Guardians of the Galaxy
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some language)
Everybody loves The Avengers, but let’s face it. When it comes to personality, the members of Marvel’s prize superhero team are kind of square. Patriots, Asgardian princes and scientists with anger issues are only so interesting. Even the wise-cracking Tony Stark is a bazillionaire and a genius. Not very easy to relate to.
Maybe that’s why the ensemble of sorry wretches at the heart of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is so appealing. It’s made up of outlaws and losers, like Drax the Destroyer (played by wrestler Dave Bautista), an elaborately tattooed muscleman who is out for vengeance and takes everything extremely literally. Naturally, this is the source of much hilarity.
Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana in butt-kicking mode), a green-skinned mercenary with daddy issues. After all, she’s the adopted daughter of Thanos, the wrinkly, purple baddie first glimpsed in the end credits of “The Avengers.”
Even weirder are Rocket, a resourceful, genetically-modified talking raccoon with a temper (his feisty voice is supplied by Bradley Cooper), and his best pal, Groot (Vin Diesel), a self-regenerating tree — just go with it –- who is surprisingly clever but boasts a limited vocabulary.
The merry ringmaster of this improbably lovable menagerie is Peter Quill, who also goes by the cocky alias “Star-Lord.” In an immensely winning performance, Chris Pratt plays Quill as a roguishly charming space pilot in the mold of Harrison Ford’s swaggering, self-obsessed Han Solo. Truly, a star is born.
To say that “Guardians” director James Gunn was influenced by the early work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is an understatement. Adapted from one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, the movie is a rollicking sci-fi-fantasy space opera with a rascally, retro vibe that recalls the original Indiana Jones and Star Wars flicks.
The film’s opening scene, in which Quill parts a valuable relic from its temple pedestal on the planet Morag, is pure “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” goosed to the groove of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” A sequence set in a mining colony faintly echoes that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Mos Eisley Cantina. There are thrilling space battles galore, and Rocket and Groot are basically C-3PO and R2-D2 with more attitude.
With its population of extraterrestrials in a rainbow of skin tones and its intergalactic fashions — that’s some wig, Glenn Close! — “Guardians” also calls to mind “Star Trek” … on crack … as Gunn pokes into the freakiest corners of the Marvel Universe. But the film never feels derivative and it’s a ton of fun.
Based on the comic book series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the movie begins on a somber note with the death of young Star-Lord’s mother. That formative chapter in Peter Quill’s life is followed by another major event, the arrival of a spacecraft sent by his long absent father to retrieve his son from Earth.
Cut to the grown Quill, who is now quite comfortable living in outerspace. To his chagrin, his Star-Lord alias is met with disdain by most residents of the galaxy, thanks to his reputation as a rather smug smuggler who frequently runs afoul of the law.
Quill is after his latest score — a coveted silver orb — when he literally collides with Gamora, who has been sent to retrieve the object for Thanos’ ally, Ronan (Lee Pace).
Ronan is the genocidal leader of warrior race the Kree and he’s also the movie’s weakest link. Pace, who was so adorable on “Pushing Daisies” but now specializes in playing menacing fantasy monarchs (see his elf king, Thranduil, in “The Hobbit” trilogy), doesn’t do a whole lot besides make cartoonishly dire pronouncements in a very deep voice. He also glowers at equally blue hench-lady Nebula. (Yes, Doctor Who fans, that is Karen Gillan, aka Amy Pond, under all that makeup.)
Ronan is after the same thing every Marvel villain seems to be after. I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to reveal that it’s an infinity stone. I know these glowing MacGuffins are one of the things that unify all the films in the franchise, but am I the only one who’s getting sick of them?
Back to the plot: While Gamora is after Quill in order to collect the orb, Rocket and Groot are after him as well, hoping to collect the bounty on his head. In the process, the whole posse winds up in prison, where they are joined by Drax and work together to mastermind one of the most entertaining jailbreaks in recent cinematic memory. Normally, these guys are out for themselves, but when they realize what will happen to their galaxy if Ronan gets his hands on the orb, they make an uneasy pact to save the place they call home.
After cutting his teeth on dark comic book satire “Super” and low-budget horror flick “Slither,” Gunn penned the “Guardians” script with Nicole Perlman, who is rumored to be toiling on a Black Widow spin-off for Marvel. (That could bode very, very well.)
Gunn and Perlman’s “Guardians” screenplay is hilarious and kinda sweet and just when it starts to get too cheesy, the director pulls it back from the brink with the perfect dose of snark and playful visual effects that put the considerable skills of the film’s VFX crew on eye-popping display.
The movie’s best device is a nostalgic one. Because Quill is from Earth, he’s constantly making references that baffle his alien buddies but connect with the audience, especially anyone who fondly remembers Troll dolls, the Walkman and Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.”
The film’s tone is dictated largely by its inspired soundtrack, built around Quill’s beloved Awesome Mix Tape of ’70s and ’80s pop.
Just be prepared. You will never, ever get “Hooked on a Feeling” out of your head again. It’s the new “Let It Go.