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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

DIRECTOR: James Gunn

CAST: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki

REVIEW:

Back in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was considered a risky proposition for Marvel Studios, spending a lot of money making and promoting a movie featuring superheroes far lesser-known than the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and company who make up Marvel’s flagship The Avengers, but three years and $750 million later, the new film franchise is one of the flourishing studio’s most popular properties.  Now that the inevitable sequel has arrived, the wait will probably be worth it for most fans.  The simply titled Vol. 2 is an entertaining ride, even if it lacks a little of the freshness of its predecessor and at times feels a little weighed down by the burden on sequels to be “bigger”.

When we catch up with the Guardians—smart-aleck Earthling Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), warrior woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana), hulking Drax (Dave Bautista), surly talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and the fledgling Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), slowly restoring himself after his self-sacrifice in the last movie—they’ve gone from a ragtag band of outlaws to interstellar heroes (that’s what saving the universe does for you).  They’ve been hired by The Sovereignty (a civilization of haughty gold people led by Elizabeth Debicki’s High Priestess), but when Rocket’s sticky fingers get the Guardians on their client’s bad side, they find themselves once again being chased across the galaxy, with Gamora’s villainous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) unwillingly dragged along for the ride when they capture her for the bounty on her head.  Along the way, Peter encounters his previously unknown father Ego (Kurt Russell), who introduces himself in human guise but is actually a godlike entity in the form of a living planet, and the High Priestess recruits Peter’s old mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) to track him down.  And Ego might have more plans for Peter than he’s letting on.

With James Gunn still in the director’s chair, Vol. 2 immediately establishes it’s maintaining the cheeky, irreverent tone straight out of the gate, with a massive battle taking place in the background but the camera’s focus on Baby Groot doing a dance number.  Parents taking small children should be warned that the raunchiness has been kicked up a notch, to an extent that might make them uncomfortable; the movie isn’t up to Deadpool‘s level of raunchy or free-wheeling, but there’s moments where it pushes its PG-13 rating.  At the same time, Vol. 2 also has a heavier serious quotient, with Gunn obviously striving to give virtually every character, even more-or-less “villains” Yondu and Nebula, an emotional arc.  The overriding theme is “family”; it’s hammered home in unsubtle fashion that the Guardians have formed a somewhat dysfunctional but loyal surrogate family unit, and significant subplots include Peter’s relationship with Ego, and Gamora’s relationship with Nebula (calling both dysfunctional is putting it gently), and Yondu seeking redemption for past piracy crimes and his treatment of Peter.  Some of this dramatic material works and some of it doesn’t, but the movie aspires to have more heart than just a hollow CGI action-comedy spectacle.

Like many a sequel, Vol. 2 lacks the feeling of freshness and spontaneity of the original.  There are times when gags run too long or jokes feel forced.  The pace is more uneven, with the sluggish middle section focusing on Peter’s uncertain father-son bonding with Ego dragging a little.  Vol. 2 has considerably more “down time” than the first, and there’s times when giving each and every character a dramatic moment where they unload a painful backstory is both heavy-handed and drags the proceedings down.  It also seems fairly obvious from the get-go that Ego’s laidback fatherly persona is hiding something, so it’s not much of a surprise twist when he turns out to have an agenda.  On the plus side, the CGI is as good or better than the first, and there are visually arresting setpieces; Ego’s living planet is pretty to look at, and the design of the golden, statuesque Sovereigns is striking (there’s also a tongue-in-cheek bit where their fighter cockpits make sounds obviously reminiscient of 1980s arcade video games).  Baby Groot is an adorably comic scene-stealer.  As Ant-Man did with Michael Douglas, Terminator: Genisys did with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Captain America: Civil War did with Robert Downey Jr., it convincingly digitally de-ages Kurt Russell into his younger self for a 1980 flashback.  For aficionados of the comic series, there’s a few Easter Eggs scattered around, including a cameo by The Watchers, and a mid-credits nod to Adam Warlock which might indicate a possible direction for the next installment.  The biggest bad guy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos (whom The Avengers and the Guardians will join forces against in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War) doesn’t appear this time, but is prominently mentioned.

The returning series veterans slip back into their parts as if no time has passed, with Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana getting to continue Peter and Gamora’s slow-burn sexual tension (though it’s still kept at the flirtatious stage), and Bradley Cooper and Dave Bautista providing most of the comic relief and one-liners.  There’s expanded roles for Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker, who get the chance to somewhat humanize Nebula and Yondu, while Kurt Russell seems to be enjoying himself as the seemingly laid-back “cool dad” Ego, whose name might turn out to be more appropriate than it first seems.  Also joining the party is French-Canadian actress Pom Klementieff as Ego’s empath “pet” Mantis, and there’s a few cameos scattered around, including Sylvester Stallone and David Hasselhoff.

If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 set out to be bigger and better than the first film, I’m not sure it’s fully succeeded, and at times it seems weighted down by the burden of its aspirations that hold it back from the original’s breezy pace and unforced humor.  But it’s still an enjoyable return to a universe that’s been blasted from relatively obscure to one of Marvel Studio’s flagships, and most fans should find the ending promise that, like James Bond, “The Guardians of the Galaxy will return”, a welcome prospect.

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