MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi Action/ Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell; Voices of: Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper/ Runtime: 136 minutes
Of all the movies that Marvel Studios has given us in their decade long existence I feel that Guardians of the Galaxy is to date one of the shiniest solo entry jewels in their crown. I say that because not only was the finished product a stunning film full of brilliant creative energy and spirit, but it also most certainly didn’t hurt that movie-goers found themselves falling in love with the Guardians of the Galaxy team which at its core proved to be nothing more than a group of ridiculous misfits who manage to find each other and become a dysfunctional family of sorts. The reason I bring this up to you is because its director James Gunn’s perfect understanding of this idea that has clearly helped mold Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Indeed here is a film which smartly scales down plot in favor of personality, and while the sequel doesn’t pack the full punch of the original, this is still a wonderful, beautiful, and incredibly moving follow-up that is just as richly dense in detail as well as a parade of thrilling and fun surprises as the first.
The plot is as follows: A couple of months after the end of the last film we see the team that is Peter Quill/ Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and young, innocent Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) are still working out the kinks in their newfound roles as galaxy savers. Unfortunately though it seems that their newest employer who happens to be an alien race known as The Sovereign aka Gold Man Group led by the whiny and extremely high-maintenance Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) simply does not have the patience (or tolerance) for their learning curve. Thus when one of the Guardians (surprise, surprise) steps out of line, the Guardians find themselves once again on the run from someone who just might want all of them dead and because Gold Man Group just happens to possess a large army, you would think that this spells big trouble for the titular team. However, after evading capture due to some mystery….person… and crash landing on an unknown planet, they discover that they have been assisted by an entity known as Ego (Kurt Russell). An entity who, in addition to being an incredibly powerful being whose true form is a living planet, also happens to be Peter’s father (gasp! Not like this wasn’t revealed at the end of one of the trailers or anything). So along with Ego and his odd, empathic assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Peter, Gamora and Drax decide to travel back to this mysterious entity’s home world so that way maybe Peter can have a chance to spend some time and catch up with his old man while Rocket and Baby Groot are left at the crashed ship to make repairs and to also watch over a recently-captured Nebula (Karen Gillan). It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler then to reveal that all of this turns out to be a challenge however as not only are things maybe not what they appear in the merry ol’ land of Ego, but it isn’t long before Gold Man Group leader Ayesha soon puts out a bounty on the Guardians, and Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his disgruntled merry band of Ravagers come a’calling to try and collect…..
Now despite being reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back in that both films make the choice to break up the main characters and only utilize a handful of settings (albeit while telling a complete story), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be simply structured with more than one plot narrative yet the narratives are actually properly harnessed to really get the most out of the entire fantastic ensemble. Indeed I feel that a huge part of this is the way in which James Gunn pairs each of his protagonists, as every single one of the groupings all have special ways of advancing their distinct and unique arcs be the relationships involved affable or hostile. For instance we see that while straddled with baby Groot, Rocket, through circumstances I shall not spoil here, finds himself paired with Yondu and both find themselves connecting as similarly broken individuals who make a regular habit of driving away all of the people they care about, Drax finds himself reconnecting with a distant part of himself that he thought long gone as he becomes an emotional mentor of sorts to the innocent and highly sheltered Mantis, Peter and Ego together try to make up for 30+ years of lost father-son bonding time as well as attempt to uncover answers to mysteries that have been presented to us as an audience before about Peter’s past and his capabilities, and finally we also get to more of the dark, disturbing history between the less-than-sister sister act that is Tia and Tamera Mowery ehhh Gamora and Nebula revealed to us. Indeed it is through these dynamic couplings that the sequel manages to accentuate the strengths of the established and new heroes and then move them forward in new and exciting ways in order to get the most out of every single character comedically, dramatically, and thematically.
Now effective as the smaller scale story is in accentuating character, however, there are some drawbacks of the approach that are sadly made apparent. For example while there is a certain desire to get a larger sense of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond the specific lives of the film’s heroes this is not something that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was built to provide outside of small snippets to the point that this really truly is one of the most self-contained stories in the entire MCU to date. Also because the movie’s story is taking place within a limited space with a limited number of players, there is sadly only a limited number, by default, of directions in which the movie’s overarching narrative can really go. Thus we sadly can see that the bigger shifts are being telegraphed in advance which sadly means that they don’t have the proper impact that they deserve which makes for a plot that feels incredibly basic. Now this certainly isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have a few twists up its sleeve because it does, but just trust me when I say that the creative energy this time around is much more apparent on the micro level of things rather than the macro.
Now once again the cast in this outing through space truly is nothing short of magnificent as we see the veteran cast from the first one step up their game to the next level and then grow in unexpected and quite wonderful ways. This of course starts with team leader Chris Pratt who manages to showcase a vulnerable and even one might say emotionally wounded side to his portrayal of Peter especially in his scenes with Kurt Russell’s Ego and Rooker’s Yondu, Zoe Saldana whose Gamora in this finds herself struggling to find a way to show her feelings towards her teammates, especially Peter, as well as reconnecting with her sister Nebula, and all the way to Bradley Cooper’s Rocket trying to figure out not only how to let the walls that surround him on the inside down but also how to be a team player and even be a decent guy who really cares about people but just pushes them away because deep down he doesn’t feel he deserves such goodness in his life. Yet out all of the returning cast the best arc and easily one of if not the funniest line in the entire movie by far, I feel anyway, belongs to Michael Rooker’s Yondu. This is because his arc in this movie is one of the most moving and most touching I have seen in a comic book movie yet. Indeed I feel that it also will have the effect for certain people, myself being one of those people, of honestly having you close to tears if not crying in your seat.
Now in addition to the veterans all delivering on all cylinders we have a few newbies enter the fray as well and they deliver just as well as the Marvel brand would have it. This of course starts with the national treasure that is Kurt Russell delivering a, typical for Kurt Russell, terrific performance in his portrayal of Ego that is much more layered and three dimensional than the trailers have so far let on. I also feel that relative newcomer, I say relative because she was in the 2013 Oldboy but the less said about that the better, Pom Klementieff also manages to bring a delightful blend of innocence and quirkiness to her role of the empath Mantis and who in one scene shows that she truly does fit in amongst this family of misfits. Now there is a certain A-Lister that you’ll notice I’ve mentioned in the cast list (hint: think Rocky and Rambo), but due to their most likely being at least one comic book fan amongst the people who read my reviews I will not spoil who this man plays. Instead I will only say that his presence here really does bode for some potentially exciting and enjoyable things to come for this side of the MCU.
Now although this film’s scope doesn’t including the cosmic width of the first movie, this film is still an intensely beautiful as well as aesthetically inventive, particularly in its use of color, piece of art to look at. Indeed by managing to mix together the comic book source material as well as the creative teams’ own designs, this is a film which is full to the brim of sci-fi magic which is on full display from the vibrant landscapes and odd shapes that’re featured on Ego’s planet all the way to the incredible designs that transform Pom Klementieff into the black-eyed, antenna’d Mantis as well as just how incredibly lifelike the CGI’d with a healthy dose of motion capture Rocket and Baby Groot look. Indeed they already looked amazing back in 2014, but it is absolutely astounding just how far we’ve managed to come in terms of animation technology in the 3 years since.
Of course, you can’t really discuss the aesthetics of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 without giving the proper attention to this movie’s soundtrack a.k.a. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 aka the second volume of 1970s pop hits that were collected by Peter’s mother and put on cassette tape. I bring this up because once again James Gunn and co have managed to make not only eclectic and enjoyable track choices with the music, but also have managed to make unique utilizations of the music within the film. Indeed there isn’t a single song that feels out of place contextually from Aliotta Hayes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” proving to make for great intergalactic traveling music to Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” proving to be disturbingly insightful especially when a humanoid alien played by Kurt Russell is explaining it to you all the way to Cat Stevens’ “Father And Son” popping up in an effort to underscore some serious emotions that come up near the end of the film. Indeed there truly is an excellent specificity to every single piece that is played in this film and above all they really truly make every scene they’re featured in the better for it.
All in all James Gunn effectively shut down every single critic who was complaining about cookie cutter comic book movies when Guardians of the Galaxy came out in 2014, and in the process, blasted the blockbuster world with a burst of fresh air that has effectively altered the industry in the years since. Indeed while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, due to sequelitis, was never going to have that full effect, the movie does still feel remarkably different while also being visually splendid, laugh out loud funny, and incredibly moving. Thus when you combine all of that with a terrific cast of returning players as well as new faces as well as with enough Easter eggs to make pop culture/comic fans giddy you get one heck of a good time at the movies. On a scale of 1-5 I give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a 4 out of 5.