Monday, 24 April 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

(M) ★★★½

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sylvester Stallone.

Baby Groot loved his homemade Atari.

MARVEL has done amazing things with its Cinematic Universe (AKA the MCU) but there have been two things that have repeatedly tripped it up.

The first thing has been sequels. The two weakest films across the 15 (!) entries in the franchise have been Iron Man 2 and the second Thor film (The Dark World). It's as if after striking gold once with a character, a giddy nervousness sets in and nobody's quite sure how they did it the first time (the exception to this, of course, is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which came after Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, so maybe Marvel is learning from its mistakes).

The second thing has been villains. Outside of Loki and Ultron (and I would also argue Red Skull, though many disagree), the villains of the MCU have rarely matched up to their heroic counterparts, tending to fall into the forgettable category.

These two issues rear their ugly heads again in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, though not as prominently as in Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World. It must be stated that GOTG2 (as it shall be henceforth referred to) is fun, hilarious and utterly enjoyable, and it's only when stacked up against its predecessor (which also had a somewhat generic and unmemorable villain too, to be fair) that GOTG2 suffers. The first one was more fun, more hilarious and more enjoyable, and while this one is still great, it's just not as great. The symptoms of sequelitis can be seen, but thankfully it's only a mild case.

In the wake of their successes in the first film, the so-called Guardians - cocky rogue Starlord (Pratt), super-serious warrior Gamora (Saldana), socially inept man mountain Drax (Bautista), trigger-happy space raccoon Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the slowly regenerating sapient plant Groot (voiced by Diesel) - are in hot demand as heroes for hire.

But when a job protecting a valuable asset belonging to Ayesha (Debicki) and her people goes slightly awry, the Guardians find themselves being hunted once again. Intervening is Ego (Russell), a mysterious figure who claims to be Starlord's long lost dad, which raises all manner of questions.

Much like every Fast & Furious movie, the key theme here is family. Starlord has daddy issues and the presence of Ego brings them all bubbling back to the surface, as does the return of Yondu (Rooker), Starlord's surrogate dad for many years. Then there's the sisterly hatred between Gamora and Nebula (Gillan), which rumbles along as a nicely violent subplot throughout the film.

The script, written by director James Gunn, does a good job of finding things for everyone else to do while Starlord grapples with understanding his lineage, and Gamora and Nebula beat seven kinds of crap out of each other. Drax is paired with the even-more-awkward newcomer Mantis (Klementieff), and Rocket and Yondu are forced to team up. The throughline of it all is everyone is messed up and everyone has their issues. But being part of the Guardians makes it palatable and survivable. It's a nice message, and means the film plays the "family" card in a far more dysfunctional, interesting and enjoyable way than the Fast & Furious movies.

However dividing the team makes the film less direct and more scattershot. It robs us somewhat of the group's wonderful chemistry as the characters wander off to do their own thing while Ego and Starlord sort out their stuff, but it does give everyone their little moments to shine. The story also avoids the catch-the-MacGuffin plot of the previous film too.

In some ways, this is darker than the GOTG1, which is the inevitable thing for a second film to do, but thankfully it is still funny. Some extended Baby Groot sequences are a hoot, including a clever long-take opening where he dances his way obliviously through a fire fight, or when he is given the task of retrieving an item for Rocket and Yondu, which becomes a prolonged series of gags.

Ego is an interesting character (and well played by Russell), but the whole "I am your father" bit, as vital as it is to the story, does drag on a little. Again, Gunn is smart enough to pull us out of it and back to something more fun frequently, but it does weigh the film down in its second act.

Gunn's love of nostalgia, particularly classic sci-fi is again evident, and the film is funnier than most so-called comedies. Basically, if you loved the first film, you will love this one. It's only by comparison that Volume 2 becomes the cliched "difficult second album". Sure the first one will always be your favourite, but you know you'll grow to love this one almost as much.

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