Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, David Bautista, Lee Pace, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rooker
Director: James Gunn
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
by Jericho Cerrona
Throughout James Gunn's giddily entertaining, but not quite good enough, space opera adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, comedic actor Chris Pratt does his best Han Solo by way of Andy from TV's Parks and Recreations, and provides us all with a reason to hold onto our beloved childhood mixtapes. How one responds to Pratt's goofy charisma (or lack thereof) will likely determine how much one loves the film, even though he's only theoretically the central protagonist. This being a Marvel property, perhaps the most surprising thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is it's apparent disinterest in superhero tropes or being contingent on all the other pictures in the canon. Instead, Gunn and his team of visual artists have created a wonderfully loopy world that combines state of the art CG, practical sets, and a zany tone that reveals a love for Troma B-movie silliness. That some off-kilter lunacy has crept in to what's essentially another factory-style product from the Almighty Marvel is noteworthy, and more welcome still is the film's irreverent sense of play. Those growing weary of the self-serious aspects of some of the recent Marvel joints, such as the supposed political intrigue found in Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be delighted by all of the self-awareness here. Ultimately, though, everything comes back to Pratt's essential prattiness, seen most glaringly in an introductory sequence that will have fanboys salivating with delight. Set to the undulating rhythm of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love", we get our first glimpse of Quill--an interstellar thief probing the galaxy for artifacts to swap for cash--who just wants to dance on an abandoned planet, grabbing squiggly things along the way to use as microphones for another chorus. This sequence sets the film's silly atmosphere, but more importantly, it establishes Pratt's earnest "you gotta love me because I'm so fun and dorky" persona that's served him well on the other side of the TV universe. Here, it works in fits and starts, perhaps because Gunn is going for a Looney Tunes meets Buck Rogers vibe, but it's also worrying that Pratt may be the future poster child for action adventure cinema. Somewhere, on some distant crater-filled nebula, Ryan Reynolds is weeping.
Though the movie begins with a short flashback detailing Quill's tragic childhood backstory, things get off to a relatively roaring start sans exposition, with Pratt's bumbling scavenger (who affectionately calls himself Starlord) in pursuit of an otherworldly orb. This orb, which incidentally grants it's owner ridiculously omnipotent superpowers, is also being pursued by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a face-paint wearing bummer of a dude with a massive hammer, who has been commissioned by Thanos (Josh Brolin) a supervillain who sits upon a floating chair while making dire proclamations. Quill, meanwhile, initially seeking a quick score, but later realizing the fate of the universe is at stake, assembles a crew of undesirables to protect the orb from nefarious forces. This rag-tag crew includes a kick-ass green assassin with daddy issues Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a snarky gun-toting raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a walking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and muscle-bound Dax the Destroyer (pro wrestler Dave Bautista).
During it's first half, Guardians of the Galaxy remains undeniably engaging, a rare Marvel film that doesn't take itself seriously and maintains an actual personality. But this winking, fun-loving quality can only carry a movie so far, and it's only a matter of time before the film reveals itself as indeed part of a larger, more cynical production-line. Even though Gunn clearly relishes the opportunity to paint on a larger scale after his smaller, campier flicks like Slither and Super, it's also evident that his good intentions are no match for the powerful studio heads over at Disney, who realize that they are making another installment in a seemingly never-ending slew of consumerist branding. That Guardians of the Galaxy almost gets away with sidestepping the pitfalls of Marvel conventionality shouldn't be dismissed, but as the movie races towards it's predictably overblown climax meant to tie up a by-the-numbers story arc, a sense of frustration sets in that perhaps all of the early goodwill has been a bit of a cheat. For every terrific action set piece on display; a rousing early sequence outside where multiple characters are trying to steal the orb, a thrilling prison break; there's a half dozen flying spaceships battles that play like repetitive variations on every single outer-space sci-fi picture since Star Wars.
In it's best moments, Guardians of the Galaxy actually most closely resembles a more streamlined version of Luc Besson's wildly ambitious The Fifth Element. Whenever Gunn strays from the studio-mandated course of giving audiences what they think they want, the film plays fast and loose, with strange segues and wacky characters populating the edges of the frame. A case point is the introduction of The Collector (Benicio Del Toro, vamping it up with a blond wig), a character who exists in the larger Marvel universe, but who plays here like a bizarre tangent in order to take things into weirder, more interesting directions. Instead of racketing up the peculiarity and visual inventiveness so prevalent in the film's first half, Guardians eventually dovetails into the kind of safe, unsurprising "save the world from evil bad guys who want a glowing round object" type of thing that characterizes most, if not all, of the movies in the Marvel canon.
Guardians of the Galaxy is, in the final analysis, a decent example of big-budget studio filmmaking that could have been better had Gunn been allowed to really let rip. But being content to be decent instead of great, especially given the talent and budget involved, is a cinematic sin that's difficult to reconcile. Perhaps the real issue here isn't nudging the ribs of fanboys with fast-taking anamorphic raccoons or Zoe Saldana playing yet another colored alien being (after her "blue" turn in Avatar), but rather all of this Pratt business. As he bulges his eyes, acts befuddled, and shows off awkward white dance moves during an ill-advised final showdown with Lee Pace's epically boring villain, Pratt emerges as the next generation of self-deprecating guy next store blandness soon to be forced down our throats by the studio powers that be. Sure, ladies will dig the Pratt because of his wise-cracking humor and steely six-pack. Guys, meanwhile, will probably want to have a beer with him. The rest of us, however, will pine for the days where intergalactic heroes, even winking ones, had a definable personality beyond broad strokes.