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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2013) review

August 8, 2014

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written by: Nicole Perlman and James Gunn
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: James Gunn
rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)
runtime: 122 min.
U.S. release date: August 01, 2014

 

As a rule, I try not to get my hopes up to high for movies. Although, I do my best to remain an optimist, I’ve been burned before and I kind of tend to ease up on the level of anticipation I maintain for certain movies. Well, all the trailers and the updates on co-writer/director James Gunn’s Facebook account reassured me that Marvel Studio’s latest comic book flick, “Guardians of the Galaxy” was going to be something special. Guess what? It is something special and it’s also quite a gamble and actually something of a game changer.

Here we have Marvel Studios (and Disney too), having given their “most popular” characters quality time on the big-screen, introducing mainstream audiences (those who’ve dished out the most money and haven’t flipped or scrolled through a comic in years) to an unknown team that includes a smart-mouthed anthropomorphic space raccoon and a sentient semi-talking living tree. There’s the gamble right there, but it’s also the game changer as well.

Do you think Marvel was hard-up with ideas? Not at all. They know that after the success of the “Thor” movies, which combined off-world environments and surprising humor (that actually works) with the same action and drama they’ve already delivered in their previous movies, that audiences would be up for just about anything. That, if they backed this unknown property enough in marketing and exuberant promotion, then that excitement could actually be contagious. Well, congratulations Disney/Marvel – take my money!

The misadventures of this ragtag team is splendid and entertaining. There’s the payoff right there. In comics, you’d call this movie a great “jumping on point”, meaning you really don’t need to know anything about who these characters are or have read previous issues – you’ll still get sucked into this rollicking and rebellious rock n’ roll ride.

The majority of “Guardians” takes place in space, but it opens on Earth in the late 80s, where we meet young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) who’s being comforted by his grandfather (Gregg Henry) after the sudden death of his mother (Laura Haddock). Before he can register this life-changing event, the distraught eight year-old boy is beamed aboard a hovering space craft and whisked away.

 

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Twenty-six years later, we meet Quill (Chris Pratt) as an adult, now a cocky fortune seeker, who used to hang with a group of weasel bandits named the Ravagers, led by the blue-skinned, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who also happens to be the alien who scooped him off Earth. Now Quill is making his own intergalactic path as a thief and scavenger, calling himself Star-Lord, loaded with an assortment of gadgets and retro looking guns (like something out of “The Black Hole”, I know, I’m dating myself); as well as his most prized possession: a functional 80s Walkman with the cassette, “Awesome Mix Tape, Vol. 1”, of his mom’s oldies, while zipping around in his own ship, the Milano. His goal is simple: to nab any valuable trinket he hears about and get a good price for it.

When Quill lifts a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet, he infuriates Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a Kree hunter who reports to Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a radical Kree madman. Turns out this orb is all-powerful, so in order for Ronan to claim it for his boss, the titan Thanos (mo-capped and voiced by James Brolin), he sends his assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to retrieve it. She tracks Quill to Xandar (a mostly humanoid planet, home to an intergalactic police task force, the Nova Corps., that has a city resembling an amalgam of Tomorrowland and the Federation’s San Francisco location) where he’s unsuccessfully trying to get a good price on the orb.

It’s on Xandar that we meet Rocket and Groot. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a a bounty hunting mercenary, a resourceful military tactician, a weapons geek and a diminutive raccoon (although he’d argue otherwise) with an attitude. His partner is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient walking and semi-talking tree creature. Although Groot only says variations of “I am Groot”, he and Rocket understand each other like Han and Chewie. The two are there to collect the price on Quill’s head, since word has gotten around about his acquirement.

 

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During a public altercation, wherein Gamora tries to swipe the orb from Quill while Rocket and Groot try to nab Quill, all four of them are arrested and thrown into the Kyln, a high-security prison floating in space. This is where these soon-to-be Guardians get to bond and come to find out that they probably have much more in common than they would’ve thought. It’s also where we meet the muscle-bound Drax the Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), a shirtless and heavily tattooed (more like ‘marked’) brute who seeks revenge for the death of his family at the hands of Ronan.

After a creative prison breakout, all five characters find themselves reluctantly working together to take on Ronan before he creates a path of destruction across the universe. In Ronan’s employ is the dangerous and loyal Nebula (Karen Gillan), the resentful adopted daughter of Thanos who grew up alongside Gamora as siblings. With Ronan, Gamora, Korath and Yondu on their butts, these Guardians of the Galaxy will have to overcome their own drama and attitudes in make sure there’ll be a galaxy left for them to guard.

This is the first time Marvel Studios has gone to outer space and stayed there. I’m taking totally off Earth. It took a while, but it’s well worth-it. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is tremendous fun, providing fantastic action, clever character interaction and well-earned laughs. Producer Kevin Feige and company were smart enough to realize that superhero fatigue could kick in even when their continued output has proven to be the most entertaining and fun of any superhero movies out there.

It was also a smart move to choose director James Gunn (go see “Slither” and “Super”), who co-wrote the movie with Nicole Perlman (shamefully, the first female writer for Marvel Studios), a guy who’s also a comic book geek. Gunn includes requisite Easter Eggs for fans, fun 80s references and a soundtrack littered with 70s smooth groves and rockin’ jams. It works and fits. Really well. Never would I have thought I’d see a starship cruising through the cosmos with David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” blaring or a battle cry montage for our anti-heroes set to the tune of “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways. It’s almost like a live-action Heavy Metal movie at times, albeit a PG-13 one. Again, it works because of the tone and attitude Gunn and his actors set right from the start.

 

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Amid all the cool spaceship designs, interesting set pieces and locations, what struck me in the most pleasing way were the arcs and interactions of all five characters – yes, even the predominately silent Groot. The way in which Quill comes to Gamora’s defense in the prison, the moment when Gamora listens to Quill’s mix tape, Drax’s reaction to Groot taking out a corridor of bad guys, Rocket’s surprising vulnerability and soft side and the way in which Groot keeps a certain sense of serenity despite being surrounded by chaos. These are fascinating characters, just as fun to watch together as the Avengers were, but definitely more intriguing. It could be because their new – to geeks and newbies alike – or it could just be because we could relate to them more. Like us, they’re losers. They’ve “all lost something”, as Quill persuades to his new allies during his impromptu pep talk. It’s a little easier to connect to these character types than it is a Super Soldier or an Asgardian god.

To bring these characters to life, Gunn has assembled a fitting cast that’ll remind you how crucial and, at times, surprising, casting can be. If you look at Chris Pratt’s filmography outside of his “Parks and Rec” role, you’ll see a selective actor looking for a variety. We’ve seen him go from “Moneyball” to “Zero Dark Thirty” to early this year with “The LEGO Movie”. Although he’s tried out for a handful of roles in the past, it’s Peter Quill aka Star-Lord that he’ll be known for (in fact, it was this casting that landed him a role in next summer’s “Jurassic World”). Pratt has the charisma and the incorrigible attitude for Star-Lord and he’s worked hard for the role physically. His spot-on comedy chops mixed with his bravura demeanor (like a mashup of Han Solo and Jack Burton) also fits the character just right. It’s a delight to see Pratt navigate his way through Quill’s growth throughout the movie. Heck, it’s a delight to see a main character with growth in a comic book movie.

 

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This story may primarily revolve around Pratt’s Quill, but all the other Guardians are just as interesting. Saldana is no stranger to physically demanding roles, so it’s no stretch to see her in action as a lethal assassin, but seeing her character come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be provides Saldana with welcome nuances to work with. Having only seen Bautista’s acting in last year’s “Riddick” (and enjoying him in it), his portrayal of Drax was probably the most surprising performance of the group. He’s got the physique of course, but there’s a certain weariness and emotional weight that Bautista communicates in his expressions, especially when Drax realizes that he actually needs help and he’s going to have to change the way he approaches going after Ronan. Watching how just about everything goes over Drax’s head and how he takes the sarcasm and witty remarks literally is also a nice touch.

Of course, people are going to be talking about Rocket and Groot, or Cooper and Diesel, a duo who could probably carry their own movie. Some may have a hard time wrapping their brain around a talking space raccoon, but Gunn and Cooper deliver the character with a straight face as well as a wink and a nudge. Skeptics weren’t too sure how Cooper would do voicing the character, but it’s obvious what a great time he has with the role. He’s got the fast-talking irreverent behavior down pat, but there’s also a surprising soft side to Rocket that Cooper deftly handles. Like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, much credit is due to the animators involved in visualizing Rocket. Attention is given to every whisker and toothy snarl and body language plays a key factor in believing in the little guy. Groot is an even harder sell. Diesel provides variations on the character’s token line, but the animators have to rely on Groot’s expressions and reactions to emanate the character’s loyal and peaceful nature.

Gunn and Perlman give each Guardian a backstory with enough scar tissue that explains their personalities and motivations. None of them are entirely too original, but the characters are so engaging and the actors so committed, that it works. Other characters that round out the movie are filled with two Oscar winners and one nominee, such as Benicio del Toro, Glenn Close and John C. Reilly. Three smart actors who know enough to accept roles in a movie bound to be a sure thing….and indeed it is.

 

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Is the movie perfect? No. At times, the villains are kind of lacking any ominous oomph. Ronan starts out really interesting with Lee Pace delivering his lines with a twisted bite, but after a while his character is written into a pretty predictable place. Although Gillan physically gets into the role of Nebulla, she’s not given much to do except be a match for Gamora. There’s some apparent tension between her and Thanos that this movie understandably doesn’t have room for, but that just leaves her as a stereotypical baddie.

Inevitably, folks are comparing “Guardians of the Galaxy” to other Marvel movies, which something I’ve become tiresome of and so no use in. Holding it up against “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is fruitless since that was basically a 70s political thriller interwoven into a taut action movie. Of course, some are even saying “Guardians” is better than 2012’s “Avengers”. Why does one have to be better than the other. If we look at the family of Marvel movies, “Guardians” can actually be hard to label. It could be the crazy aunt, the quirky cousin or the baby brother everyone picks on. Like those relatives, it has a lot more going for it than what you see at face value.

Oh and if you’re wondering, I did pay for 3D IMAX tickets and it was well worth it. The 3D isn’t useless and adds some great depth to the space scenes especially. Also, the two end credit scenes are fun and thankfully refer to the movie you just watched and do not hint at any upcoming Marvel Studios movies. That’s a nice change.

However you respond to “Guardians of the Galaxy”, one thing we can all agree on is how Gunn is the right choice to bring these second-tier characters to the big screen. The action sequences are easy to follow, there are technical achievements to behold and balanced pacing, all wrapped up in an infectiously fun tone. Gunn is already hard at work writing a sequel and I will gladly accept more of the same, but I’m betting he’ll wind up surprising me just as he did here.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

 

 

 

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