This being a sequel it would be smart of me — obligatory almost — to declare that lightning doesn’t strike twice, that James Gunn has sold his soul to the corporate suits at Marvel, that this lacks the freshness of the original and so on and so forth.
Beat of a different drum
Might be true — is true, arguably — but what the hell I enjoyed it anyway.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy was a come-from-behind monster hit, Gunn’s basic idea being that plot A (quest for metal egg housing all-important all-powerful Infinity Stone) served as background to plot B (Peter Quill’s [Chris Pratt] quest to surround himself with surrogate family), the inversion of priorities being Gunn’s way of standing apart from all the other oversized projects being squeezed out of the Marvel Studio pipeline.
Quill’s Walkman incarnates Gunn’s approach to Marvel Studios filmmaking. Pop in Awesome Mix cassette; slide on earphones, plug in jack; moonwalk to own (as opposed to Marvel’s) unique beat — keeps supervillains from drawing a bead, keeps girls (alien human otherwise) from collecting their wits enough to say “no,” keeps oneself looking unaccountably cool.
In Vol. 2 the filmmaker signals his intentions early on with a swirling long-take shot of the Guardians battling a space octopus in the background, Baby Groot (offshoot from the original picture’s Groot, both voiced by Vin Diesel) tripping to the rhythms of ELO in the foreground. Ballsy idea pulled off with style; the challenge is to maintain that carefully achieved myopia for the rest of the movie’s 130 minute running time.
Lord knows Gunn tries. He does touch gloriously giddy heights, as when Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) demands a piece of Scotch tape from his sorely beleaguered colleagues — but the sequence is quickly followed by yet another outsized CGI battle sequence, blowing one’s memories of the scene (not to mention good feelings) out one ear. Gunn unfortunately is following two conflicting impulses: the need to make the familiar surprising again (fairly successful); the need to top what’s happened before with bigger and better yet still the same (with rapidly diminishing returns). He does best following his more perverse instincts — like casting the still-charismatic Kurt Russell as Ego the Living Planet, a small-scale god and Quill’s reputed father (Quill as with all orphan heroes has highborn origins), then pitting Ego against Quill’s adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) in the young man’s heart. Leading-man Russell vs. character actor Rooker? “I’m your father!” vs. “I’m gonna eat you!?” Snake Plissken vs. Henry? The competition is so lopsided it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Gunn is helped in no small part by the B cast: the aforementioned Rooker and Russell, plus Karen Gillian as the menacingly blue Nebula, who hides more pain in her than previously suspected (or thought possible). Rooker is a particular triumph; thought he had been mostly wasted in the previous installment, glad he’s finally been given his due — and a brief moment center stage — here.
Gunn’s action sequences have improved somewhat — he’s at his best allowing us a tangential view, with either Baby Groot sashaying in the foreground or in brief glimpses from out a tunnel entrance; when depicted upfront (as with the Sovereign fleet) they’re your standard-issue CGI snorefests, thousands of ships lined up like so many Aryan mosquitoes (though to his credit he slyly parodies said image by likening control of the ships — basically robot drones— to arcade-style video games).
Gunn does do one thing right, render his color palette as bright and garish as ever. Ego’s eden-like planet is painted in a scheme so kitschy it would give the late Thomas Kinkade waking nightmares; during a cremation late in the film flames bloom in all colors of the rainbow; later when friends and ships come visit, how do they pay tribute? Space fireworks of course. Too many colors is too many, but way too many (to the point of causing temporary blindness) can be just right (glad I saw this in 2-D; the added dimension might have been too much).
Same goes with the soundtrack — are “My Sweet Lord” and “Father and Son” too sentimental? Perhaps, but they’re Gunn’s sentimental favorites, and I suspect he’s trying to do here what Dennis Potter did in his dramas: using cheap overfamiliar melodies in such a way as to give them fresh power. Does he succeed? Liked their use just fine myself, but understand how some folks might be unwilling to follow.
Let’s be clear on one point: Vol. 2 is unabashed junk food — but well-cooked junk I submit, crunchy and salty with plenty of powdered cheese. Not very nourishing but I do get to lick the powder off my fingertips afterwards.
MTRCB Rating: PG