REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
I fully appreciate why some people harbor reservations about the film, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
First of all, it is adapted from an updated iteration of a Marvel Comics story about a cadre of futuristic spaceventurers. For those with snobbish sensibilities, that’s enough to automatically dismiss any thought of seeing the film.
Secondly, after extensive screen testing of many other actors, Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role. Best known for his comedic turn on television’s “Parks and Recreation,” the zaftig funnyman seems like an unlikely star of an action film. The disastrous casting of Seth Rogen in “The Green Hornet” comes readily to mind.
Thirdly, the supporting cast includes two farfetched CGI characters. Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a genetically modified, hyper-intelligent furball. His sidekick/henchman, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), might be best described as a marginally sentient, ambulatory tree. No matter what is transpiring around him, he reflexively repeats the same terse phrase, consisting of exclusively monosyllabic words, “I am Groot!”
Fourthly, the team is rounded by two other unlikely characters. They aren’t CGI apparitions, but they might as well be. Gamora (Zoe Saldaña from “Avatar) is a green-skinned assassin. Hearing her name evokes the image of God’s wrathful destruction of the Old Testament town of Gomorrah. Drax the Destroyer (professional wrestler, Dave Bautista) is so hypermuscularized that it seems impossible that he could possibly be an actual human being.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” has all the earmarks of a late summer studio dump, which is designed to pander exclusively to comic book fanboys. Despite all the understandable grounds for reticence, I am here to tell you that this is one highly entertaining film.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” kicks off with an emotionally wrenching scene, which is atypical of the genre. A young school-aged boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is sitting in a hospital waiting room, circa 1988. He is summoned to the deathbed of his cancer-stricken mother (Laura Haddock). The wan dying figure provides her son with a love-filled farewell and a carefully wrapped gift.
Distraught by his mother’s passing, the boy runs outside. There, he is abducted by a band of Ravagers, space pirates under the leadership of Yondu (Michael Rooker). Peter is spirited away in the Ravagers’ giant spacecraft. Yondu more or less adopts the young orphan. However, Peter is ambivalent towards his surrogate father and throughout the film remains suspicious of his sincerity.
Fast forward 26 years into the future. Quill has become a salvage specialist and petty criminal, who has dubbed himself, Star-Lord. As he wanders the multiverse in pursuit of booty, he invariably carries a Walkman. As a reminder of his childhood on planet earth, he listens to mix tapes of his mother’s favorite ’80s pop tunes.
On a remote planet, Quill discovers a shiny, spherical artifact. However, before Quill can depart with his new acquisition, he is intercepted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) an underling of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As head of the Kree, Ronan is the film’s chief villain. Consumed with hatred, Ronan wants to violate the prevailing peace treaty and annihilate the inhabitants of the planet, Xandara. Obtaining the orb will somehow inexplicably advance this objective.
Ronan forms an alliance with Thanos (Josh Brolin), another megalomaniacal warlord. Eager to curry favor with his new ally, Thanos dispatches his adopted daughter, Gamora, to appropriate the orb from Quill on behalf of Ronan.
It turns out that Yondu, the bounty hunting tandem of Rocket the Raccoon and Groot, as well as an enigmatic figure known as The Collector (Benicio del Toro) also covet the elusive object. The struggle for the orb is what propels the film’s narrative.
In a brilliantly choreographed early vignette, we see Quill, Gamora, and the duo of Rocket and Groot fight for possession of the orb. Later, Drax shows up. He is intent upon killing Gamora for her father’s alliance with Ronan. The malevolent Ronan had murdered Drax’s wife and daughter. Now, Drax is intent upon obtaining vengeance. Despite their initial animus towards one another, the quintet forge an uneasy alliance against Ronan.
The casting here is spot on. Despite what you may have expected, a slimmed-down Chris Pratt is perfect in the lead role. He creates the film’s pervasively snarky tone, while being credible as an off-beat action hero.
Who would have thought that Bradley Cooper’s conventionally handsome visage would be wasted in a predominantly live action film as the voice of a CGI Procyon? Yet, he delivers his many sardonic remarks with requisite glibness. This generates an interesting synergy with Pratt’s jocular line readings.
The verbal dexterity of Quill and Rocket contrasts with the intellectually challenged character of Groot and the literalism of Drax the Destroyer. The resonance of Vin Diesel’s gruff, bass voice somehow turns an anthropomorphized tree with humanoid facial features into a menacing figure. In his role of Drax the Destroyer, WWE veteran, Bautista, deadpans as a character, who has no capacity for grasping metaphors.
As the shapely, distaff member of the team, Zoe Saldaña is the perpetual object of the male gaze. However, she exudes a strong sense of feminist autonomy at all times. You won’t catch her vamping for male attention.
Michael Rooker imbues his distinctive character of Yondu with all sorts of interesting vocal inflections and mannerisms. His ever vacillating relationship with Quill is a hoot. Even a quaternary character, The Broker, is vividly drawn with Christopher Fairbank embodying the snootiness of a high end pawn shop operator.
Some will cavil that Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Djimon Hansou, and John C. Reilly are all underutilized in this film. No matter-the film’s less acclaimed actors do just fine without much help from them.
Parenthetically, you may recall that Bradley Cooper’s love interest in “The Words” was Zoe Saldaña. The tabloids were awash with lurid accounts of their off-screen romance. It is worth a chuckle to consider that Bradley, who was identified by “People Magazine” as the Sexiest Man Alive is now cast as a wise-cracking raccoon. Meanwhile, Saldaña portrays yet another alien with an unusually colored complexion. I can assure the apprehensive that “Guardians of the Galaxy” does not include any romantic interludes between Rocket and Gamora.
Using the graphic novel by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning as a template, James Gunn and Nicole Perlman have delivered a top-notch screenplay. Although this is an action film, the script has exceptionally clever dialogue, high narrative density, surprisingly well-developed characters, and interesting interpersonal dynamics.
In his role as director, Gunn maintains the crisp pace of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Gunn has tried to use practical effects, rather than CGI, whenever possible. This confers a certain hard-earned sense of verisimilitude despite the presence of extensive CGI.
Gunn does a superb job of mounting a litany of action-filled scenes. Look for an eye-popping scene in which Yondou unleashes his whistle-sized airborne weapon. A scene, featuring Drax the Destroyer battling it out against Ronan, is yet another exhilarating pugilistic confrontation.
The cinematography by Ben Davis and production design by Charles Woods enhance the visual flair of the film. The score by Tyler Bates has musical swells at all the right moments. These are adroitly complemented by a soundtrack, chock full of zippy tunes from before the turn of the century. Don’t leave early or you’ll miss the hilarious addendum of a tree fragment dancing to a much-beloved Michael Jackson hit.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” rivals “The Avengers” as the greatest film ever made, which consists of comic book characters. Both films feature a combination of laugh out loud humor with an incredible array of action. With a subtext of orphanhood, “Guardians of the Galaxy” introduces an additional soupcon of poignancy.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” has all the elements of a fun-filled summer blockbuster. Do yourself a favor — don’t allow an elitist aversion to films with a comic book pedigree deter you from seeing it.
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
**** PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language) 121 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.