Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) / Sci Fi-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language
Running Time: 121 min.

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice), Lee Pace, Vin Diesel (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Christopher Fairbank, Josh Brolin
Small role: Stan Lee, Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie (voice), Seth Green (voice)
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman (inspired by the comic series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning)

Review published August 1, 2014

Peter Quill (Pratt, The LEGO Movie) was a young boy in 1988 when he was abducted by an alien spacecraft flying overhead. He has spent the next few decades working as a 'junker' as part of a team of intergalactic scavengers called the Ravagers, using the moniker of Star Lord. He comes into the possession of a mysterious and highly sought after orb-like artifact that is worth millions of monetary units. Possession of the silver-colored orb puts him directly in harm's way of the galaxy's most powerful entity, Thanos (Brolin, Oldboy), who sends out his minions to get the spherical device at any cost, including allying himself with the vicious Kree warlord Ronan (Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), and his assassin, the green-tinted Gamora (Saldana, Out of the Furnace). After a series of mishaps, Quill ends up in prison with Gamora, along with a talking, genetically enhanced bounty hunter raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, American Hustle), his terse, humanoid tree buddy Groot (voiced by Diesel, Fast & Furious 6), and a warrior named Drax the Destroyer (Bautista, Riddick). They are all bonded in their quest for the valuable orb, as well as to keep it out of the hands of Ronan, whose evil nature might be bad for everyone should he tap into the ultra-potent power that lies within.

Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel Studios' biggest risk to date. After years of relatively proven commodities adapted to the silver screen, Marvel takes a big chance with the relatively obscure (for a mainstream comic book, anyway) band of cosmic anti-heroes. At $170 million, it's a major gamble for an unproven franchise, but the potential payoff might be even higher than mere monetary returns, as success would surely expand the known cinematic universe well beyond just Avengers flicks and show that the Marvel name brand could rank right up there with Pixar as a studio name with the kind of clout that can get fan-boys flocking just to see the latest effort without caring what the film is actually about.

James Gunn (Super, The Specials) directs and co-scripts this comical sci-fi action-adventure. Gunn puts in lots of oddball little touches that increase the jocularity without compromising the story.  In one example, Quill lip-synchs Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" with the use of a rodent-like alien he's grabbed as a would-be micIt's a seemingly throwaway scene that subversively sets the all-important character touch of its main protagonist without need of a lengthy backstory, but also establishes the snarky attitude of the movie from the get-go.

Guardians benefits from solid casting and great comedic chemistry, with a markedly more toned Chris Pratt playing to his strengths as a comedic actor very well (he seems to have the tools and talent to be the heir to loveable scoundrel Bill Murray), and doesn't do so badly in the action department either.  This will no doubt be the final piece that catapults him to secured comedic leading man status once and for all.  Saldana lends Gamora a sultry, mysterious quality that serves her well, and comes to life often in the martial-arts moments.  WWE superstar Dave Bautista is very funny in a role of a galoot who has no sense of humor; in fact, he has no ear for metaphors, which makes his taking common expressions literally all the more funny (Drax, on his perpetual literalness: "Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are too fast -- I will catch it!")

The CG characters of Rocket and Groot get in their share of laughs as well, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively.  Cooper is pretty much unrecognizable with the voice work, seemingly channeling Danny DeVito's Louie De Palma from "Taxi" for his feisty, insult-laden personality (Cooper credits Joe Pesci's Goodfellas Tommy DeVito performance as an influence). Groot has only one expression he says throughout (with one notable variation), which is, "I am Groot", but the way it's applied varies enough, and is often quite amusing in and of itself when he does speak.  Diesel claims that this was not just an hour of work, as he asserts he recorded the tree-man's catchphrase over 1,000 times in varied ways, including many different languages for the international markets.  That we end up feeling an emotional connection to the other-worldly creature, a gentle giant (or is he?) amid a world of cutthroats, whose sole purpose seems to be to provide deus-ex-machina moments, shows the digital magic of the marriage of special effects and effective character touches.

It's not often that a comic book adaptation is praised for its soundtrack, but the one used in Guardians is a standout, not only for its song selection, but in setting the tempo and vibe for the entire movie.  Using the gimmick of a mix tape made for him from his cancer-stricken mother before her passing, the surprisingly resilient cassette, along with its Walkman that never runs out of batteries, provides all of the peppy tunes to keep audiences tapping their feet to the beat as they enjoy the lighthearted adventure presented before them.

Guardians isn't perfect. It's a bit long at a smidge over two hours, and the plot feels overly complicated for the lightweight tone of the material.  Sometimes it feels like there's just too much going on, too many side characters, too many factions, too much setting up for potential future world-building.  Ronan is also not a very interesting villain, merely just another colorful power-monger looking to take over things in a big way, and isn't afraid to murder millions to do it.  It's also quite noisy and busy much of the time, leaving the best moments to occur when Gunn decides to give his rambunctious characters a bit of a breather to show a bit more nuance.  More of that, please, for the inevitable sequel.

Nevertheless, this one is sure to please most crowds, who will either fall in love with it for its characters, its high energy, its sense of humor, its vivid special effects, or its off-the-hook action sequences.  It's a merry mischief-making movie that carries audiences with its infectiously irreverent vibe, and even when the occasional lull emerges, it snaps right back to capture your attention again with a humorous character beat, poignant moment, or captivating use of its kitschy soundtrack of pop/soul/rock hits of yesteryear.  In a comic-book superhero era that has grown darker and more sinister in tone over the years, Marvel has delivered a refreshing antidote. This is as fun as they come.

-- A post-credits scene appears that introduces (or re-introduces) a cult Marvel Comics character to the film world.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo