GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY * * *
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. Screenplay by Nicole Pearlman and James Gunn. Directed by James Gunn.
Taking an odd detour on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s march towards total multiplex domination, director James Gunn’s goofy, intergalactic fuckaround ditches the superhero stuff for space opera of a most irreverent order. While it still suffers from a few symptoms of blockbuster-itis, Guardians of the Galaxy feels far more relaxed than your typical corporate summer tentpole. The movie has a puckish, sideways wit that’s more than welcome as this silly season grinds ever onward.
Based upon a long-running title that apparently did not overlap with my early teen years spent celibately sulking around comic book shops, Guardians of the Galaxy stars Parks and Recreation’s lovable lummox Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, an interstellar slacker doofus catting about the cosmos hooking up with alien chicks and listening to a K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70’s soundtrack on his retro cassette Walkman. Peter really wants everybody to call him Star-Lord, but nobody ever does.
Because this is a Marvel movie, there are lots of folks in long robes with strange makeup, affecting British accents while chasing a glowing thingamabob that holds some sort of cosmic secret to planetary domination and infinite power, or something like that. (It’s called The Infinity Stone instead of The Tesseract this time around, but the studio should seriously look into a plotline beyond everybody running after an irradiated blue object.)
Briefly having the orb in his possession for reasons I couldn’t remember if I tried, Peter ends up in Space Jail alongside a motley band of outsiders. First we’ve got Zoe Saldana’s lithesome green-skinned assassin lady. (After Avatar and Star Trek, movies are no longer allowed to go into outer space without Zoe Saldana, but at least she’s a different color in each film so we can tell the franchises apart.) There’s also a rascally pair of CGI bounty hunters working a Han and Chewie dynamic — a hard-drinking, genetically-altered raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his oddly endearing sidekick, who happens to be a sentient tree. Voiced by Vin Diesel (in his least wooden performance, har-har) this gangly stumblebum of branches and vines is named Groot and knows only three words of English: “I am Groot.” He makes them work for all occasions, and every utterance is pure delight.
But best of all is an alien bruiser played by Dave Bautista, hailing from a planet with no concept of irony, so he takes sarcastic wise-cracks by his teammates 100% literally. On one hand his monotone befuddlement could be the filmmaker’s sly way of working around the professional wrestler’s lack of acting ability, on the other it is the single funniest character trait I have seen in ages so who cares.
The story is no great shakes, basically retreading The Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy’s action scenes are monotonously overproduced, the villain might as well be an afterthought, and as in all Marvel movies the final battle sequence is the safest time to go take a piss without worrying about missing anything good.
But it still somehow manages to feel funky and loose. Gunn (who co-wrote the script with Nicole Perlman) got his start at Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Pictures, and he has not forsaken his low-rent exploitation roots. Guardians of the Galaxy plays less like a Marvel Studios commodity and more like a two-hundred-million-dollar version of 1980’s sci-fi cable staples like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension or The Ice Pirates. It’s another one of those movies that would be more at home on VHS.
Gunn’s junkyard Mos Eisley aesthetic allows for strange digressions, as when Benicio Del Toro turns up wearing a peroxided version of Jim Jarmusch’s hair, or the disproportional amount of time spent in interplanetary pawn shops. And if there’s anything more beguiling this summer than a dancing plant shaking his groove thing to The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” I must have missed it.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not great, but it has personality. Personality goes a long way.