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From the very opening moments of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there is something undeniably refined about the growth from the first film to this one. Having the benefit of establishing characters and tone almost perfectly in the original 2014 film, it allows for a brilliant, almost transcendental opening sequence of action, humor, and visual effects that is unlike anything in the genre seen before. As a mammoth monster is tended to by the guardians, in the foreground, Baby Groot goes about his business dancing and playing as if the chaos around him is par the course, just another day in the park for him and his friends, and yet it tells us almost everything we need to know about what to expect for the next two plus hours. Almost, because as hard as it is to believe, there are more surprises from this Marvel franchise than even that stunning opening can prepare us for.
Traditionally, story has almost always been universally secondary in superhero movies, most content to prop up an origin tale with endless battles between near immortals that ultimately have little consequence. Certainly, Guardians is playing with the same deck, but somehow deals them differently, mixing up the laughs and action with some genuine moments of, well, humanity, that lend the new franchise a lot of heart. That’s not to say it doesn’t keep it in check all the time, but there is plenty here to move you and in ways that are genuine and earned.
It centers on Peter Quill, aka Starlord (Chris Pratt), whom we know from the first was taken from Earth as a small boy by a man named Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue-skinned alien with a devastating arrow-like weapon that he controls with whistles. After saving the galaxy in the original, the team are in a bit of a bind as they’ve helped a race of gold-tone beings called the Sovereign, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), but in true guardian fashion, have also ticked them off and become their enemy. On the run, Ayesha hires Yondu to track them down, however he seems a little reluctant to actually kill Quill, much to his crew’s distress.
Meanwhile, Starlord and his team, including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) have come upon a man named Ego (Kurt Russell), claiming to be Quill’s long lost father, taking them to his home planet, an Eden of sorts that he reveals is actually a living organism he created, him being a god or ‘Celestial’ that is powerful and immortal. This naturally means Quill is too, but while Peter seems thrilled to finally meet his dad, Gamora and the others begin to suspect something isn’t right. And they are right to do so.
Written and directed by James Gunn, returning from the first film, Vol. 2 plays with some familiar themes in sci-fi, including surprise fathers, epic space battles, and even a bit out of Star Trek: The Final Frontier (1989). And like Diesel’s Fast and Furious franchise, the movie puts a lot of attention on family, where the characters all seem constantly at odds but are, as expected, nothing without the others. Why it works so well is how well the story allow them to prove it, taking less time to concentrate on a running stream of quick-cutting fights and numbing combat and instead investing a large chunk of the story on making these colorful characters feel real in their choices and dialogue. It’s a rare thing to be moved by the words of a gun-toting raccoon, but moved you will be.
If anything, despite the spectacle of the movie’s outstanding visual effects, it is these characters that make it as impactful as it is, with all of them settling nicely into their roles. That says a lot about Gunn’s script, where parody or over-relying on traits could have sent this into a spiral, but he’s careful to respect the audience and the fates of the ensemble and provides real meaning to much of what is said. Pratt et al give terrific performances, with some notably good work from Cooper and Rooker, each nearly redefining their respective roles. Russell, too, is very good, and an appearance by Sylvester Stallone, who starred with Russell in Tango and Cash and with Rooker in Cliffhanger, feels earned as well as Stallone makes the most of his cameo (and teases for what’s coming in the Marvel universes).
Filled with great tunes of the 80s, a great gag about replacing the Sony Walkman, and a ton of easter eggs and fan service, there is never a dull moment as the film packs in all it can, filling up every frame without feeling overstuffed, even if it bends a little at the end with a lengthy last act that borrows from many yet sustains enough originality to keep it effective, both with action and some deftly created emotional tugs. This is a sensational follow-up and proof that there is still something fresh to be had in the bloated superhero universe. While it teeters on edge where it might go too far, for now, this is one of the best ever made and well worth the ride.
Movie description: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is a sci-fi action film about the continuing adventures of a small group of misfits who set about to uncover the truth parental lineage of one of their own.
Director(s): James Gunn
Actor(s): Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone
Genre: Action, Comedy