A film review by Craig J. Koban May 12, 2017

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2

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2017, PG-13, 136 mins.

 

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill / Star-Lord  /  Zoe Saldana as Gamora  /  Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer  /  Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon (voice)  /  Vin Diesel as Baby Groot (voice)  /  Karen Gillan as Nebula  /  Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta  /  Pom Klementieff as Mantis  /  Kurt Russell as Ego  /  Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord / Starhawk  /  Sean Gunn as Kraglin Obfonteri / On Set Rocket  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha  /  Tommy Flanagan as Tullk  /  Michael Rosenbaum as Martinex T'Naga  /  Evan Jones as Wretch

Written and directed by James Gunn 

 

 

SCREENED IN
3D

2012's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY had no business being as financially successful - and good, for that matter - as it was, seeing as it was a real creative Hail Mary by Marvel and Disney to take a C-grade and virtually unknown comic book property and somehow make it mainstream.  The highly risky gamble paid off handsomely, as the film not only become one of the most cherished in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this humble critic coveted it so much that he put it on his list of the Ten Best Films of its year.

A sequel to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY proved beyond inevitable (three quarters of a billion dollars in worldwide box office grosses all but ensured that), and after three years writer/director James Gunn (once again returning to the helm) has the daunting task of recapturing the first film's unique lightning-in-a-bottle aesthetic while simultaneously forging ahead with a story that takes its characters and themes to the next level.  One of the problems going into GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is that the property is no longer an obscure underdog one that lay audiences are not familiar with.  That, and re-branding the first film's infectiously eccentric quirkiness is an unenviable task, to be sure.  On a positive, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is just as visually dazzling, action packed, and joyously sly as its predecessor, but for as much irreverent silliness that Gunn successfully brings to the proceedings this sequel is also regrettably bloated, messy, meandering, and undisciplined.   

 

 

The film does contain one of the finest opening credit montages in recent history, which depicts a massive intergalactic brawl between the title characters and a giant octopus-like creature.  Now, it's not the mayhem that's great, nor is that precisely what Gunn focuses on here.  No, the remarkably scaled CGI battle is shown in the background as the camera lovingly follows Baby Groot (still inexplicably voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing around the combatants to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while his allies do all of the heavy lifting.  Very few characters have ever been as toyetic as Baby Groot, but the manner that Gunn celebrates his wide-eyed enthusiasm here certainly makes him endlessly agreeable. 

Anyhoo', it appears that the Guardians - still comprised of Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (once again played with effortlessly goofy and rogue-like charm by Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket "Don't Call Him Raccoon" (voiced by Bradley Cooper) - were actually contracted out to battle that aforementioned monster made of tentacles and teeth by gold skinned "Sovereign" people, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to re-obtain some special battery thingies for them, which Rocket rather selfishly kept.  Angered by this, Sovereign launches an attack on the Guardians, with Peter employing some Han Solo-esque piloting derring do to escape from.  The team finds itself separated in the aftermath, with Groot and Rocket finding unlikely company in Yondu (an impeccably well cast Michael Rooker), that's desperately trying to reclaim his past reputation as a stalwart "Ravager."  Concurrent to this is Gamora confronting her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) over their respective daddy issues with Thanos (the frustratingly little seen big baddie of the entire MCU).  Lastly, Peter comes face to face with his biological father, Ego (Kurt Russell), who explains to Peter why he abandoned him all those years ago with his cancer stricken mother back on Earth.  Their relationship, rather predictably, is fraught with complications. 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a tour de force visual dynamo through and through, thanks to Gunn's fine eye for imbuing these films with a vibrancy and color that most dark, bleak, and nihilistic sci-fi films these days altogether lack.  The film's conceptual imagination (something that was lacking and kept me at an annoying arm's distance in, say, THE FORCE AWAKENS) is staggeringly beautiful at times, especially when it comes to envisioning Ego's lush tropical planet as one of heavenly virtues.  Gunn also demonstrates how much giddy fun he's having in crafting action sequences as well.  Beyond the bravura opening title card sequence, another spectacularly rendered scene shows Yando's unique skills with whistling and an arrow to decimate his way through a squadron of enemy attackers.  This is all great stuff. 

The character beats are also reliably strong in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2, and Gunn doesn't fall victim to sequel-itus by failing to dig deeper into this franchise's core mythology.  Refreshingly, Gunn takes his time with the inviting personas that populate the film, sometimes to gut-wrenchingly hysterical effect (like, for example, Drax's continued inability to censor anything he says to anyone and Rocket's ever escalating ego as a pilot and pint-sized hero), and sometimes surprisingly poignant effect (as is the case with Yondu being condemned by his own kind, thus leading him on a redemption story arc that's arguably the film's most compelling).  Less intriguing is Gamora's fractured ties to her sister, which leads to a lot of petty squabbling and mindless fighting between the pair, thematic terrain that's already been covered in VOL. 2. 

The main focal point of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is, yes, the relationship between Peter and Ego, which to elaborate on further would be bordering on rampant spoilers (shockingly, far too many other reviews have really spilled far too many beans about it).  All I will say is that Russell's Ego is, well, not quite entirely human, which leaves bonding with his son a bit more initially problematic (we also have a somewhat needless flashback sequence early on in the film featuring a 34-years-younger Ego at the height of his loving bond with his wife on Earth that's more laugh inducing than dramatic, seeing as the sight of a digitally de-aged Russell is kind of creepy).  Oddly, the tenuous father/son arc between Ego and Peter is the least enthralling angle of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2, seeing as Ego is not so much a fully fleshed out and fascinating character as he is an exposition dispensing machine that does an awful lot of talking about who he is, where he has been, what he's doing now, and how Peter fits into his overall plans moving forward. 

The manner with which Gunn introduces the father/son dynamic in the film and then hastily does away with it as the film careens towards an indulgently showy and exhaustively protracted climax left me wanting, especially considering that it could have been more fully realized and explored over the course of multiple sequels.  This of course leads to the film's other issue: the central villain is too broadly defined here, whose infinite powers are conveniently god-like in some scenes, but then rather unconvincingly stripped down later on to reveal key weaknesses that the heroes can exploit (this all builds to a chaotically loud third act that's heavy on eye popping spectacle and noise and mournfully low on heart).  The film's CG sheen, as gloriously engineered as it is at times, sometimes becomes obtrusively overwhelming to endure; the film's artifice frequently drowns out the characters instead of complimenting them.  Volume of effects and a larger scale is not necessary a better choice here, which makes GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 feel fatiguing by the time the end credits roll by (and speaking of fatiguing, there's half a dozen end credit scenes, only one of which is worthy of viewing). 

Maybe the real problem with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is that it forgets what made the first film so positively energized: the central offbeat team chemistry between all members that were trying to forge an odd family unit.  Separating these key characters in this sequel robs us of meaningfully reconnecting with this team, especially when some of their subplots are more engaging than others.  That, and there's just too much thrown in here for good measure, so much so that deciphering what GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is about proves to be tricky.  Gunn, if anything, deserves serious props for pure audience placating showmanship, but his unwavering passion for the material sometimes gets lost here amidst the film's murky scripting and meandering pacing.  Maybe no sequel - or MCU film, for that matter - could re-capture GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 1's brazen and cleverly subversive genre busting novelty.  

This sequel tries (oh, does it ever), but only with modest Baby Groot sized returns. 

 

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