Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Kurt Russell
Director: James Gunn
Running Time: 135 mins
Synopsis: A little over two months have passed since the Guardians of the Galaxy saved the universe, and we find them on another precarious job for hire. When Rocket (Bradley Cooper) steals something valuable from their employers the Guardians become the hunted. Fortunately help is at hand from Ego (Russell) a man claiming to be Peter’s (Pratt) father. Also on their trail is former Thanos henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) and outlaw Yondu (Michael Rooker).
It is strange to think that after two $1 billion grossing films in their belts (Avengers and Iron Man 3) and a raft of immense fan not to mention critical affection that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.1 (as it must now be known) was seen as somewhat of a risk for Marvel. An unknown property with colourful characters, including a talking raccoon and a walking tree with rather limited vocab. Not to mention a cast of minor names, led by that chubby dude from Parks and Recreation and all spearheaded by James Gunn, a man known for directing small violent genre fare. But as we now know to doubt the bean counters at Marvel Studios, or more specifically head honcho producer Kevin Feige, is unwise. Inventive, irreverent, superbly witty and just flat out fun, Guardians Vol.1 was nothing short of a true crowd-pleaser, to the tune of almost $800 million and a bevy of new fans around the world. After all this surprise and fanfare though how do you go about capturing that again for another chapter?
It turns out if you’re James Gunn you hone in on the singular thing that truly made the first one tick, the characters. Opting not to go bigger and broaden out the universe unnecessarily he has decided to go internal for his second volume. If the first was about the formation of a mismatched band of outlaws into something resembling a team, this time around it’s about how that team work together and rise above their differing attitudes to truly become heroes. There was never going to be a chance to capture the sheer freshness of the first film, and to Gunn’s credit he does not strive for it here. Instead choosing to hone in on what worked the first time round, develop it and splice in some fresh character revelations that genuinely move you.
The story told here is unfortunately rather thin, with a breakdown of it probably able to fill no more than half a page with actual plot forwarding incident. In some respects this is a shrewd move, in opting to spend time with these guys bickering, musing and learning to become a family (yes this is the second blockbuster of the month to champion the F-word) we can fall in love with them even more. But at 135mins there is only so far you can go with character development before a discernible plot needs to kick in. Don’t get me wrong it is there, and is tied in bluntly albeit effectively to Peter Quill’s search for his father, however there is a notable bagginess to the endeavour that a tighter edit or deeper story would’ve negated.
All this would be an issue if not for the fact that Gunn has a terrific feel for these characters, sketching them out so each has a weakness as well as a distinctly different sense of humour. Even more so than the first this is a true ensemble, Gunn finding time to give each member something tangibly deeper to deal with. Being that the plot so heavily revolves around Peter’s discovery of his father (played by a none more cool Kurt Russell as the aptly named Ego) it is inevitable that the primary focus of the film is on this. Fortunately it is played out with heart and sadness, Chris Pratt once again undercutting that glint in the eye charm of his with pangs of pain for the mother he lost coupled with elation at finally meeting the man he just wanted to play ball with. These are quite glaringly basic themes, lost fathers and all, and Gunn is certainly not always the most subtle of writers but the outcome cannot be denied as being moving. The way this ties in with the return of Peter’s surrogate father, Yondu, played with gravel voiced warmth by Michael Rooker, is the unexpected beating heart of Volume 2. Yondu’s own regrets and pain are nicely conveyed, with a late in the day surprise giving way to proper tears.
The rest of the cast are not left in the dust though. Zoe Saldana still doesn’t get much to do beyond scowl and make googly eyes at Pratt, but the return of her sister Nebula carries with it some added family strife which is given extra depth through Karen Gillan’s barely contained fits of rage. Rocket (voiced brashly by Bradley Cooper) is once more crass, boisterous and pretty darn funny. He gets to bond with Yondu over shared feelings of emptiness but isn’t overly developed from what we’ve seen before. Baby Groot will likely steal the hearts of all who watch, with an emotive face that is almost sinfully designed to elicit as many ‘aaahs’ as possible. Groot gets numerous times to shine, not least in an opening credits dance number that is beautifully choreographed and dazzlingly staged to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky which could well be my favourite opening to a Marvel film so far. This just leaves Dave Bautista’s Drax. A bright point in the first film and here he is given ALL the best lines. Despite not having any acting experience prior to the first film, Bautista stole the show thanks to his staggeringly sarcasm-free persona and perfect comic timing. This continues here, albeit it is a shame that barring one scene with the empath Mantis (a delightfully other-worldly performance from Pom Klementioff) he gets very little in the way of dramatic meat to chew on.
To say more of the other faces that show up, and the part they play would spoil the fun, but each brings another colourful dimension to the universe. A universe that here looks better than ever. There is perhaps an overabundance of CGI, with the final action scene bringing the audience dangerously close to effects fatigue. Not to fault the incredible work overall though, with Gunn showcasing many more worlds than we’ve seen before, each with its own unique palate. Colour is especially used to great effect here, notably on Ego’s planet with its bubbles of popping brightness, although I did not see this in 3D I could see this stuff really leaping out in stereoscope. Despite the numerous planets we do see it’s a shame we don’t spend that much time on them, with the film happy to stick to a couple of key settings for the bulk of the movie’s story, giving the film a far less grander scope even when the entire galaxy is at threat. The action is effectively staged, with one spaceship breakout wittingly staged and set to another glorious track on the Awesome Mix Volume 2.
Ah the music. Gunn has quite a talent for combining classic 80s tracks with on screen action, with this batch possibly bettering the previous. Not all of them are quite so elegantly edited together this time, with the balance of song to score feeling a little out of whack, but it’s hard to hate on a film that conjures up an original electronica rap by David Hasselhoff. This sense of humour permeates the entire film and Volume 2 is perhaps funnier than even the whip smart first movie. One cravat must be pointed out though. Gunn sometimes takes this too far, undercutting some of the more dramatic moments in favour of another laugh. It is all well and good to want to maintain a consistency of chuckles, but allowing your deeper moments to breathe can go a long way to making them stick.
It must be pointed out that the biggest issue with the film is noise. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is not a subtle film, it is very much a frantic, brash and loud film. If you’re in the right frame of mind it will delight and elate you, but if you’re not ready for its particular rhythms (and that rhythm is ten decibels higher than normal talk) then it will frustrate the hell out of you. Even as a huge fan of the film and the characters there were a number of times I felt exhausted from the sheer deafening noise of it all. James Gunn has announced he will close out a trilogy of tales (and based on the 5(!) post credit scenes there is plenty to delve into) and this is fantastic news. These films work primarily because of his voice, his confidence and his inventiveness, he just needs to be aware that the knob may turn up to 11, but it doesn’t mean it should do.
Verdict: Guardians Vol 2 is funnier, brasher and louder than the first, in both positive and negative ways. It lacks the novelty of surprise but rewards with terrific character interplay delivered by a cast at the top of their game.