GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Release Date: 31 July 2014 (UK)
Director: James Gunn
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Glenn Close
Screening Reviewed: London Press Screening
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
As the second phase of their ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ gears inexorably towards next summers’ behemoth-to-be, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the studio seems set on demonstrating it still has plenty of aces left up its sleeve and fresh fuel left in the can. Just as we seemed ready to begin slipping into a lacuna of comfortable (over?) familiarity with the Tony Starks and Thors of the cinematic Marveldom, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier had seemingly hit the creative apex of the ‘standalone yet part of the whole‘ formula they had been tweaking to nigh-perfection since the original Iron Man (I disregard Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk for reasons of taste) the seemingly indefatigable vim and invention of Marvel throws a very welcome curveball to proceedings in introducing us to Peter Quill a.k.a Starlord, and his fellow Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians is amongst the more distinctive and defined of the studios' output so far - a buoyant, raring adventure yarn with far more overt Sci-Fi trappings in comparison to the Superhero/Fantasy and even Political Thriller stylings of its MCU predecessors. It’s laced with the necessary humour and comedic underbelly that you’d expect from Marvel, but overall this is the kind of space-faring ensemble caper that, whilst confidently and charismatically directed by James Gunn, nonetheless clearly finds its genesis in the works of George Lucas, Luc Besson and even in places soupçons of Ridley Scott. That said, despite the fresh coat of paint and a myriad of fun and compelling new characters to endear our hearts (and wallets) to, this is quintessential Marvel fare through-and-through, and for all of the fun you will most definitely have with Guardians, some of the narrative tropes and beats, not to mention the films overall structure are a trifle formulaic and perfunctory.
Chris Pratt heads up the new merry band of Marvel misfits with supreme confidence and charm as intergalactic ruffian Quill, proving to be a superb lead around which the excess can flourish. On paper, Quill could too easily devolve into being an uninspired melting pot of Han Solo/Tony Stark idioms, quips and cliches, but Pratt is too engaging, likeable and on point with the more tongue-in-cheek nature of the film to allow this, proving to be a terrific lead and makes his ‘Star-Lord’ (self appointed title, of course) a very worthy addition to the studios’ line-up. Beginning as a wayfaring bounty hunter of sorts (treasure, mind, not heads), Quill finds himself swept along and embroiled in a wider galactic conflict when he happens upon a mysterious artefact that is being sought after by murderous alien warlord Ronan the Accuser (a nearly unrecognisable Lee Pace). Henchmen are dispatched, the set pieces ratchet up and complications inevitably ensue, with Quill ultimately finding himself the leader of an unlikely troupe of vigilantes that includes Zoe Saldana’s no-nonsense, green-skinned assassin Gamora, vengeful, brick s**t house warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a walking tree creature by the name of Groot (Vin Diesel) and the genetically engineered, wise-cracking Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper).
They’re a motley bunch to be sure, and yet the conviction of the cast and the film as a whole ensures it all works, with palpable chemistry between the group as a whole, no mean feat considering almost half of their rank are wholly CGI. There are broader strokes in play with some of the characters - we’ve seen the likes of the steely, battle-hardened Gamora before, for instance, and whilst Rocket will no doubt prove to be an audience favourite, particularly for the youngsters, he seems to be a graduate of the school of sass-mouthing comedy animal sidekicks which the likes of Disney have been churning out for decades. The mostly mute Groot, though seemingly a pointless shoehorning in of the name of an unrecognisable Vin Diesel (this is no Andy Serkis level of mo-cap work), is one of the cadres more enjoyable and unique characters, regularly endearing and inadvertently offering plenty of funny. Dave Bautista’s Drax, too, gets a number of laughs, mostly courtesy of his characters tendency to take everything literally (‘Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes would be too fast.’) though Batista is more adept at deadpan and asides than other times when some of his weightier dialogue comes across a trifle forced or heavy on the cheese.
As the Guardians’ adventures become increasingly more fraught and perilous, and we are thrust from one dazzling new Sci-Fi locale or conflict to the next, from the futuristic cityscape of Xandar to the grimy criminal hive of Knowhere, the film does threaten to over-busy itself in how it incorporates a number of elements pertaining to the wider Marvel mythos being established. There are links to sequences from previous end credit scenes in the likes of Avengers Assemble and Thor: The Dark World (no doubt prefacing their future appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron) and beyond that may come across as a little clunky and cumbersome for casual cinema-goers. Fans of the universe will lap them up, relishing at the chance to finally see Josh Brolin’s Thanos in all his glory, an extended cameo from Benicio Del Toro’s character ‘The Collector’ and some further information on the power of the infinity stones for instance, but it is a lot of narrative baggage for a film with such a light deftness of touch in its execution elsewhere. Thankfully, Gunn ensures the film is expertly paced, and just when it looks set to bog itself down in exposition, subplots and A-list cameos, we’re whipped into the next hijink or encounter.
In addition to being pretty perfectly paced, Gunn proves himself a consummate director of the Marvel approach, balancing the character work, tongue-in-cheek, almost satirical nature of the whole thing with some genuinely impressive and entertaining action and spectacle. He also imbues the whole thing with a confident style and flair of it’s own - from the myriad of rainbow character designs and alien prosthetic work through to the mixed tape soundtrack accompaniment that sees key sequences set to the likes of Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ and even Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. Gunn knows what he is going for and throws just enough quirk and distinction into the mix to keep things feeling fresh without ever resorting to base gimmickery. It’s a blessing too, as some of the film’s structure comes to autopilot on formula, particularly in the latter half... someone seriously needs to tell Marvel that you don’t have to have an aerial battle as your climactic set piece. It doesn’t help either that the film’s central villain Ronan seems a copy and paste job of Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith, who himself was already not a particularly compelling or memorable adversary in the first place.
Amongst the rest of the supporting cast, Glenn Close pops up to do her thing but is generally wasted as the bland, ministerial Nova Prime, Michael Rooker scene steals a-plenty and creates arguably the film’s most interesting and layered character and performance as bandit leader Yondu, Karen Gillan looks fantastic and gives both a good American twang and a fierce left hook as villainess lieutenant Nebula and John C. Reilly sporadically appears, almost playing himself as a flustered law enforcer character we are supposed to suddenly care about come the films denouement, but almost certainly don’t.
It almost goes without saying for Marvel that the film's visual effects are stunning, and aesthetically Guardians can sit comfortably up there with the finest the studio has offered. Thankfully, even in establishing an entire new slant to its existing mythology and a major new set of slightly more unorthodox central heroes, Marvel have once again made sure that for all it’s visceral thrills and impact, Guardians of the Galaxy meets them just as competently and considerately with its character work. It’s a curious dichotomy, for Guardians seems to represent in different ways both the studios most daring and individual endeavour of recent years, yet in others perhaps its safest and most formulaic. None of this, of course, is a bad thing given the core cast and filmmaking at its heart are so consummately entertaining, spirited and raucous, and before we slip back into the familiar plights of the Avengers, Guardians unabashedly offers up the perfect antithetical prelude and an incredibly confident first installment of what deserves to be another highly successful franchise of the Marvel Cinematic juggernaut.
Just, seriously... lay off the air battles.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
+ Great to see Marvel successfully introducing a whole new roster of characters to their universe
+ A consummate Sci-Fi action adventure treat
+ Satirical, distinctive edge
+ Chris Pratt is a terrific, charismatic lead
+ Looks and sounds stellar
+ Bombastically directed, fluently paced
- A little busy with exposition and subplot
- Ronan is a cookie-cutter Marvel villain
- Some of the studios' formulaic structuring rears it's head
Press access for this screening of Guardians of the Galaxy was provided by Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios UK. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.