GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Review: Space Jam
“#GuardiansOfTheGalaxy trailer was okay. Captain America still the superhero film to beat.”
“Completely agree. Key word ‘okay.'”
On April 5, having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier the night before, I posted to Twitter:
“Nice to [see] the #GuardiansoftheGalaxy trailer on the big screen. Still not wowed by it.”
And on May 19, after seeing another trailer, I tweeted:
“Yeah. Still not hooked on that feeling.” (The line is a reference to the song “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, which has become synonymous with this film.
Not one single promotion for this film – from that first trailer to the 17-minutes of “advance screening” footage that played on IMAX screens in early July (I passed on it) – impressed me. It’s not that I thought the promotions were bad, I simply thought they were uninteresting. This might night not sound good, but going into a film disinterested is sometimes the best way to go into it – you have no preconceived expectations.
The year is 1988 and a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) has just lost his mother to terminal illness. Distraught beyond words, the boy runs outside and, mysteriously, is abducted by an alien ship.
Fast-forward to present day outer-space and Quill (Chris Pratt) – aka Star-Lord – is a space pirate on a quest for an orb that will fetch him a lot of money. But no sooner does he have the orb, he finds himself the target of a bounty hunt. Space villain Ronan (Lee Pace) is after the orb on behalf of the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited) because of what it contains. Dispatched to fetch the orb from Quill is Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is sent in lieu of her half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Interested in the bounty for Quill are bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a raccoon and tree, respectively. The quartet ultimately wind up in prison together, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), who wants to kill Gamora because of what Thanos did to his family. They make at least a temporary peace and break out of jail, where the adventure is only beginning.
As a film, Guardians of the Galaxy is far superior to whatever it is the marketing people were trying to sell, but I understand now why they struggled. The film – despite all of the technical wizardry that its $170MM budget provides – relies heavily on character depth and the chemistry of its five main players (the Big Five). It’s hard to get all of that across in a 2-minute clip package, especially when so much attention was given to the film’s soundtrack. Sure, the dichotomy of seeing futuristic space action set to the tunes of Blue Swede or Norman Greenbaum (“Spirit In the Sky”) are fun, but they’re limited. This film offers more than that.
Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, does a remarkable job efficiently establishing and nicely developing our heroes, and he does so to the depth they need to be established. Because Quill is the de facto leader of the team and the centerpiece of the film, he gets the most attention, and his back story – set in 1988 and which opens the film – is Spielbergian in construct and execution. Gamora follows, with Drax and Rocket not far behind. Groot is the least developed character because, well, he’s a tree and doesn’t really need heavy treatment.
The characters are cleverly introduced to each other naturally band together despite believable conflicts (of which there were more than I expected). Their banter is well-paced, the humor is varying degrees of funny (there is a Jackson Pollock reference that is to die for), and none of their relationships ever suffer from cliché. Even Groot contributes to the laughs and shows a little pathos by the end. And if it’s action you are looking for, the Big Five provide all of it, with the best part coming from their exciting prison break.
Pratt is terrific in this role – a throwback to the action heroes of the ’80s (complete with abs), yet without the sticky cheese of catchphrases or excessive preening. He’s the lovechild of Indiana Jones and Die Hard‘s John McClane, with a little Han Solo and a little Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley in there too. This is clearly his franchise, and he is up to the task. Saldana delivers as expected, and wrestler-turned-actor Bautista hits his marks, says his (easy) lines, and brings the pain when the situation calls for it. Cooper, however, is a pleasant surprise. You might think a smart-mouthed CGI raccoon with some anger issues wouldn’t be much, but Cooper makes him into something memorable (and again proves he’s more than just a pretty-boy actor).
Yep. Everything about the Big Five hits on all cylinders from beginning to end.
If only the rest of the film had anything remotely close to this going for it.
As the saying goes, “You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” and for as much as Gunn does the former, he almost equally does the latter.
Any scene that doesn’t involve at least two of the Big Five brings the film to a grinding halt. The bad guys’ story of intergalactic double-crosses and higher political machinations is terribly overwrought, as is the dialogue that litters these scenes. This leaves Pace, Brolin, and Gillan little choice but to incessantly chew the scenery. Gillan is especially wasted here. As a lithe villainess with no hair and two-tone blue skin and coal-black eyes, she is ripe for the role of space femme fatale, but she’s more screamer than schemer.
On the side of the non-Big Five good guys, every punch line feels forced. As lawman Corpsman Day, John C. Reilly plays a space-bound version of his frat pack alter-ego. And lines like “What a bunch of a-holes,” delivered in thick snootiness by Peter Serafinowicz, have a sense of a wishful “Do you think it would be funny if …” instead of a confident “This is funny.” Even the reliable Michael Rooker, who plays something of an anti-hero, is given nothing more to work with than a blue-skinned version of his chippy Merle character from TV’s The Walking Dead. These moments – characters and lines and scenes – are a considerable detriment to a film that displays moments of greatness.
As for that soundtrack, while it’s great in terms of the songs it includes, it is a mixed bag when listened to in the context of the film; some of the songs feel out of place in the scenes where they are used. This improves as the movie progresses, but early on it’s quite awkward. When we are first introduced to present-day Quill, he’s listening (and singing and dancing) to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. It’s a great tune, but it is so out of place in the moment.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a good movie and worth seeing in the theater. But it is also part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that grand expanse of filmmaking that, until now, has only included The Avengers and its members’ solo films. Thanos is the connection here, and it will be interesting to see how it all ties together. But if Gunn and Marvel have plans to stand Quill and Company side-by-side with the likes of Tony Stark (Iron Man), Steve Rogers (Captain America), and Natasha Romanov (Black Widow), they’re going to need more than Chris Pratt’s abs and “ooga-chaka” to keep up.