MOVIE REVIEW: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: JAMES GUNN / SCREENPLAY: JAMES GUNN, NICOLE PERLMAN / STARRING: CHRIS PRATT, ZOE SALDANA, DAVID BAUTISTA, VIN DIESEL,BRADLEY COOPER, KAREN GILLAN, MICHAEL ROOKER, BENICIO DEL TORO, GLENN CLOSE / RELEASE DATE: JULY 31ST
A new movie title from Marvel Studios is always something to get worked up about. Their hit rate has been nothing short of phenomenal over the past few years, setting up and establishing familiar comic book characters in their own film series before effortlessly bringing them all together in the planet-conquering Avengers Assemble. But whilst Thor and Iron Man weren’t exactly household names prior to their arrival at your local multiplex they were pretty seamlessly assimilated into the popular psyche; Guardians of the Galaxy was always likely to be a riskier movie prospect. Here, after all, is a film starring a talking raccoon, a living sentient tree, a green-skinned alien assassin and a grey-skinned tattoo-covered warrior. Guardians of the Galaxy could have been a costly disaster for Marvel, a concept too far and too high for an audience more used to the Earthbound shenanigans of Tony Stark and co.
Fortunately Guardians of the Galaxy is, for the most part, a triumph. Director/co-scriptwriter James Gunn has clearly appreciated that his film could so easily have become a po-faced space opera, a muddy Star Wars wannabe creaking under the weight of endless men-in-cloaks banging on about extraordinary weapons and supreme power before launching into a string of soul-destroying space dogfights with bland square-jawed heroes. Instead he’s opted to dial back the dreary and infuse the film with an irresistible sense of fun, his mismatched heroes bickering and wise-cracking and quickly establishing themselves as startlingly believable real people despite the extraordinariness of their appearances.
Wisely the film eases the audience into its weirdness by introducing young Peter Quill (he listens to 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ on his Walkman, the boy has taste) on the night his mother dies in hospital in 1988. The devastated youth rushes outside only to be abducted by a massive alien spacecraft which hoves into view. Twenty-odd years later this self-same boy is now a man; he’s cocky, swaggering, still listening to funky music on his Walkman as he investigates “abandoned planet” Morag. He calls himself Star Lord now (even if nobody else does) but deep down he’s still Peter Quill, disenfranchised 20th century human adopted by alien scumbags known as the Ravagers. He soon attracts the attention of bounty hunting genetically-engineered talking raccoon Rocket and his tree-thing companion Groot – as well as the lethal assassin Gamora who has set her sights on a super-powerful artefact which Peter just happens to have appropriated.
The film’s plot treads a well-worn path; everyone’s after this magnificent Macguffin, a devastating weapon which will give its owner supreme power. Peter’s old Ravager mentor Yondu (The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker) wants it but so does Ronan (Lee Pace), a Kree warrior dispatched by the mysterious Thanos (Josh Brolin) to locate and secure the artefact. Peter finds himself fighting alongside the biggest bunch of losers in the Galaxy and the film is at its best when they’re arguing – frequently – and taking cheap shots at one another. Gunn deftly gives each of his characters a (generally understated) backstory and is afforded the luxury of being able to punctuate the often relentless action with beautifully performed sequences where the so-called Guardians just snip and snipe at one another. They argue about each other, they argue about their situation, they argue about Peter’s choice of man-bag: “It’s not a purse, it’s a knapsack!”
In truth Guardians of the Galaxy stands or falls by the chemistry between its core cast and the slick wit and sense of fun inherent in Gunn’s script. Everyone gets a chance to be funny, from John C. Reilly’s stuffy Novacorps soldier Rhomann Day to Christopher Fairbank’s mannered, well-spoken historian; there’s added colour too from background characters gifted the odd one-liner or setting-up some clever sight-gag. The film only really sags when it drifts too close to the box marked ‘generic space adventure’; the special effects are impressive, of course, but they run the risk now and again of dominating and overwhelming the narrative by distracting us from the characters we’re warming to and having fun with. Gunn keeps the action moving at a pace that’s sometimes exhausting but amidst all the explosions and the crashing spaceships and exploding cityscapes there’s usually room for a quick quip or laugh-out-loud gag.
Simplistic storyline aside, Guardians of the Galaxy gets more right than it does wrong. It’s a big cast and not everyone’s best served; Karen Gillan does good work as ruthless killer (and Gamora’s sibling) Nebula but she’s pretty one-dimensional and Benicio del Toro’s Collector, glimpsed briefly (and slightly incongruously) at the end of Thor: The Dark World is little more than a cameo. But it’s really all about the Guardians and when they’re on screen together the film just buzzes. Chris Pratt, his comedy chops honed in the sublime Parks and Recreation, is a hoot as space slacker/tragic hero Peter and David Bautista brings a wonderful dryness to the literal minded Drax the Destroyer. But the show is more often than not stolen by CGI creations Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (his three words of dialogue voiced by Vin Diesel) who get the biggest laughs and, in the end, the most emotive character arcs.
Marvel Studios can breathe a sigh of relief. Their most audacious movie investment has paid off in spades. Guardians might not be the best sci-fi blockbuster of the year – it’s not as smart as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes nor, fortunately, as knuckle-dragging as Transformers: Age of Extinction. But it’s kicked off a potentially long-running new franchise in fine style; the Galaxy’s in safe hands with these Guardians.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10