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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

* * *

Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel

Take what you know works and lean on it hard. It won't get you any points for audacity, but it will give you a decent chance at making sure the audience walks away happy. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does basically nothing new - unless you count upping the adorability factor to about 110 via the baby version of Groot - presenting more of the same without apology. This isn't really a bad thing. Vol. 2 is a very enjoyable movie. It's not the shot in the arm that the first Guardians of the Galaxy was (I won't say that the first was a breath of fresh air since it was the Star Wars throwback before The Force Awakens became the official Star Wars throwback), but then it doesn't have the same element of surprise either. Vol. 2 is all about maintaining and it does that fairly well, returning to what worked for its predecessor and not breaking a sweat trying to surpass the expectations set up by the success of the first film.

Vol. 2 opens with the Guardians - Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Groot (Vin Diesel) - in the thick of things, preparing to do battle with a monster after having been commissioned to do so by the Sovereigns. The film itself uses this opening stretch as a sort of statement about what it is and isn't going to be, relegating much of the action to the background and putting the focus on Baby Groot as he dances around the battle to "Mr. Blue Sky," occasionally bopping his way into danger so that one of the combatants has to take a moment to move him out of harm's way. This is going to be an action movie in only the most cursory fashion (or, at least, in as cursory a fashion as a movie with a $200 million production budget can be); it's a comedy first and, indeed, even its climatic sequence is built around humor, be it in the form of extended exchanges between characters, one-liners, and one dialogue-free pop culture reference that seems obvious in retrospect but delights in the moment.

The Guardians having succeeded in their initial task, the Sovereign's leader, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), hands over Gamora's sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), as payment and the deal would be done were it not for the fact that Rocket has secretly stolen some of what the Guardians had been hired to protect in the first place, resulting in them having to flee as the Sovereigns' fleet of drones pursues them across space, and giving the film an opportunity to establish the main theme that it will then go on to underline, bold, and italicize just to make sure you don't miss it: family. In addition to the on-going sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula, which will play out over the course of the film, escalating in both violence and emotional depth, the Guardians are rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals that he's Peter's father and has been searching for him across the galaxy. The makeshift family of the Guardians then gets split up, with Peter taking Gamora and Drax with him to Ego's planet while Rocket stays behind with Groot, guarding Nebula before being ambushed by Yondu (Michael Rooker), whose role as de facto father figure to Peter adds yet another layer to the film's exploration of what, exactly, makes a family.

Vol. 2 hits the family angle pretty hard and sometimes in a manner that feels more like "tell" than "show," but writer/director James Gunn manages to make it all payoff in the finale, hitting several emotional beats that give this very light-hearted movie a little bit of weight. If nothing else, it's amazing how CGI and Cooper's voice performance can work together to make a belligerent anthropomorphic raccoon the film's most complex character. While all the main characters, with the exception of Groot, get a little bit of extra shading (Peter's relationship with his newfound father brings out another side to the character, albeit one that's not that different from the side he normally shows; Gamora's relationship/feud with Nebula is given depth by some exploration of the abusive circumstances from which they emerged; Drax touches on the loss of his own family prior to the events of either film), Rocket is the only one who feels like he actually grows as a character over the course of the film, even if it's only incrementally.

Overall Vol. 2 is a pretty satisfying watch - I say that as someone who has never read any of the comic books, so I'm sure that there are tons of references that went right over my head but that didn't spoil anything for me - that takes the things that worked from the first movie and repackages them for further consumption. It's not quite as tight as it could be - in terms of fat that could be trimmed, I'm thinking specifically of how much time is devoted to the group suffering the effects of taking multiple jumps through pockets of the universe at once; the point is made the first time, there's no real reason to return to it except to pad things out - but it makes up for that by having a more interesting villain than the first film had and by the general presence of Russell, an actor possessed of such relaxed, unforced charisma that he's pretty much always a delight to watch. Vol. 2 never truly rises to the occasion to become more than just as good as it needs to be, but it's a fine way to kick off the summer movie season.

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