REVIEW SYNOPSIS: The newest entry of in the Marvel umbrella is a breezy and deliberately cheesy space opera that uses its cast and soundtrack music to exceptional effect despite being perhaps too slight and uneven in its pacing during the final third.
SYNOPSIS: A group of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells, led by earthling Peter Quill, become the targets of a manhunt by both the Nova Corps and Ronan the Accuser after stealing a powerful artifact.
PROS: Strong characters and well-constructed action; clever script; knowing direction; exceptional soundtrack.
CONS: Occasionally too glib, which hampers potential depth; muddled pacing between the second and third acts; one or two elements that strain credulity even for comic book movies.
It’s hard to know when exactly Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest entry in Marvel’s infinite pantheon of comic book properties coming soon to a theater near you, wins over its audience fairly early—the precredit sequence, in which a spaceship abducts a young Peter Quill shortly after his mother’s death, perhaps jars when considered with the rest of the movie—but, for this particular critic, comes when the Kree bounty hunter Korath (Djimon Hounson) confronts the 30-year-old Quill (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to steal an artifact from ruins on the planet Morag. When Quill identifies himself as “Star-Lord,” Korath stares in puzzlement. “Star-Lord, man,” Quill says, his voice filled with petulance. “Legendary outlaw? Ah, forget it.” Then he attempts an escape that, as the movie progresses, makes him the most wanted legendary outlaw in the galaxy.
The moment shines in a picture that is full of shining moments but should have tarnished the silver screen. The original comic, initially published 45 years ago, never bored, but its quirky storylines and offbeat nature also suggested it might find limited audience appeal. Add to this the built-in knowledge following other, more traditional superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, already absorbed into the pop culture lexicon, and those finding broad appeal, such as Spider-Man, Captain America, and the X-Men. The Guardians, by contrast, exist in a realm exclusive to comic books, with a learning curve so steep that the casual moviegoer requires spikes and ropes along with popcorn. The association of James Gunn, the Golden Raspberry Award–winning screenwriter and director of Movie 43, seemed inauspicious at best. Fortunately, Gunn and co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman manage to craft a screenplay that compliments both the four-color source material and such classic science fiction B-pictures as Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Crash, and The Last Starfighter (though at times too complimentary) by keeping its tongue firmly nestled within its dimpled cheek.
Gunn takes his viewers on a pretty breathless tour of a galaxy filled with unique places and unusual, engaging characters. On Xandar, looking a bit like a mélange of Trantor in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels (but far more energetic than the former and far more lifelike than the latter), Quill contends with a pair of bounty hunters, the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, far more lifelike and animated here than in any of his other movies) and the tree-like being Groot (Vin Diesel, less wooden here than in any of his other movies), as well as the extraterrestrial assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), all of whom are captured by the Nova Corps. On the space prison Kyln, as seedy a prison as one would hope, the prisoner Drax (Dave Bautista) recognizes Gamora as the daughter of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and seeks vengeance from her as a result of his family’s death by Ronan’s hands. After reluctantly agreeing not to kill her (Quill insists that Gamora can bring Ronan to him) and learning that Gamora was attempting to keep Drax helps the four escape to Knowhere, a criminal outpost built on the dead head of a giant alien, where Gamora knows a buyer for the stolen artifact: Taneleer Tivan (Benicio Del Toro), collector of interstellar trinkets, creatures, and other items. Tivan reveals that the artifact conceals an Infinity Stone, an item of incredible power that acts as galactic weapon of mass destruction, while, not far away, a drunken Drax contacts Ronan, letting him know where he can find his daughter.
A movie like Guardians of the Galaxy risks overcrowding its running time with too many unnecessary events and far too many characters given too little depth. Much happens in Guardians of the Galaxy, all zipping along at a breathless pace that only falters near the third act. It never tires, though it also moves so swiftly that it sometimes glosses over the more gaping holes—what, exactly, is Thanos’s (Josh Brolin) doing at the center of this tale?—and glaring inconsistencies, as when Quill attempts to rescue a dying Gamora by slipping his own oxygen helmet over her face. (I had to remind myself that decompression and lack of oxygen kill much more quickly than they allow here.) And at times the characters appear to exist only in two dimensions, especially Tivan and Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whose acid looks elevate sibling rivalry to the level of Sun Tzu but stays flat throughout. Conversely, space pirate leader Yondu Udonta, who as a paternal figure to Quill, hints at a larger character than Michael Rooker actually plays; though Rooker delivers a decent performance, it never quite engages as fully as it should. This leaves Pratt, Saldana, Cooper, and Diesel to hold most of the attention. And hold it they do, both with smart dialogue winning performance—especially from Pratt, who radiates a charm that is almost earnest, and which stands at odds with the roguish criminal he believes himself to be. The result reminds one of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, but a bit more multifaceted and, surprisingly, nuanced. Charm also extends to the soundtrack, in the guise of the mix tape Quill has with him upon his abduction, and adds to one’s affection of the complete product. Guardians of the Galaxy hardly breaks new ground, but honestly, where else are you going to find starship escapes played to the music of Rupert Holmes’s “Escape?”