GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 * * 1 / 2
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Kurt Russell. Written and directed by James Gunn.
I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is how in that first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie it really felt like Johnny Depp was getting away with something, whereas by the time the elephantine sequel came lumbering around all the delightful, surprising weirdness of Captain Jack Sparrow had calcified into just another blockbuster component. With a fifth Pirates on the way in a few weeks it’s now nearly impossible to imagine a time when anybody ever enjoyed this tiresome character in the first place, and while the Guardians of the Galaxy are certainly not there yet, this sequel shows warning signs of their welcome soon being overstayed.
The flip banter and AM Gold soundtrack of writer-director James Gunn’s surprise 2014 smash let a blast of fresh air into the Marvel Universe, giving the third-tier sci-fi funnybook heroes their own irreverent space opera. Troma veteran Gunn’s cheeky sensibility owed more to Buckaroo Banzai and The Ice Pirates than The Empire Strikes Back, his eye for colorfully kitschy alien worlds an invigorating change from Marvel’s usual office furniture aesthetic. My brilliant colleague Wesley Morris perhaps best summed up Guardians Of The Galaxy’s charms when he said, “It feels like a person made it.”
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 feels like it was made by a person, albeit one working a little too hard to replicate a past success. The movie doubles down on wall-to-wall pop songs, overelaborate action sequences and impudent asides. Too distinctive to be a total wash, it’s nonetheless cluttered with extraneous characters, franchise maintenance, sequel setups and no less than five post-credit scenes when one or two would’ve been plenty. More of the same feels like less.
The opening credits are by far the highlight, with Baby Groot –the smiley little twig who danced his way into our hearts at the end of the previous picture– strutting his stuff to ELO while the rest of our heroes battle a giant tentacle monster out of focus in the background. Eventually such matters must move to the forefront, the gang split up and scattered between plotlines following some interstellar batteries stolen by Rocket the raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), or the long-lost blue sister of Zoe Saldana’s green Gamora and most importantly the introduction of sentient planet named Ego, who just so happens to be the father of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. The planet also happens to be played by Kurt Russell.
At his most laid back and charismatic, Russell seems to be giving a tutorial on movie stardom to the floundering Pratt, who had an endearing scruffiness in the first picture that’s since been eclipsed by his deeply unappealing performances in Jurassic World, The Magnificent Seven and last year’s odious Passengers. He still looks a bit lost here, perhaps because the goofball character is tasked with material that feels a bit heavy for a movie in which a wisecracking raccoon hangs out with a baby tree.
It all rather boringly comes down to daddy issues, with Pratt moping about the failings of his adopted father (mohawked Michael Rooker, in blue) and tempted by biological dad’s offers of immortality. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is a bizarrely structured film, meandering here and there for an hour or so before abruptly snapping to attention and piling on the plot twists. (Please don’t ask about anything involving Saldana’s sister because I still don’t understand that whole deal. I also have no idea why Sylvester Stallone is so prominently billed in the credits and yet only in this movie for like two scenes and doesn’t get to do anything fun.)
The pleasures of the film are largely visual, with psychedelic starscapes and absurd images abounding. I loved Rooker’s weapon – a lethal arrow he commands by whistling, leaving a blurry red contrail as it whizzes around through the chests of bad guys. There’s some great jet-pack stuff here, and once again the whole show is stolen by wrestler Dave Bautista as a dim-bulb bruiser from a planet that doesn’t understand irony. His hearty, inappropriate laugh sometimes feels like the movie’s most subversive element.
What’s missing is that spark of the unexpected that made the first film such a delight. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t a bad movie, but it feels like a dutiful one, which is almost worse.