Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

No one could have possibly foreseen just how big the Marvel Cinematic Universe would get when it began with Iron Man in 2008. After six years and nine movies, it's second only to the Harry Potter movies as one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. And when your movies make billions of dollars at the box office, with one of them making one and a half billion alone, you can get away with having a little bravery in future installments. So for their tenth movie, Marvel Studios chose to step away from the Avengers characters audiences have come to know and love so much and give us something different. Based on a team of characters that could be accurately described as obscure D-listers from outer space, Guardians of the Galaxy is a gamble that paid off in spades because it's one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a while.

We're quickly introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted by aliens as a child in 1988. Raised by a band of intergalactic pirates known as the Ravagers, the adult Quill has become a scavenger, fancying himself an outlaw with the self-bestowed moniker of "Star-Lord." When we meet him, Quill has arrived on a desolate planet to retrieve a mysterious orb he's heard will fetch him a hefty chunk of money. His attempt to abscond with it is interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a subordinate of the notorious terrorist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), but he manages to escape with both the orb and his life. He also comes away with a bounty for his capture thanks to Ravager leader Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), who was angered by the knowledge that Quill would dare disrespect him by stealing and selling the orb without cutting him in on the deal.

But before he can fence his new possession, however, he is ambushed by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin sent by Ronan to acquire the orb after Korath's failure. Quill's attempt to fight back draws the attention of two bounty hunters ― the genetically modified anthropomorphic raccoon Rocket (the voice of Bradley Cooper) and tree-like Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) ― looking to cash in on Yondu's ransom. The resulting brawl ends with all four being arrested and sent to a massive mega-prison called the Kyln.

Gamora is given a particularly hostile welcome upon their arrival by the brutish warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan years earlier. But his attempt at having a modicum of revenge by killing her is halted when she reveals that she had planned to betray Ronan and prevent him from getting the orb. Upon mentioning that she had lined up a buyer offering a fortune for it, Quill, Rocket, and Groot immediately volunteer to help stage a jailbreak.

With Drax tagging along in the hopes that he will eventually encounter and duel with Ronan, the group heads to the buyer's outpost on the edge of the universe. However, not only are Yondu and the Ravagers following closely behind them, but so are Ronan and his armada. While the Ravagers merely wish to steal the orb for their own financial gain, Ronan has much more sinister plans for it and the immeasurable power it contains.

Making Guardians of the Galaxy was a brave experiment on Marvel's part. The characters don't have a built-in audience like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America do, their lack of mainstream notoriety potentially serving as a stumbling block for some audience members. And the fact that it's not a typical superhero movie, instead being more of a space opera akin to Star Wars or Flash Gordon. This is not the kind of movie one would expect Marvel Studios to make. But they've defied all expectations with Guardians of the Galaxy. They've gone above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to showing the audience a good time, making a movie that is more fun and more entertaining than I ever imagined it could have been.

Part of what makes the movie so good is the direction courtesy of James Gunn. Hiring Gunn was another gamble by Marvel, as his prior work is comprised solely of low-budget, low-tech indie affairs that all failed to strike gold at the box office. Handing the guy that made Slither the reigns of a multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster seems kinda off at first, doesn't it? But Gunn's off-beat, mischievous, and ultimately irreverent sense of humor is perfect for this movie. It allows Gunn to build something that is lively and never takes itself too seriously. He's crafted a deep, rich world that effortlessly balances excitement, drama, and a feeling of wide-eyed awe. It never ceases to feel like an adventure, and when the credits roll, you'll wish it could have kept going.

And for all his low-budget work in the past, Gunn shows he can definitely handle the huge studio movies as well. I was impressed by how cool the visuals, represented mostly via CGI and motion capture work with practical effects mixed in, looked. They're seamlessly integrated into the movie, with Rocket and Groot looking especially awesome. It honestly looks and feels like they're really there. And I'll also give a big thumbs-up to the movie's 3D efforts. It was shot flat, but you'd never know it from how good the post-production conversion looks. Gunn supposedly filmed the movie in such a way that would benefit the added depth, and personally oversaw the conversion himself. His effort shows, and while I'm sure the movie looks just as good in 2D, seeing the movie in 3D just adds to the on-screen spectacle.

I also really liked the script, written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. They must have worried about the obscurity of the property as well, because they've developed it in such a way that it is surprisingly accessible even for those who've never so much as touched a comic book. The story never gets muddled or over-complicated, the characters all have their own distinct personalities and motivations, and every scene and every line of dialogue (even the snappy comedic banter) builds toward something. Everything matters here. It's either moving the plot forward, developing the characters, or bringing us deeper into the movie's universe. There are a few hiccups along the way, mostly in the form of dangling plot threads that will surely be resolved in the inevitable sequel (which is currently set for release in 2017). But Gunn and Perlman have still put together something great.

The same can be said for the cast, all of whom are all great in their own ways. Among the supporting cast, I really liked Benicio del Toro, Michael Rooker, and John C. Reilly in their minor roles, while Lee Pace isn't bad as Ronan the Accuser. I wasn't totally impressed with Pace at first, since I honestly wanted to see more of Josh Brolin as Thanos (especially since we probably won't be seeing much of Thanos for a few years). But after seeing the movie a second time, I thought Pace did a fine job.

The primary cast, meanwhile, is the movie's main drawing point, and they're all strong and likable. Chris Pratt plays Star-Lord as if Luke Skywalker were desperately trying to be Han Solo; he's a cocky, swaggering wannabe outlaw with a blossoming sense of heroism. Pratt is very fun to watch in the role, putting forth a fantastic performance. Zoe Saldana, similarly, brings a confidence to Gamora, along with a certain vulnerability as well. She is more subdued than the rest of her castmates, something I felt worked in her favor. It makes her more intriguing to watch, because she's not as wacky or over-the-top as the others.

And I must admit that I was surprised by former WWE star Dave Bautista. Most pro wrestlers aren't very successful in translating from the ring to the big screen, with the only real exception I can think of being Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But Bautista is excellent here. He's hilarious, complex and nuanced, and actually really impressive.

But as funny as Bautista's Drax is, the movie is almost completely stolen by the characters of Rocket and Groot, thanks in part to the voice work from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. Cooper's Rocket is braggadocios yet secretly neurotic about his lot in life, and he makes it work. I've heard he based it on Joe Pesci's performance in GoodFellas, and I believe it. It really shows, and it makes Rocket more memorable.

Diesel approaches his role, on the other hand, as if it were similar to his role in The Iron Giant. His only dialogue is the oft-repeated phrase "I am Groot," a phrase that means so many different things depending on the tone and inflection, and Diesel makes it oddly believable. Watch the movie intently enough, and you'll start to see what I mean. The fact that Diesel was able to communicate so much through just saying three words over and over is a real testament to how impressive he can be when he really wants to be. (And the fact that he apparently recorded the line a thousand times in multiple languages for the movie's international releases gets him a ton of respect from me.)

Long story short, Guardians of the Galaxy is an all-around awesome movie. It's everything one could hope for from a movie like this. Blending an unbridled sense of adventure with silly humor, enjoyable characters, and an awesome soundtrack of '60s and '70s hits, the movie is some of the most fun I've had in a theater in a long time. And it's a shame I'll have to wait until 2017 to see the characters again, because the Guardians of the Galaxy are a great change of pace from the Avengers.

Final Rating: ****

1 comment:

Amy Burton said...

Loved it has to be one of my favorite movies especially groot