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Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is an energetic, sci-fi tangent in the Marvel Universe

Throughout its production and especially in the days/weeks leading up to the theatrical release, most critics and movie fans have persistently bandied about a certain sci-fi space opera from the 70’s whenever Guardians of the Galaxy is mentioned. And while all the comparisons to Star Wars are suitable, the latest superhero adventure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more along the lines of Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi romp, The Fifth Element. And in no way is that bad, in fact, it is quite a favorable, if less lofty, comparison – which is just perfect for Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy centers on a band of outlaw misfits forced together to, as the title clearly indicates, save the galaxy. Despite the prominence of the Marvel name, the film features a group of little known, second-tier heroes led by Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (a bulked up Chris Pratt as the half human/half alien space refugee). He is joined by Gamora (a green skinned alien assassin played by Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (another alien, this one bulked up with a bad temper and played by wrestler Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (a genetically mutated, raccoon criminal voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (a tree-like creature who can only grunt his name, appropriately voiced by Vin Diesel).

Pratt is a not an action movie leading man – at least not yet (he is the male lead in next summer’s Jurassic World too, so we will see), but Guardians does not need him to be. His goofy charm works best as part of an ensemble, even if that ensemble also includes a wise-cracking raccoon and a talking tree with a sensitive side. Saldana, the reigning queen of sci-fi action flicks (Avatar, Star Trek), is her usual beautiful, ass-kicking self, but does little to stand out (other than being green). As expected, Bautista, in his first major movie role, is a fairly terrible actor. The character manages a few laughs, but ultimately lacks the sympathy the story tries to force on him.

On the other hand, the CGI characters – the dynamic duo of Rocket and his muscle, Groot - really steal the show. In an almost too-perfect bit of casting, Diesel plays a bulking, wooden badass with a tender heart (quite similar to his previous voice work in the excellent and often overlooked animated film, Iron Giant). Despite the fact that he can only say “I am Groot” with minimal degrees of inflection, a tremendous amount of emotion is wrung from his minimalist face and measured movements. On the flip side, Rocket is particularly loquacious and lively. Cooper’s voice, dripping with his trademark fast-talking sarcasm, is perfect for the furry little warrior. Thankfully, the film does not over-rely on these two standouts, mainly because it keeps forcing Quill to the forefront. Which I get, he is supposed to be the star, but it just never fully clicks.

To film also features a cavalcade of smaller characters, many of which are played by big name actors. I still don’t really understand why John C. Reilly was in the movie in such a small role that does not suit his proven dramatic or comedic chops. Same goes for Glenn Close, who I even completely forgot was in it until I started writing this review. 

Benecio Del Toro pops up briefly and is mostly wasted as The Collector, an Andy Warhol-meets-Mugatu intergalactic treasure hoarder. 

Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan, both badass and painted bright blue, are really the only minor characters to make a noticeable impact. 

And finally and unfortunately, the utterly-charming Lee Pace is utterly forgettable as the film's lone and utterly forgettable villain.

Clearly Guardians is hit-and-miss with its characters, but the rest of the film is solid, mainly because it keeps things light and focused on fun. The breezy, standard comic book storyline is serviceable and expected. It is the film’s spirit, which comes Star Wars and other classic genre inspirations, that really shines through. Everything from the Indiana Jones homage that introduces Star-Lord to the repeated Footloose references, comes lovingly from the filmmakers who were raised on those very films. I read somewhere a while back that Guardians is the new Star Wars made by the generation that was raised on Star Wars – which is a fairly spot-on statement.

The one thing that did surprise me a bit about the film was that it is not nearly as weird or “out there” as I expected or wanted it to be. Clearly Guardians is a bit odd when compared to other Marvel outputs, given that it features the far reaches of space and a talking raccoon and tree. But when eccentric director James Gunn was hired to helm the film it put some unfulfilled expectations on the film – something Marvel even played up during production and publicity. The film could have benefited from some added eccentricities, like from the previously mentioned The Fifth Element, but instead it sticks too closely to the standard Marvel model. Perhaps one can see why the studio and director Edgar Wright recently had a falling out over the upcoming Ant-Man, another "unusual" Marvel project.

Guardians is still a delightfully fun and energetic sci-fi romp with a feel-good soundtrack of classic hits and impressive action sequences, especially the extended jail break scene early in the movie. In the end, the movie is a good, but not great, yet a more-than-welcome tangent inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

* * * * out of 5 stars

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 1.


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