'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana
3 (out of 5) Globes
By sheer dint of taking place in space and featuring among its lead heroes a talking tree, Marvel’s new “Guardians of the Galaxy” oozes originality and freshness. The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has gotten a bit same-y these last couple outings. (Was it “The Avengers” or “Thor 2” that featured aliens trying to destroy the Earth? Or was it both?) “Galaxy” shakes up the template. It favors jokes and general weirdness over heroism and action, and it’s less indebted to “Star Wars” than the cheap, junky “Star Wars” knock-offs that followed in its wake. Only instead of “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone” or “Ice Pirates,” this one has chops (and money).
Of course, this is still Marvel, and the filmmakers remain on a tight leash. It’s another origin story, telling how the central five rogues — none who could carry a film on their own but function beautifully when mashed together — came to be. It starts in the brooding groove of most modern comics movies: lone earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is introduced as a kid watching his cancer-ridden mother on her deathbed. But “Galaxy” will largely forget — almost entirely for the good — about his pain, having him jet through space while rocking out to comforting oldies on a walkman.
Peter soon happens upon his future gang. Gamora is the token ass-kicking female, played by seasoned nerd-film hottie Zoe Saldana (painted green this time rather than blue). Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is an angry talking raccoon who likes guns. His partner is Groot, a nice, sentient tree voiced by Vin Diesel, who has an even more limited vocabulary than he did in “The Iron Giant.” (He can only say “My name is Groot.”) Eventually they wind up in jail, which they escape with help from fifth wheel Drax the Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), a colossus whose real shtick is that he takes everything literally and does not get metaphors, jokes, irony, etc.
As origin stories go, this one’s pretty spirited. There’s a knockabout version of the meet-cute, in which our heroes smack each other around, plus a nifty prison break. The director is James Gunn, who comes from the indie genre world. (He made “Slither” and the dark/sly “Super.”) He spices things up by bringing some of his colorful regulars (notably Michael Rooker, as a blue alien), plus some comedic regulars (John C. Reilly, Peter Serafinowicz). For a $175 million corporate product, it feels more handmade than it should be — lighthearted, sometimes nasty and always dirty and cluttered.
But it’s still a corporate product, and much as it messes with tradition, it still has to squeeze in a boring villain (another blue alien, Lee Pace, who, yawn, wants to take over the world or something), another round of admittedly endearing dork terminology (“Bring me the orb and you can destroy Zandor!”) and an endless, noisy climax with little of the wit that preceded it.
Personality puts up a good fight, though. Our heroes are a mixed bag, but only Saldana isn’t allowed to be funny. (Though her brand of weariness can be good for laughs too.) The battle for comic supremacy is handily won, surprisingly, by Bautista’s Drax. Rocket is a bit of a bust; he’s obnoxious and Cooper sounds like he’s doing his best Denis Leary (and sometimes Gilbert Gottfried). Drax is a one-joke character — he’s endearingly oblivious to humor and that’s it — but it’s a joke that always works, as does Bautista’s childlike seriousness. Groot too kills with one joke, while a buffed-up Pratt somehow manages to find a balance between goofball boyishness and believable heroics. They all help ensure that “Guardians of the Galaxy”’s quality isn’t merely relative.
Important note: There’s only one post-credits sequence, and it’s immediately after the closing shot. Once it’s over you can go back to living your life.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge