FRESH POUR: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

guardians of the galaxyGuardians of the Galaxy
Dir. James Gunn
Walt Disney Pictures/Marvel Studios

After the runaway success of The Avengers (a film that, admittedly, grows colder and colder with me the more I watch it), Marvel Studios had a choice to make – they could either take an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach and simply do more of the same, or they could use this as a stepping stone to branch out and take new chances. Luckily, as has been the case for the majority of the Marvel Phase Two films, they seem to have chosen the latter; Iron Man 3 decided to be an off-kilter, Shane Black Christmas action-comedy with very little Iron Man in it, Thor 2 (the weakest of the Phase 2 entries) spent more time in Asgard and made a rollicking fantasy adventure out of it), and Captain America 2 sat its blockbuster audience down to give it a rudimentary talk about the post-9/11 security state, while still giving its audience the laughs and spectacle they expect of big, loud blockbusters. Still, none of those entries has been as relentlessly, refreshingly weird and un-self-conscious as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

Taking a break from the constantly spinning wheels and recycled agents of SHIELD, Guardians focuses on a motley crew of misfits and criminals on the other side of the galaxy, who decide to band together to save the universe after stealing a mysterious orb sought by Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). Tonally, this film is a wonderfully organic mix of action and comedy, Gunn seamlessly straddling those two different modes effortlessly. The film never really dips too far into gritty drama territory, though it is able to mine quite a bit of pathos out of its surprisingly effective lead characters. Stranded human Peter Quill (an affable Chris Pratt, whose star I’m very glad to see is rising) is an amoral goofball/stunted manchild who’s just trying to have fun with his spaceship, taciturn hulk Drax (Dave Bautista) wants the typical revenge-for-his-family thing, assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants to escape from under her father’s oppression/torture, cybernetically modified raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) has a Napoleon complex a mile long, and lovable tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), well, just wants to be Groot. The film’s ensemble-heavy nature harkens back to The Avengers; Quill/Star-Lord isn’t the one hero here, though he is the audience viewpoint character, at least at first, and everyone gets their chance to shine.

Just as important as the extremely strong and charming main cast, though, is the world that is painted for us by Gunn and crew. It’s certainly an oddball vision of space, with Henson-y prosthetic heads, asymmetrical starship designs and mining colonies made out of the hollowed-out skulls of dead ancient beings. The film’s sprawling, gorgeous world is thankfully explored by the characters throughout the long-but-not-overstuffed two-hour runtime, giving it that episodic, setpiece-heavy Star Wars feel while still making each environment diverse and having a tangible effect on all the major characters. The film wears its influences on its sleeve (or packs them into a Walkman, in the case of Pratt’s character, whose cassette tapes pepper the film with a charming mix of classic pop and rock favorites). You’ll be reminded of everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Fifth Element to The Chronicles of Riddick, and even the rag-tag starship crews of shows like Farscape and Firefly, but in a way that feels cohesive. Gunn has effectively written a love letter to the films of his youth, without feeling like it unnecessarily fetishizes the 70s and 80s or excludes those who aren’t “in” on the experience. (The supporting cast is also a joy to watch, including Karen Gillan as the constantly-shouty lady assassin Nebula, Benicio Del Toro as a preening Liberace figure called The Collector, and Michael Rooker’s delightfully intense space-pirate Yondu.)

The film’s not perfect, by any means; Pace’s Ronan suffers from the same problem Chris Eccleston had in Thor: The Dark World – he’s a cool-looking villain played by a great actor, who ultimately isn’t given that many modes to play. There’s a religious fanaticism angle that’s interesting on its face, but it’s not really explored in depth apart from his basic status as the bad guy the Guardians must stop. The pacing of the first and last acts can feel a little rushed at times, particularly getting the various members of the team in the right place and time to meet; the ‘power-of-love-and-friendship’ thing in the climax can also feel overly twee to someone who’s not sufficiently calibrated for this kind of naked sentiment in film. Still, these are minor quibbles that don’t detract enough from the overall sense of fun the film provides to bring it down.

The film shines most in its second act, when the crew finally gets together and the comedy truly starts firing on all cylinders. As funny as Pratt is, he’s basically playing Space Andy Dwyer with a slightly harder edge; it’s actually Bautista as Drax and Cooper and the animation team’s work as Rocket that shine the most out of the ensemble. Bautista, as the increasingly literal Drax, has an impeccable sense of comic timing that works very well, and Gunn finds a way to turn his somewhat limited range into a charmingly broad theatricality that works really well for the film.

Rocket, meanwhile, is everything I could have hoped for out of a talking raccoon with a giant gun; he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and is the group member least likely to go along with plans (he’s usually the one making them). But his sparse moments of drama showcase the pathos of a creature that struggles to understand himself and keep others at a distance. This is not to say Saldana and Diesel don’t do fine work with their roles as well (Diesel channels the best parts of his Iron Giant voicework to lend Groot a charming gentle-giant quality), but Saldana especially gets saddled with a lot of the exposition and dry plot stuff that prevents her from having as much fun as the others. Still, when her moments come, they do shine (“We’re just like Kevin Bacon!”).

Ultimately, Guardians is a great, great work of irreverent throwback space opera, with a wry edge that doesn’t go too far into the sneering sense of self-parody that can be reflexive for Whedon. The film isn’t poking fun at itself; it’s just having fun. That sense of pure blockbuster glee hasn’t been done this well in a long time, and I’m really glad that Marvel is taking this many chances with its properties. Here’s hoping the dip back into the Avengers well next year (and the increasing production fiasco that is Ant-Man) doesn’t break the streak too badly.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

Guardians of the Galaxy Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever Groot (Vin Diesel) says “I am Groot.”
2) Drink every time a new classic pop song plays on Peter Quill’s Walkman
3) Drink any time a new weapon or gadget is made/used
Finish Your Drink When:
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) says, “You said it yourself, bitch. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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