air for Marvel. With subversive, independent-minded genre filmmaker James Gunn calling the shots, it was a distinctly funky work of pop art abuzz with brio and energy from a cheeky, tongue-in-cheek tone; a tuneful mixtape of '70s pop-rock favorites that served as an integral component; and engaging, affectionately written fringe comic-book characters. As undeniably enjoyable as it was, a minor issue that kept the the sci-fi adventure comedy from completely breaking out was that it felt blithe and almost inconsequential after it was all over. Still infused with its predecessor’s goofy, irreverent spirit and shrewd brand of character-based wit that has yet to come off forced, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a satisfying sequel in that the stakes feel slightly amplified and there’s a bit more heart and emotional weight added to the fun.

In media res of another mission, the Guardians—Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket the raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and tiny twig Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel)—are still making it work as a ragtag family. At the end of their mission of protecting the Sovereign planet’s interstellar batteries from a monster, they are able to leave with Gamora’s imprisoned sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) on board their Milano, but Rocket decides to leave with some of those batteries in his backpack. This leaves Sovereign’s gold-plated high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) out for their blood. As the Guardians are pursued by Sovereign’s remotely controlled pod ships and the renegades, led by ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), they crashland on a planet, which turns out to be the home of Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter’s biological father, a “celestial” who fell in love with Peter’s human mother. While Rocket and Baby Groot stay behind to fix their ship and watch the handcuffed Nebula, Peter, Gamora, and Drax go off with Ego and his empathic assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), only for Peter to learn what he has actually acquired from Dad, not to mention a lot of emotional baggage.

There is the impulse to accuse “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” for being just more of the same, and there might have been the pressure by returning writer-director James Gunn for the sequel to match the first film. Luckily, a great deal of the goodwill carries over, and Gunn keeps the banter flip and lively, but there had to be a few trade-offs. The diegetic use of the soundtrack as Meredith Quill’s “Awesome Mixtape #2” on Peter’s Walkman isn’t quite as inspired. The guardian gang gets split up for a while. For the better, Gunn has a different ambition this time and it’s to delve into familial bonds. With just as much of a family affair as “The Fate of the Furious,” this is the Guardians’ “The Empire Strikes Back.” Like its predecessor, the sequel is still more self-contained than other Marvel entries without the burden of being interconnected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not interested in being a place-holder or connective tissue—save for one mention of the Infinity Stone and five, yes, five post-credits stingers that are more like cherries on top than a bridge for future films—and that’s still a refreshing draw for the “Guardians” movies. It works, first and foremost, as a comedy with a concentration on the group dynamic rather than action sequences, although Gunn and his production team never fail to bring a vibrant, psychedelic-colored visual style to every frame. 

Forming a bickering but ultimately loving familial unit, the ensemble cast returns for their return engagement without skipping a beat. Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana are on their individual games as the wisecracking Peter and the more practical Gamora. Both are given even more meat to work with between their testy, albeit lovely, Sam-and-Diane interaction and their hang-ups with their own blood relatives. Dave Bautista, as dim-bulb Drax, is once again a surprising secret weapon; not only is his hearty cackle infectious every time, his line deliveries spot-on, and his inability to not take everything so literally made into an endearing quirk, but Bautista brings a certain warmth to this bruiser. It’s still a marvel that Bradley Cooper is the voice behind a raccoon with an attitude, but he brings even more rascally swagger as Rocket, who in turn gets taken for other species not his own. Again miraculously voiced by the deep-voiced Vin Diesel, Baby Groot is adorably funny, whether he’s bringing the wrong object to help Yondu and Rocket escape a prison cell or running through a cavern with a detonator. Cued to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” the film opens on an irresistible high note, Baby Groot boogying on down to the stereo tune in the foreground as his friends battle a tentacled space squid in the background; the attention isn’t really on the action but on a cute-as-a-button twig whom we hope doesn’t get squashed. As the blue-skinned Yondu who used to be a father figure to Peter, Michael Rooker is terrific and gets a layered arc this time.

New to this world, Pom Klementieff is a sweet, quirky delight as the socially inept Mantis and shares a winning rapport with Drax, and the inherently likable Kurt Russell is a perfect choice for Peter Quill’s long-lost father Ego, exuding just the right roguish vibe, and his 1980-set prologue shows another step up in the nearly seamless magic of CGI de-aging. Though there is a more central villain waiting in the wings, Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerizing to watch, purring with menace and looking smooth as silk playing the regally golden Ayesha.

Loosey-goosey and meandering from a narrative perspective, “Vol. 2” initially lacks focus but not incident. Bordering on too-muchness, the film eventually finds a thematic cohesion with all of the space-opera plot strands—Peter and Gamora have an “unspoken thing” between them; Gamora and emotionally hard sister Nebula have daddy issues and continue their sibling rivalry; and the wrongfully accused Yondu wants to make things right—and each payoff feels earned and not strained. Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” is also purposefully used as a through-line to bring together Peter and Ego. At the cost of narrative drive, the viewer is treated to shout-outs to “Cheers,” “Mary Poppins,” Pac-Man, and David Hasselhoff all in the same movie. There are also some crowd-pleasing gags, like Rocket booby-trapping trespassers and Peter asking the rest of his team, “Do you have any tape?” in the heat of battle. James Gunn and his entire ensemble take the material seriously enough for the viewer to be fully invested in what happens to them but still let their jokey side fly. Joyful, free-wheeling, breezy and surprisingly touching, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” thrives as a quality blockbuster for the early-summer season.

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