Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Choosing to go where no Marvel film has gone before, Guardians of the Galaxy not only opens the door to the wider Marvel Universe among the stars but also introduces some of Marvel Studios most memorable characters. I've been a fan of the current team since they got together back in 2008, but I had serious doubts about how well Marvel could incorporate a group of space misfits who include thieves, killers, a genetically-enhanced raccoon, and talking tree into a mainstream sci-fi/action film.

I've been less impressed by James Gunn's body of work up until this point than most (sorry, I'm just not a fan of Slither), but the co-writer/director proves to be the right choice to juggle the various bizarre elements of the script while infusing it with an offbeat sense of humor which fits the characters and cast well. There are some groanworthy moments here or there, such as having Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) dance for the film's baddie Ronan (Lee Pace), but thankfully they are few and far between as Gunn makes most of the right calls in dealing the team of oddball heroes.

Chris Pratt, cast in the role of a human space-adventurer, thief, and eventual leader of the team, is sure to garner some well-deserved praise and comparisons to Han Solo. Personally I would have loved to see Zachary Levi in the role, but Pratt turns out to be some pretty damn good casting. For me however, the stars of the film are the two CGI characters voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. At times Quill's smarmy charm wears thin, but Rocket Raccoon (a genetically-enhanced raccoon with a bloodthirsty streak) and Groot (a walking, talking, ass-kickin' tree with a soft side) are constantly amazing. Diesel makes the most out of Groot's three word vocabulary and Cooper provides the spirit to bring a ridiculously awesome character like Rocket Racoon to life.

Rounding out the team are Zoe Saldana as assassin and rebellious adopted daughter of the big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) and wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista as the murderous Drax whose literal interpretations of statements turns out to be one of best running gags of the film. The other current members of the team don't make it into the film, although one member of the 2008 squad is given a fun (if all-too-brief) cameo. And in a nod to longtime fans, Guardians of the Galaxy also incorporates a member of the original 1969 team (survivors in dark future bound together to fight for justice in the 31st Century) by casting Michael Rooker and Yondu who gets to keep his whistle-controlled arrows but sadly looses his more detailed backstory (and awesome head fin) in favor of being just another space pirate.

If the movie has a weak spot its in the villains and supporting cast who are all completely outshone by the Guardians. John C. Reilly steals a couple of scenes in a small role as member of the galactic Nova Corps (who, without their space helmets, are a far less interesting bunch of space cops). Karen Gillan as Thanos' other daughter Nebula is intriguing but so underutilized it's almost not worth the effort of including her here. Brolin steps into the role of Thanos who is far less imposing, both physically and emotionally, than I'd like. Meanwhile Pace struggled throughout the movie to sell me on Ronan, who while a definite threat, doesn't make for a very interesting bad guy on-screen.

With only a single scene from the movie taking place on Earth, Guardians of the Galaxy embraces outer space with a gusto that Green Lantern should have attempted. The look of the film is a definite strength from the marvelous CGI renderings of Groot and Rocket to the various production design and style of the movie's numerous locales. The plot, while relatively straightforward, might feel daunting to those without some basic knowledge of the characters. Those unfamiliar with the Infinity Stones might feel a bit lost when the script delves into the plans of Ronan and Thanos, and the blandness of Ronan certainly doesn't help sell the that aspect of the script. Benicio Del Toro's reprise as The Collector is no less awkward the second time around than in the post-credit sequence of Thor: The Dark World. And Glen Close is completely wasted in the role of a Nova bureaucrat.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn't Marvel Studios best movie, that remains Avengers, but Gunn does justice to the unusual group of space heroes despite being saddled with far-less-interesting villains who pale in comparison to the leads. Comic nerds should definitely get a kick out of the care taken in bringing these characters to life (with or without paying the extra money for 3D IMAX). Casual fans should enjoy the space romp through the wilder realms of the Marvel Universe as well, but the real test for ultimately judging the success of this franchise and how crazy Marvel gets when choosing other fringe properties for upcoming movies will be how those completely unfamiliar with the characters take to the trash-talking raccoon, the smarmy space pirate, the beautiful (if underutilized) assassin, the extremely literal killer, and the talking tree. For crazy space fun, and a level of action mixed with offbeat humor and amazing effects, I'd recommend Guardians to every moviegoer out there as the big budget popcorn flick we've all been waiting for all summer.

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