Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
Running time: 121 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
As I’m writing this review of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I have “Come and Get Your Love,” the bouncy 1974 pop tune by Redbone, stuck in my head. Actually, it’s been stuck in my head pretty much non-stop ever since I saw the movie earlier this week.
Chris Pratt’s character — a space scavenger who refers to himself as Star-Lord, although nobody else does — dances around and listens to the song on a decidedly low-tech Walkman while dressed in high-tech gear to search a cave for a mysterious object. The catchy chorus kicks in just as the title bursts across the screen in giant, vibrant yellow. It’s a joyous moment and an early indication of the irreverent, infectious vibe that makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” the cheekiest, wackiest blockbuster of the summer.
You don’t need to know anything about this Marvel property to enjoy it. The characters who make up this motley crew aren’t nearly as familiar as Iron Man or Captain America or the Hulk, but they’ve got a relatably flawed humanity to them — which is ironic, given that most of them aren’t even human in the first place. Director and co-writer James Gunn brings a giddiness and a wondrous, endless sense of why-the-hell-not? possibility that’s reminiscent of “Star Wars” — sorry, “Episode IV: A New Hope” — as well as some character similarities to match. But we’ll get to all that later.
Pratt stars as Peter Quill, an unflappably confident rogue and ladies’ man who bops from one job to the next, staying on his toes and staying out of trouble in a mixed-up future. As we see in the film’s dramatic start, he lost his mom to cancer when he was a kid and then promptly got sucked into space by a timely UFO. Now that he’s in his 30s, he’s a loner, a rebel — and his only tie to Earth is the mix tape of ’70s pop songs that serves as his own personal soundtrack to all his adventures. (And seriously, it’s an inspired combination of music, everything from The Runaways and David Bowie to 10cc and the Jackson 5. The choices are so not-obvious and they’re used so effectively, they’re a powerful part of the movie’s off-kilter charm.)
On his latest assignment, Quill takes possession of an orb whose value and power he can’t even begin to understand. (The moment in which he steals it is reminiscent of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is fitting given Quill’s enthusiasm for pop culture.) But it also makes him a target. People and creatures of various species also want this shiny, silvery ball for themselves. They include the exotic killing machine Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who looks as striking in green here as she did in blue in “Avatar”), adopted daughter of the evil Thanos who’s now working for the evil Ronan (Lee Pace); a talking, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket (voiced hilariously by a raw and raucous Bradley Cooper in a genius bit of casting); and his sidekick, a sweetly lumbering tree named Groot, who can say exactly three words: “I am Groot.” The running bit is that he says them with a variety of inflections and only Rocket can understand him. It sounds pretty simple but it works every time. Vin Diesel “plays” the tree, if you will — a gnarled shape-shifter that calls to mind the beautiful and frightening creatures that so often populate Guillermo Del Toro’s films.
When the four are thrown in jail together, they reluctantly realize they must team up if they’re to survive; their escape, which Rocket masterminds, is a doozy of timing and teamwork. Also joining them is the beefy and tatted fellow prisoner Drax the Destroyer (wrestling star Dave Bautista), who has his own agenda and must make his own sacrifices for the greater good. The running bit with him is that he takes everything everyone says extremely literally. Metaphors and idioms baffle him, and this innocence gives him an unexpected childlike quality, despite his fearsome appearance.
Also in the mix are the bounty hunter who abducted and trained Quill (Michael Rooker); the police official who’s on the hunt for this ragtag team (an underused John C. Reilly); and the military leader Nova Prime (an elegant Glenn Close). Benicio Del Toro appears dashingly, fleetingly as The Collector, who explains what exactly this orb is capable of doing. Things can get a little crowded in the screenplay from Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Similarly, the massive chases and battle sequences — and the ensuing destruction they cause — feel a bit overstuffed, a bit overlong. (A blasphemous thought to suggest restraint in a such a sci-fi epic, I realize.)
“Guardians of the Galaxy” works best in its detail and dialogue, and in the ways these disparate characters feel each other out, learn to abandon their mistrust and come together as a team. They’ve all suffered loss. They’ve all been mistreated. And as corny as it sounds, they all find a true family where they least expected it. This development isn’t nearly as mawkish as it sounds; Gunn, whose previous films include the subversive superhero flick “Super,” finds just the right balance between zaniness and sentiment. He keeps things light even while infusing them with heart.
And much of that comes from the top, from the leadership of Pratt, who’s having a tremendous year. Between this and “The Lego Movie,” in which he provides the voice of generic construction worker Emmet, another unlikely hero, Pratt stars in the two most flat-out fun films of 2014. Charismatic as hell, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and yet he’s totally in command when the moment calls for him to kick some ass. (He’s been to the gym since the last time you saw him with his shirt off, FYI.)
And if we can get back to that “Star Wars” comparison for a second: It’s not a perfect analogy, but this core foursome did remind me of those classic characters from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Quill’s got a lot of Han Solo in him but, as the group’s leader, he sort of functions as the Luke Skywalker figure. Gamora, the smart and rebellious daughter of aristocracy, is our de facto Princess Leia. Rocket is most assuredly Han Solo — globe-trotting, tough-talking and rough around the edges. And the hulking, well-intentioned Groot couldn’t be anyone but Chewbacca. There’s even a villain in a dark helmet (Ronan) who takes orders from the hologram vision of an even more established supervillian.
I can’t wait to find out what adventures they get into in their version of “The Empire Strikes Back.”