Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

If Spider-Man and the X-Men aren’t doing so well at the box office, then what chance do Star-Lord and Rocket the talking raccoon have?

If there’s any justice in the world, plenty.

The latest cinematic iteration of the Marvel Comics universe focuses on a troupe of super-heroes who aren’t particularly super, and don’t have nearly the pop culture following of the web-slinger or Wolverine. Yet “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a lot more fun, and a helluva lot funnier, than most anything we’ve seen from the genre since… well, ever.

While other super-hero movies have had a sprinkling of humorous moments, this is more or less a straight-up comedy. There’s plenty of zingy action, but it plays second fiddle to the guffaws.

There have been several versions of the comic book group over the years, none of them particularly successful until recently. The movie, written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn, who also directed, changes things around further. The Guardians are now a vagabond quintet of misfits and thieves who stumble backward into heroism while trying to pawn off a mysterious orb they’ve stolen.

This is a mythology in which pink-skinned humanoids are in the minority. Most of the cast is either dolled up in elaborate makeup and prosthetics, or represented through computer-generated imagery. It makes for a rousing, colorful visual landscape.

Chris Pratt, best known for funnyman roles in TV and movies, is an unlikely but winning protagonist as Peter Quill, a human scamp who dubs himself Star-Lord, though he’s vexed when no one seems to have heard of his moniker. He was kidnapped from Earth by alien ravagers when he was a boy, and now tools around in a spaceship looking for adventure.

He doesn’t have any powers per se, though he carries an array of helpful gadgets, including boot rockets, a retractable helmet with red-eyed goggles, and twin stun guns. He’s also got a serious thing for 1980s culture, since that’s all he knows of Earth. He likes to pop in a cassette mix tape of tunes and boogie while he works.

I won’t bother trying to describe the plot, since it’s completely indecipherable, other than to say everybody wants the mysterious orb that Star-Lord absconds with in the opening minutes.

This brings together the Guardians, who all get captured and thrown into prison while fighting over the orb. While they put together a breakout plan, this allows us to get to know the rest of the team.

There’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-hued assassin who is looking to trade in her evil boss for greener pastures. And Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a muscle-bound dude with skin like lava, who seeks revenge for his murdered family.

Stranger yet is Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), a feisty humanoid raccoon with incredible engineering skills and a chip on his shoulder. (Think Joe Pesci with fur.) Even more fantastical is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like figure who accompanies Rocket as his pet/houseplant/bodyguard. He can grow his body into new shapes, but can only speak the same three words: “I am Groot.”

There are so many villains in this movie, every time you meet one when you think they’re the head scoundrel, only to reveal an even bigger baddie behind them. Djimon Hounsou shows up early, decked out in impressive black armor and blue contact lenses, but turns out he’s just the lackey of the lackey of the lackey.

Ronan (Lee Pace) seems to be at the center of things, a rebel Kree who wants to destroy the noble Nova, despite a treaty between their peoples. He’s currently indentured to Thanos, an all-powerful space king.

I also enjoyed Benicio del Toro as The Collector, an obsequious trader of exotics, and Yondu (Michael Rooker), a space pirate and father figure to Star-Lord. Indigo blue with a bone Mohawk, Yondu has a nifty trick: an arrow he carries around in a holster that goes anywhere (and through anything) at his whistle.

Come to think of it, most everyone in this movie has a nifty trick. Everything we encounter is special and has a backstory or hidden attributes that we can’t wait to discover. A dense, dizzying diaspora of originality, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the sort of film you need, and want, to see more than once to fully appreciate.

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