Film Review: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Michelle Yeoh
Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn
Produced by Kevin Feige
Based on “Guardians of the Galaxy” by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Music by Tyler Bates
Cinematography by Henry Braham
James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the sequel to the 2014 well-deserved blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” is excellent–the film is just as fun, funny, inventive, fast-paced, heartfelt, endearing, goofy, nostalgic, sentimental, enjoyable and entertaining as the first film! This is the movie to see this weekend, and next weekend! Gunn deserves much of the credit here for this wholly fun movie–he wrote and directed the film, much to his credit. Kudos to all of the original main cast members for returning and acting in fine, or even improved, form in “Vol. 2,” and kudos and congrats, of course, to the hundreds and hundreds of exceptionally talented and hard-working special, visual, computer, production design, set design, make-up, costuming and other artistic effects artists, designers, animators and programmers who produced the film’s extraordinary special effects, visual effects, production design, set design and art design—all of which are indeed exceptional, but in this movie, notably, these filmic aspects never, for a moment, overwhelm, distract from, subdue or take away from the equally-exceptional acting, writing, production and direction of the movie!
The original “Guardians,” which was co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman and also directed by Gunn, stands as the standard-bearer and gold standard for the late-20aughts and 20teens modern-day superhero, comic book and sci-fi-fantasy-hybrid mainstream sci-fi film–and the film concurrently also helped bring in a distinctive, continual and most welcome rebirth of these genres, after a period of horrible stagnation, duplication, unoriginality and, basically, a series of tired, deflated, over-done and underwhelming comic book, superhero and sci-fi big-budget flops. “Guardians,” solidly at the helm, arrived as these genre filmmakers—respective studio executives, producers, directors, writers and actors—took a few steps back to catch their breath, re-examine what was going on with these films and genres, and take the time to re-charge and re-energize the genres. Thus, in recent years, a blast of refreshing quality films in these genres occurred—both “Guardians” films, “Deadpool,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Doctor Strange,” “Ant-Man,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and, yes, “Suicide Squad,” and others, helped along by the non-super-hero-but-still-sci-fi successes “The Martian,” “Arrival,” and “Gravity,” resulting in that noted rebirth of these types of films. Just a few key, simple aspects to these successes, simply put: intelligence, humor, heart and inventiveness.
Seems simple, right? But through the early 2000s and still, here and there, into the 20teens, too many of these genre films overdose and over-rely on special effects, loudness, noise, chases, crashes, fights, more special effects, more confusion and chaos, while simultaneously ignoring basic filmic aspects of quality production, direction, writing, actor, story, character and story and character development. These quality films noted in the previous paragraph, though, are smartly made and smartly produced at every level, and the filmmakers of these more successful films know that the high-tech, modern-age, state-of-the-arts special, visual and computer effects need to peacefully co-exist on screen with their characters, actors, dialogue, story, plots, subplots, messages, feelings, emotions, humor, drama and story and character development and the effects must not overwhelm or over-dominate these basic filmic qualities. Thus, this is indeed what filmgoers get with the “Guardians” films: just pure, fun, funny, smart, enjoyable entertainment, as noted.
“Guardians Vol. 2” follows the 2014 far-outer-space continuing adventures of one of the more lovable, hilarious and endearing group of space adventurers seen since the last “Trek” or “Wars” movie, a rag-tag, rough-and-tumble, somewhat eccentric and oddball but always lovable and endearing—that word could pop up often to describe these characters and the “Guardians” films—rogues, nomads and adventurers known as the Guardians: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt returning in the same fine, fit, fun and funny form as he so well displayed in the first film); Gamora (Zoe Saldana, still tough, independent, spirited, strong—and sexy, yes—as she was in the first film); Drax (a still most inventively hilarious and under-stated strongman character brilliantly—yes, brilliantly—played by Dave Bautista, who, just as he did in the first film, steals every scene that he is in, and nearly the movie); Rocket (Bradley Cooper delivering a hilarious voice-over job as a hybrid raccoon creature, once again giving a thoroughly despicable and unlikeable character a distinctive personality, voice and presence that slyly reveals the inner, lovable psychological aspects of a conflicted, difficult character, ultimately making Rocket likeable despite his many flaws—just a great voice acting job—just like Cooper delivered in the first film); and Baby Groot (an off-shoot, literally, of the first film’s Groot character, again voiced well by Vin Diesel, who does well with another level of inflection and with delivering, in various ways, only three words, “I am Groot,” which is still hilarious, and will likely be hilarious still in the next film).
There you have it—one of the many basic quality aspects of “Vol. 2”—a talented core cast delivering acting performances that make their characters unique, diverse, eccentric, heartfelt, likeable and, yes, endearing. Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, Cooper and Diesel display genuine chemistry and connection with their characters—again, even though Diesel’s Baby Groot is animated and only delivering variations on three lines and Cooper’s Rocket is computer-generated. Meanwhile, Quill is half-alien, with a difficult family background, mourning for his Mom, who died from cancer, and searching for his real father; Saldana is the last of her particular species, has green skin, and is estranged from her sister, Nebula, who has been partly rebuilt to resemble some type of garage or back-yard or junk yard welding project, and Drax is some type of hybrid being, also, hulking, huge, not understanding many human emotions, social skills or language, and is covered in exposed veins, and also constantly shirtless; and Rocket is a conniving thief that is part Damon Runyon street thug, part back-alley street thug, and part Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in voice, and part Charles Dickens’ Fagin. Imagine being an actor and reading the script and tackling these varied, unique characters’ bodies, voices, postures and back stories—and making them real and relatable. That takes acting skill, and that is what Pratt, Saldana, Bautista, Cooper and Diesel deliver in the “Guardians” films.
In “Vol. 2,” the Guardians complete a successful mission to protect valuable battery-like pieces of machinery for the gold-skinned, quite persnickety and quite dangerous Sovereigns, who in return for the Guardians’ work deliver Gamora’s sister Nebula to the Guardians. Yet, immediately, in an instant, as the Guardians leave the Sovereigns, Rocket decides to steal some of the Sovereigns’ valuable smaller batteries—because that is what he does—and as soon as the Guardians leave the Sovereigns, they are under attack, in the first of several breathtaking, beautifully choreographed outer-space battles. This battle—and the Sovereigns’ beautifully-designed world, headquarters and battle stations—instantly set the high standard for “Vol. 2’s” exception look, feel and atmosphere, which continues at a high-level throughout the rest of the film. Thus, the film starts out strong and stays strong, straight through to the end—yet another mark of a fine film. As the Guardians leave the Sovereigns, they encounter another alien, and that encounter in turns ends up connecting directly to Quill’s continuing quest to find the answers to his family heritage, his mother and father’s relationship, and the nature and identity of his biological father. The Guardians must then continually fight the Sovereigns, fight the equally rag-tag, nomadic and thieving Ravagers, deal with the alien and Quill’s family quest, and also deal with, fight and come to terms with Yondu Udonta, the thief who raised Quill and who has a most exceptional rollercoaster relationship with his adopted son.
To reveal any more core elements of the plot would deliver spoilers that don’t need to be spoiled, but the plot points hit all of the right points; the story is engaging and multi-layered; and amid the chases and fights and explosions and space battles, there is always room in the Guardians films for some very real explorations of basic family, love, relationship and parental stories, emotions and backstories. And those stories—about parents, the search for family, the search for familial truth, the search for love and real, lasting, heartfelt relationships, the emotions and feelings that connect people, related or unrelated, and the always-present emotional backstories that exist with every human, alien, human-alien hybrid or even human-alien-animal-machinery hybrid—are what keeps “Vol. 2” grounded in some type of personal, human reality.
Basic, human emotion. Emotion and feelings, love and relationships, the importance of family, are all recurring, continual, constant themes, messages and undercurrents in “Vol. 2,” and in the first film—and, really, what could be more important than that? These same very basic, but always important, themes and emotions are also what ground, improve and boost the quality and intelligence and enjoyability of the other films mentioned previously here, and in the more successful “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” movies. It’s the human element—those basic, underlying human emotions of love, family, relationships, parents, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, cohorts, comrades-in-arms, in life that form the daily, basic foundation of life for every living soul. “Vol. 2” is teeming with these feelings—in fact, these human feelings are really what the “Guardians” movies are all about—and it’s a credit to Gunn—a writer of both films—that he focuses on these most real and relatable aspects of life in big-budget, sprawling, rollicking outer-space, sci-fi adventures. Many other films try to have this, of course, but too many fail because they just cannot find that important filmic level and connection of feelings and emotions amid the commotion and special effects. Gunn finds these connections—between the levels of emotions, feelings, words, relationships and the levels of fights, chases, explosions and space battles—and revels in it. He knows exactly what he is doing at every level of writing and direction, and that’s a prime reason by the “Guardians” films succeed so well.
In “Vol. 2,” Gunn gives each character—Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Yondu, Nebula, the aforementioned alien—their own backstories, feelings and emotions that make each as real and human and relatable as possible, and he inter-connects the characters’ backstories with their space adventuring so well that filmgoers won’t realize what Gunn is doing here—exciting people with flashy space adventures while also tugging, pulling, stretching and attacking their very core heartstrings. He gives each character their own special emotions, dialogue, words and scenes with other characters, making sure each has their own special time and place in the story. Gunn just simply delivers good stories with good sci-fi action and adventure.
The identity of the alien is core to the film, but that will be left for filmgoers to explore and discover in the theaters. Kurt Russell plays the alien, and his performance nearly steals the film, also. Russell has such as a strong presence in his scenes—voice, eyes, posture, star quality, inflection, humor, style and presence all in exceptional form—it’s a wonder to watch. This is the second time that Russell has stolen much of a big-budget spectacle film in 2017, having successfully delivered another fine performance in the otherwise instantly-forgettable and horribly dumb “The Fate of the Furious.” Russell was the only big bright spot in that clunker mess of a film, and he is one of the standouts in “Vol. 2”—making 2017, as of only May 5, a banner year for this always-engaging, always-watchable—and even, still handsome—actor, who is now—are you ready for this—66 years old. Yes, young these days, but he appears even younger—much younger—in “Furious” and now “Vol. 2.” Kudos to Russell for appearing 46 at 66, and for these two standout performances in 2017.
Another actor who stands out, along with Russell, alongside the exceptional core cast portraying the Guardians, is Michael Rooker as Yondu. Rooker, in both “Guardians” films, portrays a bizarro, thieving, underworld Ravager criminal who is entirely blue, wears a scary red fin on top of his head, and kills endless scores of people and aliens with a particularly scary flying arrow that he controls with a whistle and some extra powers—with a thick, backwoods, rednecky, Southern-tinged country accent. It’s just completely inventive and unique—and hilarious. Here’s this blue alien thief piloting space ships, flying through outer space, fighting humans and aliens, stealing valuable space objects, killing weird enemies—all in a voice that conjures up images of the scariest backwoods morons from “Deliverance,” Clifton James’ Sheriff Pepper in “Live and Let Die,’ or any Jerry Reed boondocks villain from a mid-1970s Burt Reynolds Southern-oriented good-ol’-boy adventure movie. But Yondu’s voice and character, on his good side, also channels DeForest Kelley’s classic country-boy-inspired Dr. McCoy. And Rooker pulls it all off, and why? Because, just like everyone else, he is sure to add a touch of humanity to even this oddball character—not just through the country voice, but through the fact that Yondu, too, has a backstory: he raised Quill after the death of Quill’s mother. Maybe he didn’t exactly raise Quill in the best Ward Cleaver-Mr. Brady-Steven Douglas manner, but he raised Quill nonetheless, and, well, that’s another backstory explored in “Vol. 2” in a heartfelt manner. Credit Rooker for making Yondu a walking, talking emotional contradiction who eventually comes to terms with who he is and what he is in a believable—and likeable—manner.
One of the few weaknesses in “Guardians Vol. 2” is the inclusion of Sylvester Stallone, and it’s not in any manner a personal attack on Stallone to criticize his presence in the movie—it’s just that Stallone playing this character does not fit in on most levels. For acting and presence and even voice reasons, it just doesn’t work. There are five-hundred other, better actors who could have been cast for Stallone’s small part who would have been far, far better. The only reason this aspect doesn’t bring down “Vol. 2” is because the role is a supporting role, and Stallone does not have major screen time. Stallone has an overall poor record with science-fiction, and the genre does not fit his presence, look, style or voice. It just doesn’t fit. The same occurs with Stallone cohorts Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in sci-fi—they just don’t fit. Certain actors fit in science fiction—and certain actors don’t fit. Once again, numerous other, better actors would have fit better than Stallone in “Vol. 2.”
Another weakness—but, again, not a major weakness that brings down the film—is the film’s weak connection to the long-annoying, long-unnecessary, long-outdated and long-irritating modern-day obsession with the terrible 3-D trend. This 3-D gimmick and gizmo—basically a rip-off, money-grubbing feature included to make more money from already over-charged moviegoers—is unnecessary with “Vol. 2,” just as it’s unnecessary with most movies these days. Don’t bother with the unnecessary 3-D in regards to “Vol. 2”–and you don’t actually need to see the movie on Imax, either–just enjoy this movie at a regular, standard-price 2-D showing! The movie is enjoyable enough that you don’t need to shell out money for additional, unnecessary bells and whistles.
But back to the many positives of the film, any discussion of “Vol. 2,” just like with the first film, has to include a mention of the film’s song soundtrack—which is a smart, carefully constructed and intelligent aspect of the movie, just like all of “Vol. 2’s” filmic qualities. The excellent, carefully-chosen songs are not present in the “Guardians” movies just for cheap thrills and easy, instant familiarity and gratification—which is indeed a fault of too many movies regarding their terrible use and choice of songs—but rather, each song has a particular, intelligent meaning, connection and underlying message as they are used in the films, including in “Vol. 2.” The songs’ melodies, tunes, lyrics and unique moods, feelings and atmospheres connect directly to the scenes in which they appear in “Vol. 2.” Once again, Gunn, as the writer and director, knows exactly what he is doing with the songs’ placements and usage. They fit snugly and importantly into the story at just the right time, pacing and tempo. Gunn fought hard, with artists, singers, musicians, bands and labels, to use these songs, and his winning battles play off well in “Vol. 2.” The use of the songs, just like Gunn’s use of special effects and action sequences, fit directly into the over-arching story, characterization and plotting of “Vol. 2,” just like they should.
As “Guardians” cruises along to its most satisfactory conclusion, with the core Guardians group together, and successful, and always appreciative of each other and the importance of their family—and the importance of family in general—along with the importance of love, relationships, caring and learning just who is really important to people in their lives, why those people are or were important, and what these core people mean to each other along life’s many travels and journeys and adventures, moviegoers will once again—just as they did for the first film three years ago—feel a real connection, caring and emotional attachment to these lovable rogues and rebels. Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Baby Groot are a family—a most unique and creative family—but they are family nonetheless. As Mama Corleone famously told Michael in “The Godfather: Part II:” “But you can never lose your family. Never.” The Guardians always come to realize that they can never lose their family, and that’s a nice emotion to hold close to the heart as the movie ends, as the credits roll, and as the lights go up and the real world beckons outside the theaters. Filmgoers would be wise to take that emotion and that love of family—in whatever form that family takes—along with them every day in life.
Moviegoers will never lose the Guardians family. Never. They’re too lovable. Mama Corleone, like all good mothers, was right—you can never lose your family. Fortunately, there are plans for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”—-with James Gunn writing and directing. That’s good news for everyone, and that’s good news for the extended and ever-expanding “Guardians of the Galaxy” family.