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May 8, 2017



written by: James Gunn
produced by: Kevin Feige
directed by: James Gunn
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content)
runtime: 136 min.
U.S. release date: May 5, 2016


If you recall, 2014 was a great year for Marvel Studios movies. If you don’t recall, it was a year that gave us the Russo brothers-helmed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in May (the official kickoff month of the summer movie season) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” in August from writer/director James Gunn. The sci-fi action/adventure comedy wound up being the studio’s biggest gamble since “Thor”, launching audiences into outer space, where blue and green-skinned aliens brushing teaming-up with a tree creature and sarcastic anthropomorphic raccoon, was no big deal. Gunn’s energy was contagious and his clever and subversive approach won me over, blowing up the box-office and proving that audiences would rally around and delight in unfamiliar characters. So, in the spirit of not ruining a good thing, Gunn brings more of the same three years later in “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” and I mean that in the best possible way. 

I know I know, you’re reading “more of the same” and thinking how that’s usually a bad thing. Understandable, since it typically means just that. Here’s the thing though – what Gunn brought to the big-screen three years ago was a well-needed summer blast. It harkened back to the joyous escapism that movie-going can be and it was also laugh-out-loud funny with an enthusiasm that was utterly contagious. Even better, Gunn clearly was focusing more on characterization than he was enormous whiz-bang special effects. He invested time and energy in characters we can relate to and wanted to hang out with. So yes, I’ll gladly take more of all that.

Of course, Gunn isn’t just shifting into cruise control here. Since our titular band of misfits were already introduced last time, there are now new worlds to be discovered, along with new characters to meet and, most of all, time to delve into what’s going on with the characters we’ve come to love. He’s going for bigger, but not getting carried away with better, confident in knowing what he has to offer will bring viewers back again and again.





There’s a welcome familiarity within the first fifteen minutes, as Gunn takes us back to Earth where we see an “Escape from New York” era Kurt Russell (digitally de-aged like Michael Douglas in the opening of “Ant-Man”) romancing Peter Quill’s (you know, Star-Lord) mother, Meredith (Laura Haddock) in Missouri circa 1980. As “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”, a K-Tell staple of AM radio in the late 70s from one-hit wonder Looking Glass plays, we hear her refer to him as “spaceman” and it becomes clear right away where this is going. The fun thing is that it’s obvious that Gunn knows that we know, which means right away there’s a friendly nudge from a filmmaker who’s excited to get this story going.

From there, we catch up to the present, as the Guardians fend off Abilisk, a giant tentacled  inter-dimensional creature who’s after energy batteries that belong to a race of golden people called the Sovereign. We will soon learn that their High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), hired the team to protect their precious resource, but first we are treated to a hilarious and undeniably adorable opening credit action sequence as the team battles the looming threat. The focus is less on defending valuable resources than it is on Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) who’s in the foreground, more concerned with dancing along obliviously to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” than helping his teammates, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), in any way. It’s a jaunty, hilarious sequence that Gunn handles masterfully, balancing clever and humorous characterization with chaotic action, that he either cuts to or leaves in the background, knowing full well we’ve seen an opening with heroes fighting a formidable opponent in the past.

Payment for their job comes in the form of Gamora’s estranged sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian), but the transaction is soured once Ayesha learns the Guardians have broken some Soverign laws and in no time sends an armada of drones after their ship, the Milano.  Outnumbered and arguing amongst themselves, the Guardians manage to crash-land on a nearby planet, thanks to assistance from the mysterious Ego the Living Planet (Russell), who announces himself as Peter’s long-absent father. This may confirm Peter’s half-alien heritage, but Peter isn’t ready to fully believe such a revelation. In an effort to reunite with his son, Ego invites a suspicious Peter to his home planet, joined by Gamora and Drax, while Rocket stays back with Baby Groot and Nebula to tend to ship repairs. At the same time, Ayesha has hired Yondu (Michael Rooker), one-time adversary of the Guardians and former leader of the space pirate gang the Ravagers, to track down the Guardians and retrieve what’s theirs. With his reputation tarnished, Yondu becomes an unlikely ally to the team and the Guardians will need him as they’ve become a target for both the Ravagers and the Sovereign.




If you didn’t like the characters in the last movie, I don’t know what to tell you about “Vol. 2” because Gunn relies heavily on viewers liking these a-holes (as they were referred to in the last movie) and although there’s plenty of amazing special effects to behold here, what continues to hook me are the actors and the characters they portray.  Sure, he splits them up, which is considering something of a trope – yet it worked effectively for “The Empire Strikes Back”, one of the greatest sequels ever, so why not here? This narrative decision is beneficial to the overall story – providing great comedic moments, fun action sequences and some great cameos for Marvel comics fans – but also provides plenty of time to delve into the issues these characters are dealing with (or ignoring in most cases).  They may not readily acknowledge them, but everyone has their own fears and needs here, as they have to deal with each other’s idiosyncrasies in order to move forward and eventually come to terms with what it’s going to take to the save the galaxy again.

For some, the jokes in “Vol. 2” may seem familiar or repetitive, maybe even fall flat. I get that. But for me and the audience I vocal experienced it with, Gunn has successfully recaptured the strange magic, wit and wonder from the last movie and now has a chance to explore what makes our irascible heroes tick. Count me among the faithful who appreciates the chance to revisit and examine Peter’s thinly veiled love for Gamora as well as her hesitancy to get close, Drax’s hilarious inability to self-censor, and (of course) Rocket’s easily bruised self-esteem. While it’s fun to see Avengers squabble on the big-screen, these guys are more relatable, giving audiences characters to connect with instead of look up to. The Guardians share the same insecurities and problems we have and often mess up just as much as we do, making them more fun to hang out with.

Did I think Baby Groot would be too cutesy, clearly marketed for toy tie-ins? Yes and guess what? He’s absolutely adorable and never once outwears his welcome. Context is everything. I love these characters and “Vol. 2” reminds me how great they’re cast. It is interesting to see Pratt’s Star-Lord be somewhat less quippy this time around and that could partly be due to the new revelation thrust into his life. As Ego, Russell is undeniably charming and, well, appropriately egotistical considering he’s basically a god (emphasis on the little “g”)  who’s been planting his seed on seemingly hundreds of planets across the universe, including Earth. The two are fit alongside each other nicely, like Sean Connery playing Harrison Ford’s father, if anyone could play Chris Pratt’s father, it’s Kurt Russell, since there’s a lot of Jack Burton in Peter Quill. They’re not the only family members Gunn is focusing on here. Gamora and Nebula spend a good deal of time together this time, still scrabbling but also coming to a better understanding of how their father, Thanos (the phantom baddie we caught a glimpse of in the last film, who’ll pay a larger role next year’s “Avengers” movie), has affecting them both. There’s also a bond that develops between Yondu and Rocket that benefits greatly from Gunn separating the group, offering an unexpected connection between the two characters and a chance for Michael Rooker to become the MVP of the whole production.

As for Bautista, I can listen to his Drax howl with laughter 24/7. Drax provides some of my favorite laughs, usually due to his lack of filter and tendency to take everything literal. His perception is also quite amusing, like when he considers Ego’s personal empath, Mantis (a wonderful Pom Klementieff) repulsive, yet can’t keep his eyes off her antennae (the movie’s largest laughs are found here). Some may find his laughter overdone, but I couldn’t get enough of it.

Back to Yondu though, a character I didn’t expect to see get a dramatic expansion of his story arc.  He has to deal with a mutiny led by his lieutenant Taserface (Chris Sullivan) and face condemnation from old Ravager friend, Staker Ogord (Sylvester Stallone, making the movie something of a “Cliffhanger” reunion), eventually getting ostracized from their order. He turns out to be another character that Gunn humanizes, knowing full well that Rooker is up for the task of bringing a poignancy to the role and surprising sincerity to the movie. Amid all the laughs and adventure, Gunn is most concerned about heart and, once again, providing these contentious losers with a story we can connect to.




The separation of the group works because they’re still not quite a cohesive unit, they’re still not quite used to being a part of a group (and I hope they never do). Gunn definitely respects the ensemble who portray these weirdos and because of that, we get a deeper look into their emotions and their psychological baggage and these character-centric storylines serve to benefit the movie all the more. Gunn isn’t burdened with expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) here, like the other Marvel Studios movies and it allows the writer/director time to expand on what he developed last time. Of course, we’ll see these misfits alongside the Avengers soon enough.

Like the last movie, the visuals are astounding, as Gunn populates “Vol. 2” with even more beatific images. Some of the landscapes, like Ego’s planet, that feel like Yes album covers brought to life.  It’s not all amazing effects though, there is impressive practical makeup on display as well, impressive digital effects and more importantly, and CGI rendering/mo-cap work that once again captures characters like Groot and Rocket with precise emotional integrity. There’s a desire to rewatch the movie just because of the visuals alone.

There’s always going to be a tendency to ask if a sequel is better than the movie that came before it. It’s our nature. If I had to answer such a question, I’d say “Vol. 2” is just as fun as Gunn’s previous movie – better in some areas and somewhat lacking in others. There’s a climatic battle this movie ends with that could’ve easily wrapped up sooner than it did, but that’s a small complaint overall.

I don’t know if 2017 will be like 2014 was for Marvel Studios, but it’s certainly off to a great start. If anything, it will certainly be a colorful one, what with the neon Skittle-rific colors and 80s arcade-tinged logo of “Thor: Ragnarok” (not to mention a certain web-head that’s just around the corner), it’s looking to be a fun and unusual year for the MCU.



RATING: ***/12




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