Saturday, May 27, 2017

Guarding the Franchise: Fun Thrills and Tears in Capable Sequel

Movie Reviewed: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Director: James Gunn

Date: 27 May 2017

jamesintexas rating: ***

I think it is a testament to James Gunn's quirky weirdness as a director of perhaps the biggest film of the year that what I mostly remember, several weeks after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is the murderous interstellar rampage set to "Come a Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. There's slow-motion walking, Tarantino-esque nods, fun special effects as Yondu's whistle directs an orchestra of death, and it recaptures a bit of that jarring tone from the first film, the tone established by the unconventional placement of early 1980's pop music alongside space battles. Overall, I think that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 remains fun throughout, despite being overlong and overstuffed with battles, though I do not feel as enraptured with it as its original. That film was one of the best of the year and earned four stars from me.

After a mysterious opening scene with a flowy-haired, digitally retouched Kurt Russell driving a convertible on earth, Gunn opens the film with the familiar characters.  In a wonderful title card scene which undercuts our expectations, Gunn establishes that the Guardians are now tasked with protecting the universe for hire while squabbling within themselves. He carefully stages the scene with a ferocious monster but seems uninterested in showing us what we want to see.  Instead, we follow Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) as he runs playfully around the periphery of the scene. It is a charming beginning and establishes the relationship with Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) and her race of golden warriors who trade protection for Gamora's seething sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The guardians must flee and separate as a result of Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) stealing some batteries and coming into snarky opposition with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), but another ship seems to rescue them at the last minute. A crash landing on a strange planet leads to both reunion and separation as Quill confronts aspects of his past, Rocket rejects the dynamics of the group, Gamora and Nebula discuss their tenuous relationship with their father and each other, and then there's Drax (Dave Bautista), who just seems to awesomely exists to be gigantically huge and titanically funny in his one-liners. When the strange ship lands, the Guardians separate, but unknowingly, they are being hunted by Yondu (Michael Rooker) with a price on their heads for their betrayal.

I won't say more because I don't want to reveal the plot's twists and turns, but Gunn crafts a satisfying tale set to an awesome soundtrack. At multiple moments, the screen is filled with such beautiful imagery and colors and planetary skyscapes that I marveled at Gunn's artistry and patience in holding the camera to let us enjoy the world. However, my main criticism is that the film is too long and too big-battle heavy, taking us away from the weird conversations and the relationships that ultimately distinguish this film among others of the genre. I think Guardians is at its best when the main characters are talking to each other, and there are just too few conversations like that is in this film. Gunn sacrifices those quieter moments for an expansive story, one in which sequel cultivation is a priority. That's why you get Sylvester Stallone showing up briefly and some other cameos at the very end. I think the best decision made by James Gunn was to promote Michael Rooker's character to featured player with more screen time and dialogue and more of a character arc. Rooker's Yondu is endlessly fascinating in look and action, and Yondu and Quill provide the emotional heft of the film in a surprising way. Gunn's use of Cat Stevens and Fleetwood Mac charms, and despite feeling like everyone needed to talk to each other more, I think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun, often beautiful, meticulously crafted film that keeps laughter balancing tears, yes tears, in a summer blockbuster that showcases a ferociously violent Baby Groot in an off-kilter, strange twist on the traditional action-adventure. A welcome twist.

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