Friday, August 1, 2014


(US - 2014)

Directed by James Gunn. Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Gregg Henry, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Sean Gunn, Tomas Arana, Krystian Godlewski, Laura Haddock, Wyatt Oleff, Alexis Denisof, Ralph Ineson. (PG-13, 121 mins)

In keeping with the recent tradition of Marvel installments being tailored to the stylings of their directors--Shane Black's IRON MAN 3 and Anthony & Joe Russo's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER--James Gunn fashions GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY as very much his own film in the guise of a Marvel production and the results are fantastic. Starting his career by scripting Troma's TROMEO & JULIET (1996), Gunn moved on to Hollywood and penned the two SCOOBY-DOO movies before making a name for himself by writing Zack Snyder's surprisingly good 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. That got Gunn his first feature directing gig, 2006's tragically underappreciated and wonderfully oozy and slimy SLITHER. Never the most prolific of writers or directors, Gunn resurfaced five years later with the dark-humored indie SUPER and again with a segment in last year's awful MOVIE 43. Gunn seems an unlikely choice for Marvel, but really, it's that kind of outside-the-box thinking--turning IRON MAN 3 into a smartass Shane Black movie or CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER into the superhero version of a '70s paranoia thriller--that's made much of their recent run of films so successful. As someone who's not a comic book guy, I take these kinds of films at face value for what they are in and of themselves, not where they fit in the Marvel universe or how faithful they are or whatever. That said, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the best Marvel movie I've seen.  It's the best movie of the summer.  And it may very well be the STAR WARS of its generation, a film that helps shape a childhood with its spectacle and imagination. Yeah...it's that good.

Moviegoers of a certain age--I'm 41--look back fondly on the films of their youth, sometimes inducing sentimentality that's not really warranted. Let's face it, folks: not every '80s movie is a "classic." But to be someone who saw the STAR WARS movies, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and E.T., and a lot of those timeless blockbusters in theaters, on their first runs when they were kids--it shaped you. You don't forget the first time you experience those movies. Seen-it-all-cineastes who have a sort of multiplex misanthropia--I include myself in that category--often sound like bitter old men lamenting how today's special effects-heavy blockbusters just aren't like they used to be. People still talk about those older movies today. Who's going to be talking about the fourth TRANSFORMERS movie or the second AMAZING SPIDER-MAN three decades from now? My point is this: watching GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY took me back to that time in a way that no film in recent memory has. It's a genuinely great crowd-pleaser of the classic sort: it's clever, it's funny, it's filled with action, and it's made with affection. This wasn't a job for Gunn--it was a labor of love. You can feel it in every scene. You can see a committed cast rallying behind their director, believing in his vision. Today's blockbusters have lost touch with that sense of commitment, and people have grown accustomed to the clock-punching soullessness and predictability of most of them and continue to see them out of...obligation? I'm not aware of a single person who was enthused about THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 a few months back, and yet it still grossed $200 million in the US. Enough people flocked to TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION for it to gross nearly $1 billion worldwide so far, but has anyone really enjoyed it?  With any luck, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY will remind moviegoers of how things used to be and how they still should be, but you can't help but wonder if today's audiences have become so conditioned to accept mediocrity that they'll fail to appreciate what Gunn has accomplished here.

In a sequence that's an obvious nod to the opening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, mercenary Ravager Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who's given himself the name "Star Lord," acquires a mysterious orb for blue-skinned Ravager leader Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Said orb is also desired by Kree supervillain Ronan (Lee Pace), working in the employ of the feared Thanos (voiced by an uncredited Josh Brolin). Ronan dispatches Thanos' daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to intercept the orb. Quill and Gamora have an epic scuffle that ends up involving bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a cynical, genetically-altered raccoon with anger management issues, and his plant/muscle Groot (voiced and motion-captured by Vin Diesel), a tree whose vocabulary is limited to "I am Groot." All four are rounded up and sentenced to The Kyln, a space prison, where they meet vengeance-obsessed and metaphor-impaired Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan. The quintet of outcasts and misfits form a classic unholy alliance as they very slowly learn to trust one another, taking on Ronan's forces and working to keep the orb--which has the power to destroy worlds--out of the hands of both Ronan and the greedy but good-natured Yondu, and returned to the galactic leader Nova Prime (Glenn Close), where it belongs.

Filled with nods to Lucas and Spielberg, and some blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos (in addition to the requisite Stan Lee appearance, you'll also spot Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman and Gunn pal Nathan Fillion, and stick around through the end credits for the best one), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the summer movie to finally remind everyone what a summer movie should be. Funny without being snarky, using hit '70s singles without being ironic, and demonstrating some sincerely heartfelt affection for its characters, the film sends up the superhero/comic book genre while recalling the spirit of wonder and adventure that captivated moviegoers when STAR WARS became the phenomenon that not even 20th Century Fox was expecting. Laugh-out-loud funny but never slapsticky, GUARDIANS succeeds in working for both children and grown-up audiences (listen to all the adults in the theater laugh when Gamora tells Quill his ship his filthy and he says under his breath, "She has no idea...if I had a blacklight, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting"). Even the referential bits--so many films today think that just making the reference is good enough--are thoughtful and legitimately creative and funny: it's one thing to have the requisite "ragtag group of badasses walking in slo-mo" shot set to a classic rock tune (in this case, The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"), but Gunn's take on it has Gamora yawning and Rocket adjusting his nutsack.  The leads are perfectly cast, Pratt is a smartass without being grating, and Cooper's vocal delivery of the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Rocket is spot-on (Gunn's brother Sean filled in as Rocket during filming to provide sight-lines and a model for the actors to look at; similarly, Krystian Godlewski was the surrogate Groot on-set until the effects were completed and Diesel's motion capture work was CGI'd in). Everyone else, from the supporting actors on down--even Gunn regular Gregg Henry--gets a moment to shine, and the film is so good that you don't even mind that the great Djimon Hounsou is saddled with a stock henchman role when he could've made a terrific Ronan himself.

Hollywood needs to take note. The summer blockbuster has lost its way. The budgets are too big and the results are too bland. Too much blurry CGI and too much shaky-cam. A movie needs to gross $200 million before it's not considered a "flop." And regardless of how popular it is, it's still out of theaters in three weeks. Remember when movies played at first-run theaters for months? GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and James Gunn are like curious visitors from another time and another place, arriving just in time to save the summer blockbuster from itself. You won't see a more infectiously fun, witty, and smart "big" movie this summer, and it's the best time I've had at the multiplex all year.

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