'Guardians of the Galaxy' is Marvel's most idiosyncratic (and funniest) movie yet
Guardians of the Galaxy Walt Disney Studios
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 1 minute
August 1, 2014
(out of four)
Guardians of the Galaxy revels in kitsch and nostalgia in a way I haven't seen so successfully pulled off since George Lucas' heyday. Normally when those two elements join forces, the result is likely to be obnoxious and tawdry, up to its teeth in cheap sentiment and cloying cuteness or irony; but here, writer/director James Gunn has channeled all that into something of almost effortless likability and charm.
Even if this doesn't quite achieve No. 1 status on my personal Marvel movie list (though it's still pretty high), it may be the one I treasure most, if only because it does the most to bust the established paradigm created over the last several years. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of Marvel-isms in play (for better or worse), but there's also more independent spirit here than anything the studio has done to date.
Fittingly, for a movie centered around a group of misfit characters from five different species, Guardians is a loony blend of idiosyncrasies. Its neon candy-colored cosmos looks like it belongs on a '70s psychedelic album cover (kind of like Avatar, but playful and self-aware in every single way Avatar was not); the tongue-in-cheek tone of the space opera resembles Star Wars; the loveable outlaws and the plot dynamics remind us of a classical Western. In fact, while the movie may not be purely Hawksian, it was close enough that it got me to thinking about how much I would have loved to see Howard Hawks take on a space opera. (The New York Times' A.O. Scott made a similar comparison with The Avengers, citing Rio Bravo, and certainly this movie has much of the same good-natured charm among its mismatched companions.)
In my imagination, I tell myself that Marvel's entire game plan was leading up to a movie like this - that the aesthetic uniformity that has drawn complaints from the likes of me was all just laying the groundwork for stranger, more imaginative films like this. Like I said, that's just my imagination, but a guy can dream. A studio culture that embraces more of this kind of eclectic weirdness would be a healthier one. (My main complaint, actually, would be that it doesn't revel enough in its weirdness, or at least not for long enough. The oddness of Guardians at its best is so good that I only wanted more of it. But beggars can't be choosers, right?)
Despite the flaws practically built-in by the Marvel template (ho-hum third-act aerial firefight, toothless villain), the film succeeds by balancing its requirements (to plot, to genre and to the expanded cinematic universe to which it belongs) with its actual strengths, which are almost completely separate from - and indifferent to - the story it's telling. Even more than The Avengers, Guardians embraces everything that can make a lighthearted comic-book adventure so fun, but without ever trying to bog us down in the specifics of the narrative, or take the narrative seriously at all. It understands the absurdity of its world and the people in it; it understands that the MacGuffin is just a MacGuffin.
In this case, it's a small, metallic orb that contains an infinity stone - but it changes hands so quickly and so frequently (notably in one fantastic screwball action scene, as four of our five eventual Guardians meet for the first time and beat each other up trying to get their hands on the orb), it's as if Gunn is cheekily rubbing our noses in how ultimately unimportant the thing is, except as a plot mover. It's a shiny thing that crooks want to sell, bad guys want to buy, and good guys want to keep bad guys from buying. That's it.
In this case, the good guys are the crooks - and so it's no wonder they all find themselves in space prison. There's Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) - who refers to himself as Star Lord even though the name hasn't caught on anywhere else in the galaxy - an intergalactic thief who was abducted from Earth as a child and trained in thievery by the mercenary Yondu (Michael Rooker); Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful green-skinned assassin - and adopted daughter of the villain Thanos - with ulterior (and noble) motives for wanting the orb; then there's the bounty-hunting duo of Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an anthropomorphized tree whose every line of dialogue is "I am Groot." (That relationship has a pretty clear Han and Chewy vibe, with Rocket always able to fully understand what Groot is saying despite his limited vocabulary.) And then the final - and unexpected - member of the gang, Drax (Dave Bautista), a green-skinned, red-tattooed heavyweight who only joins the team after realizing that his soon-to-be cohorts are going to be crossing paths with the evil Ronan (Lee Pace), with whom Drax has unfinished business.
Everyone in the cast is terrific. With his sincerity and his brilliant comic timing, Pratt is the most easily likable leading man since, what, Tom Hanks? Saldana is a natural in this role, Groot is a perpetual scene-stealer and Rocket is the surprising heart of the film. But the best character for my money was Drax, who's not only the funniest character in what is already a very funny movie, but delivers one of the single funniest lines I've heard in many years. Sure, a combination of five completely different performers - or the addition/subtraction of the various characters who have been members of the Guardians in the comic-book series - may well have worked, but this is one of those movies that makes you doubt they ever would have gotten a better combination than this.
Yes, the film is stuck with a lame villain in Ronan (poor Lee Pace, stuck with such a blandly written role) - he's basically your standard Power-Hungry Alien Baddie with British Accent - and the storytelling is borderline nonsensical at times. But this is a movie built on world-building and character interaction, and in both regards it's a triumph. The art direction in particular is a gorgeously imagined mixture of old-fashioned science-fiction and futuristic excess (right down to the kitschy fashion sense).
Gunn, whose biggest credit before this was the terrific horror-comedy Slither, is probably the most daring choice* in Marvel's director arsenal and the "risk" - if there really was one - paid off. Certain action sequences in particular are really well-choreographed - and feature longer shots than I'm used to seeing these days; and then there's the great way he frames a key scene in the prison, as Peter, Rocket and Gamora, seated in the foreground, discuss each step of their elaborate escape plan, while in the background, we (but not they) see Groot on his own, upending the entire plan.
* Pour one out for Edgar Wright.
As I suggested earlier, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the closest thing I've seen - in tone, attitude, humor and style - to the original Star Wars since Jedi. To the extent that I wonder, had Disney waited another year or two to move forward on that franchise, if J.J. Abrams might have had some competition from Gunn on the Episode VII gig. If nothing else, he proves what a difference a voice can make in the Marvel universe.