Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate," he said, to which the dashing rogue replied, slowly, "What's that make us?"


Probably the most fun you'll have in a movie theater this summer—at least, as long as it's trying to be fun.  But then, there are those other parts.

Written and directed by James Gunn
With Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper & Sean Gunn (Rocket), Vin Diesel (Groot), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), and Kurt Russell (Ego)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I bet if you just crudely averaged it all out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is actually better than the movie that preceded it—it has the advantage of having already gotten the band together, it sees its sprawling ensemble having settled extremely well into their characters, it's just plain weirder, and, hell, it's somehow funnier, too.  Again, though—that's on average.  And sometimes it's a shame that movies can't actually be evaluated purely by way of their mean quality.

All it really needs, however, is a new cut—one that removed a scene or three, amounting to maybe thirty lines of dialogue, at most—and I'd be happy to call it just about perfect.  Perhaps they'll offer such a thing on home video; instead of a "Director's Cut," Disney could call it Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: The De-Lamed Edition.  Or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: The Cut That Doesn't Make You Resent It.

And while it's surely an accident, Vol. 2 could not be better designed on purpose to make you resent it—"resentment" being the best word I can think of to describe the curious feeling of genuinely loving something while also being constantly confronted with its least lovable traits.  In Vol. 2's case, its least lovable trait is James Gunn's pathological desperation to try to make you feel feelings (especially about that ancient obsession of screenwriters everywhere, bad fathers), which he pursues in the clumsiest, most asinine way he could, in the process coming off like the Anti-Spielberg, or maybe just the Regular Lucas—though if you told me Vol. 2 was, in fact, intended to be a parody of the dad-themes of Empire and Jedi, while I can't say it would make me like it more, it might make it seem ever-so-slightly less misguided.

Our writer-director earned the sole screenwriting credit this time, in what I believe is the only time that's happened with a Marvel film (though surely nobody could be dumb enough to believe he truly wrote it alone).  On paper, of course, it looks like Gunn's given himself a plot that should arrive at all the squishy places he wants to go.  So let's pick back up with Peter "Starlord" Quill, along with the rest of the gallant crew of the spaceship whose name I don't remember (it should probably be admitted that spaceships, per se, are not the strongest suit of this space opera).  Presently, we find those so-called Guardians of the Galaxy (a mouthful of a name, uttered far too often in the film itself, which is to say "more than never") on a mission for the Sovereigns, a race of golden, genetically-engineered snobs who probably could defeat the interdimensional beast that keeps attacking their power station on their own, but would strongly prefer to risk less valuable people's necks (like our heroes') instead.

Unsurprisingly, the Guardians quickly get on their bad side, and wind up fleeing with their payment, which turns out to be a person, rather than a bag full of quatloos, namely the previous film's demi-villain, and Gamora's estranged sister, Nebula.  And so the purple lady who wants to kill the green lady is around when the ship gets shot down by the Sovereigns over an uninhabited planet, though not before the Sovereign squadron is destroyed in one fell swoop by the mysterious star-rider who's been following them.  His name is Ego, and it explains a lot about Starlord's vaguely-defined cosmic powers when Ego reveals that he's the Celestial who came to Earth and sired the heroic man-child thirty-odd years ago.  Ego welcomes his son, and his son's silly pals, to his planet—which, in fact, is also Ego.  (If you're a longtime comic reader, you knew this already, but were also anxious that they were just going to make Ego some generic astral god; however, Vol. 2, whatever other faults it has, certainly isn't a failure in its concepts.)

In the meantime, they get acquainted with Ego's handmaid (and Steve Englehart's fictional wife), Mantis, who spends Vol. 2's middle act constantly on the edge of blurting out Ego's Dark Secret, the broad shape of which ought to be extremely obvious to anyone who's ever been exposed to a story before.  Further afield, the space pirates led by Starlord's adoptive (and more overtly-abusive) dad, Yondu, have been contracted by the Sovereigns to acquire the fugitive Guardians.  But the fissures within Yondu's unruly band are close to cracking, and there'll be more than one reversal by the time Yondu winds up falling into alignment with the folks he was sent to catch.

And then we can have a giant wearying battle in the sky (or in a cavern so big it has a sky, anyway) wherein everyone gets something to do.  Hooray!

For all its great many moving parts, it's practically the opposite of complex; the main thing is the gravitational pull Starlord feels toward Ego, and the possibility that it's only alongside his heavenly father that Peter Quill can, not to put too fine a point on it, fulfill his destiny.  Every other conflict tends to either be directly related to this, or mirrors it, and this is therefore a movie about family—which ought to be fine, since the first one was too, but Vol. 2 is a movie about family to the point of madness, with nearly every single emotional beat of the film so over-enunciated that you almost wonder if Vin Diesel, in addition to sort-of voicing the reborn Groot, was also the secret co-writer who kept copy-and-pasting whole chunks of dialogue from rejected drafts for his own tediuously-earnest Fast and Furious franchise.  It's bizarre, anyway, that this sequel came from the same man who actually did manage to get us to believe in the Guardians as a real family three years ago—and with scarcely more than those three little words, "We are Groot."

Doubtless, it would help if Ego's offer to his son represented so much as the mildest kind of narratively-plausible choice; it would help even more, if Gunn didn't stop his movie dead every five minutes in its final hour for yet another soliloquy, wherein Gunn decides the old writer's maxim, "show, don't tell," actually means "show, then tell, at extreme length and in interminable detail," evidently without realizing that his characters' actions would speak quite a bit more loudly if only they weren't accompanied by so many fucking words.

But it would help the most, I think, if those soliloquies didn't have an awful tendency to come from the mouths of the characters who least ought to be giving them: if you enjoyed Yondu in Guardians—hell, even if you found yourself enjoying Yondu for the very first time here, like I did—it's impossible to understand why Gunn thought it would be a great idea to emasculate him; one is at even more of a loss to understand why Rocket, the poor dear, had to be emasculated twice, since they already gave our favorite cyborg racoon a featured crybaby freakout back in the middle of his first movie; and, as for most of the interactions between Nebula and Gamora which also involve lines of dialogue, well, perhaps the less said the better.

In space, no cool villain is done until they've become a boring antihero.

More's the pity, since half the charm of Vol. 2, like Guardians before it, is that everyone is an a-hole; and, mostly, that is still the case here, albeit in more superficial ways.  Luckily, some escape getting doused by Gunn's runaway schmaltz hose.  Above all, there's Drax—probably the best thing about the first film, he's unequivocally the best thing about this one.  (Though it must be observed: somewhere between the two movies they completely dropped his inability to understand metaphors, deciding instead he was just another loudmouth idiot with no filter.)

Still, you can't complain when Dave Bautista is this good.  His interactions with the newcomers are each and every one the comedic highlights of the film—especially the exchange to Ego that begins, "What about the penis?", which winds up capturing weird alien sex jokes in the same place where this film put just about its only piece of actual science fiction, and it is just outrageously glorious.  Pom Klementieff (playing the retiring, wimpy Mantis) even winds up giving this sequel's next-best performance, by virtue of being the indispensably-mushy target for absorbing all of Drax's best blithely-horrific insults.  Yet even as funny as they are together, it's entirely possible that this film's very funniest lines are nothing more (though, note carefully, nothing less) than Bautista just roaring with laughter in his co-stars' faces.  And, for what it's worth, Drax and Mantis get the only moments of sentiment that completely work, too.  Truly was Vol. 2 blessed to have them.

Obviously enough, outside of all that mawkishness, Vol. 2 is almost entirely a pure comedy (it is, indisputably, the closest we're ever going to get to Spaceballs 2: The Search For More Money); that's one reason it's such a good thing that it's been kept at arm's length from the dramas-with-quips that make up the rest of Marvel's Cinematic Universe.  (How The Infinity War duology is going to bridge the gap between the rest of the MCU and the reality-bending sight gags—even the outright fourth-wall-breaking—of the Guardians' infra-franchise is doubtless one of the more insoluble problems presently facing the Russo Bros.)  In the context of this abiding comedy, of course, Gunn's abject lack of deftness or subtlety jars all the more in the moments when Vol. 2 turns "serious"; but, give or take a single lousy running gag that fails a half-dozen times over, by assuming the name "Taserface" is inherently funny (it is not), that same abject lack of deftness and subtlety tends to work really, really well when Vol. 2 is content to be its best self.  And its best self is a cleverly-stupid slapstick lark, only one that happens to take place deep inside the painting on the side of some stoner's van.

And what a painting it is: aside from being a better comedy than the first, Vol. 2 also represents something that shouldn't be at all possible—an even fuller-fledged embrace of the gaudiest, goofiest, dorkiest aspects of comic book science fiction, capturing in one cinematic adaptation all kinds of 70s-style strangenesses, from Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin, naturally, all the way to European influences(Sure, it seems disingenuous to say it out loud, given how much both franchises inform both Guardians films, but Scott Chambliss' production design grants Vol. 2 the look of a space opera made in an alternate universe where Star Wars didn't have sequels, only knock-offs, and Star Trek never got movies at all—that is, where the genre evolved on an entirely parallel track, beginning with the campiest efforts of the Laser Age of Sci-Fi, and continuing right into our modern era of $250 million budgets.  It is not sui generis, really—everything here has some kind of precursor—but it's so out-of-the-ordinary in a 2010s blockbuster that you wind up having to reach for a way to properly describe it.)

So, altogether, it's wonderful, eye-searing excess—aliens in a thousand hues of head-to-toe makeup, planets so close together they'd already be smashing one another to pieces, even giant space brains that build whole worlds to serve as their bodies.  It reaches the point that sometimes the CGI can't even keep up, although God knows this is by far the most endearing of Vol. 2's sins.  The worst you can say about it is that it doesn't live up to the full potential inherent to a conflict between a living planet and his son, who could, one imagines, also have become a living planet in the climax.  (Personally, I think we needed to see two planets fight each other; imagine my disappointment!)  But even without this final kick to the occipital lobe, the universe which Vol. 2 posits is already so damnably, adorably absurd that it would almost have to wind up a comedy, whether it chose to be one or not; and I mean this in the best possible way.

Meanwhile, Gunn's arranged marriage of cheeky classic rock with cosmic frivolity is clearly still an ecstatically happy one.  Sure, he's still more-or-less doing the Top 40 of two generations past—"obscure," Gunn's inclusions are not, and it's just astonishing to me that neither Guardians film saw fit to serve as a vehicle for the long-delayed resurrection of Jobriath into the pop cultural consciousness (but then, how they avoided a retrowave-style original score is likewise beyond me)—but even the most obvious choices Gunn makes are still obvious in mostly pleasant ways (e.g., George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" when the band arrives upon Ego's Living Planet).  Indeed, the second-best musical number of the film revolves around precisely that kind of obvious choice (it's ELO's overplayed "Mr. Blue Sky"); but it works so surpassingly well, paired with an opening credits "action sequence" that decides that the most interesting thing for the camera to fix upon is Baby Groot (and not the giant monster in a mostly out-of-focus background), serving to remind you of just how wonderfully unserious these movies are.  It doesn't prepare you in the slightest for the nauseating swerves into overdetermined sentiment yet to come; but don't blame it.  (Rather, if we must blame it for anything, let's blame it for the nonsensical, scowl-inducing callback joke that mars its diamond perfection; especially since it's Drax's only sour moment, too.)

The first best musical number of the film, though—that proves that Gunn's ability to combine fun, vaguely-evocative classic rock with hypnotic imagery has objectively improved.  No film that has this sequence, wherein Gunn pairs Jay and the Americans' 1964 hit "Come a Little Bit Closer" with something as frankly laughable as Yondu's whistle-controlled magic arrow, and somehow turns it into the single coolest and most beautiful action scene of the year so far—perhaps only not the "most conceptually-innovative" because, hey, John Wick: Chapter 2—well, such a film could never be simply dismissed, no matter how many other mistakes it makes.

And it does, after all, make a lot.  But what Vol. 2 does well, it does so well, that no matter how much you're compelled to grouse about it afterward, you know deep down that you'll have forgiven it in just a few short months—that is, by the time you're plunking down the twenty bucks or so to own it for yourself.

Score:  7/10

P.S.: Adam Warlock!


  1. I think the only possible feelings to have about GUARDIANS 2 are "mixed," but dang. That Come a Little Bit Closer scene. And Pom Klementieff is a damn revelation.

    But that dialogue is just clunky as all hell. Any time we had to sit down and chew on that "family" theme was just unbearable. The second time I saw it (yeah, I've already seen it twice, so I guess there's no point grousing too much), I discovered the true purpose these moments: convenient bathroom breaks between Drax scenes.

    1. Honestly, if you told me that Drax and Mantis were actually Gunn's least favorite, I'd believe you. It's perverse enough to be true: instead of writing giant block paragraphs of dialogue about how Drax has the sads, Gunn just takes the easy way out and trains a camera on a Dave Bautista who looks sad.

      Shockingly, it actually worked. Why, it's almost like less can be more sometimes.

      Anyway, I'd never heard of Pom Klementieff before this movie, but she really is pretty great, the poor ugly monster. (Thought experiment: does the "Taserface" joke actually work significantly better if he'd been named "Pom Klementieff"? Discuss.)

    2. Oh boy, that "Taserface" joke. Not only is it that joke older than a celestial, since when have these space people heard of a taser? That joke felt very Earthbound to me, if you can call it a joke in the first place.