Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Following up Guardians of the Galaxy was always going to be a challenge, and the strange thing is that Vol. 2 is both better and yet not as good, though it’s at least just as hilarious.

Only a couple of months after the events of the first film, the alien supergroup led by human Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and ‘Baby’ Groot (Vin Diesel), bicker and argue while working for and then offending alien species. When Quill learns of the identity of his absent father, the team fractures and everyone questions themselves.

Directed and written by James Gunn, this follow-up is wisely set just after the first, meaning that while the sadly predictable overarching plot (after a given point) is a bit weak, their relatively-recent coming together creates those further ructions but also develops the characters. Every member confronts his or her own psychological or familial hang-ups, making for a surprisingly talky and emotional movie (in the sense that the characters are, not that the viewer is). My issue was that it didn’t feel like much of a progression, and the action – a big part of these films – is good, but wasn’t as creative as before.

Gunn utilises the large scale of Marvel’s comic book catalogue to bring in new races, famous individuals (to readers) and new locations, making the universe feel alien and fresh. Those worrying how this ties in to other movies: it’s actually surprisingly removed from the greater story with the Avengers. This self-contained plot has time to breath, but despite twists that come being dramatically interesting, they’re slightly predictable. What was surprising (and good) about it was how emotional a note it ends on, the focus appearing (quite nicely) to be on the team over the overarching saga.

Pratt continues to develop his career as a leading man hearthrob with a hilarious sense of timing and comedy, and it’s fitting that Guardians kicked him into the big-time, as here he gets a chance to act a little more and clown a little less. On the other hand, some of his clowning seems more forced, which is a shame knowing his aptitude for comedy and the character’s role in the first film, but he’s pretty good in the emotional scenes confronting his parentage and destiny.

Saldana is honestly robbed, really only serving as half love interest, half conscience, with the only interesting parts of her performance concerning Gamora’s bizarre and fractious relationship with sister Nebula. Hopefully in future the only female member of the team might have more interesting things to do than act as the “sensible” one. Karen Gillan’s slightly more fleshed-out role here is dramatically interesting (in relation to the sisterly issues), but beyond a couple of scenes of that she might otherwise not be in the film again. It appears here that the women in the Guardians saga are a little left behind.

The other three Guardians are the comic centrepiece, Bautista’s Drax the absolute standout. This musclebound nutjob is completely off the leash, with many of the film’s best lines, and always seems to appear when the emotion or drama is getting a bit much to let off steam with some ridiculous comment or statement. The ex-wrestler is so good at this, and his other notable appearances, such as Spectre and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, mean he might yet challenge Dwayne Johnson in future for the wrestler-turned-actor crown.

Cooper’s voicework for the angry, embittered, cynical Rocket is good, but again the character seems almost immature, his not-as-funny interactions defined more by an exploration of why he’s bitter and twisted. That this comes a little later in the film is a shame, as the character’s tortured sense of self makes it more interesting. Finally, Diesel’s heavily-adapted voice work (read: high-pitched) works perfectly in tandem with ‘Baby’ Groot, who stole the film judging by my audience. The cute little shrub is the sympathetic heart of the team and also the childishly hilarious heart of the movie, always nearby to generate more laughs (particularly in the deviously brilliant opening credits).

Michael Rooker not only gets more time as space pirate Yondu but also more to do, the actor’s gritty features adding nuance to the character’s surprising and at times touching journey. Kurt Russell continues his late-career renaissance as the human embodiment of the planet Ego, bringing his macho swagger and style to the movie and again offering more depth when the movie demands it, while a pre-credits scene de-ages him so frighteningly well I’d wager Marvel might start casting older actors just to change them into their younger selves!

A few other characters worth a mention include Elizabeth Debicki’s haughty and villainous Ayesha, who brings arrogant menace and anger to a secondary antagonist’s role; Sean Gunn (the director’s brother), as the loyal but stupid Ravager Kraglin; Pom Klementieff as the ditsy, innocent but impassioned Mantis (surely joining the Guardians in future); and – surprisingly – Sylvester Stallone, who honestly appears to be stunt casting, but whose character (upon further research) appears to have been chosen for the future, though he doesn’t make much of an impression (beyond the shock value of being Sylvester Stallone).

The score is largely forgettable from Tyler Bates, who rehashes his theme from the first movie, but this is largely down to the once-again excellent use of 70s and 80s music on Quill’s second ‘Awesome Mix’ cassette. This is again well chosen by Gunn, particularly with more well-known songs in shorter number and more random tracks utilised, so I’m not sure how big an impact they’ll make compared to the first film’s tracks. But it’s still one of the best parts of the films.

Marvel’s CGI as always is pretty good if a bit too glossy (probably because it’s trying to paint an alien universe rather than add realism to earthbound action), but the effects on Ego in particular are quite fantastically prog-rock. Practical and make-up effects meanwhile are fantastic – character make-up in particular for not only Drax and Gamora, but many of the alien species we encounter, is testament to the tangible power of make-up compared to a shoddy CGI paint-over.

To be honest, I’d have liked Vol. 2 a lot more if it had been a bit more out there. I guess you can’t achieve the successes of the first film again, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Just that I hope a Vol. 3 is a bit more weird and out-there!

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