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Saturday, August 2, 2014

DAMN Good Movies -- GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY



Yep, time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on the film Guardians of the Galaxy, based on the somewhat obscure Marvel Comics superteam.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...get ready for something good, something bad, a bit of both...

Just six years ago in 2008, if you can believe that, Marvel relaunched the comic book series Guardians of the Galaxy with an entirely new roster of antiheroes that spun out of the event storyline Annihilation: ConquestInstead of trying to update the original team of Vance Astro, Martinex, Charlie-27, Yondu, Starhawk and Nikki, writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning brought a bunch of D-list Marvel characters from various titles and eras together to face all matter of insane outer space adventures.  The 2008 series only lasted 25 issues before being cancelled due to low sales, but was fondly remembered by those precious few that actually bought the title every month and became something of a cult classic.

So imagine everyone's surprise when Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige first mentioned the idea of a Guardians film at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con.  It turned out that Nicole Perlman, a writer in Marvel's screenwriting program, was offered several little-known properties to base a film on and she chose Guardians of the Galaxy because of her interest in space and science fiction.  She spent two years working on the draft until director James Gunn was brought in to contribute, who ended up rewriting Perlman's entire script because he simply wasn't feeling it.

The film starts off in 1988, with a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) reluctantly facing the death of his mother.  After being given her final giftwrapped present and too afraid to take her frail hand, Peter watches her die and races out of the hospital in a fit of grief, only to be sucked up into a spaceship.  Jumping ahead twenty-six years, we learn that Peter has become an interstellar outlaw armed with his old Sony Walkman and an assortment of space-techy gadgets, glossing himself "Star-Lord" in the hopes of becoming the space version of Billy the Kid.  Peter is recruited to steal a mysterious orb from the planet Morag, which ultimately results in his imprisonment and meeting with the other Guardians -- Gamora, Drax. Rocket and Groot.

Peter's "Awesome Mix Vol. 1" cassette tape of classic rock and pop music from the seventies serves not only as the lingering tether to his mother's memory and the planet Earth, but also to give Gunn's movie a fun, irreverent tone that makes a bunch of weird aliens and spacey-wacey stuff accessible to the masses.  And with the extra emphasis on humor wthout turning the movie into an outright comedy, Guardians is an insane, wild ride filled with bantery dialogue to offset all those action scenes loaded with spiffy special effects.  Early assessments of the trailers hinted at "The next generation of Star Wars," but the film actually turned out to be the next generation of the television cult classic Farscape.

If there's any real criticism of Guardians, it's that James Gunn brings in too many elements from the Marvel Universe.  In addition to the Guardians themselves, you've got the Nova Corps, the floating Celestial head called Knowhere, one of the Elders of the Universe, the Kree, the upcoming Big Bad of Avengers 3 and his second daughter, one of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the six Infinity Gems and so on.  There's a lot going on here, and moviegoers who aren't experts in cosmic Marvel Comics characters may start wondering if they're watching the sci-fi version of The Hobbit.

Regardless, the film is a refreshing attempt from Marvel to add a new corner to their Cinematic Universe, one that doesn't solely rely on the standard formula of "Dude gets superpowers, pines after girl, fights some crime, gets attacked by supervillain, girl gets threatened by supervillain, and superhero saves the day."  It's not perfect, but now that the Unholy Masses Who Don't Read Comics have been properly introduced to a new bunch of strange, alien lifeforms, maybe the next trip through some distant part of the universe will be even better.

And thankfully, the film's cast give some great performances with a lot of entertaining character moments. Here are some of the things that stood out:

STAR-LORD/PETER JASON QUILL -- Chris Pratt reaches official movie star status, with his Star-Lord joining the ranks of Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, John Crichton and other beloved outer space rogues.  His television background from Parks and Recreation proved he already had solid comedic timing, but the physical development from doughy shleb to a heroic build deserves respect.  Now the question remains of whether we'll get to see Star-Lord's Spartax heritage explored along with his father J'son.

GAMORA -- Adding another great geek role to her acting repetoire, Zoe Saldana gets to kick far more ass than she could ever hope as Star Trek's Nyota Uhura.  As the adopted daughter of Thanos, Gamora is far from the typical Marvel damsel in distress and has a deep, rich background rife with potential in future movies.  And if you didn't enjoy Gamora's fight with her sister Nebula, there's some seriously wrong with you.

DRAX THE DESTROYER -- Apparently now the go-to guy if Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson says no, Dave Bautista gets to flex some comedic muscles as Drax.  I only have a passing familiarity with Drax from assorted Avengers and Silver Surfer comics, but I really enjoyed the way his fixation on literal thinking was used to humorous effect and the way he laughed with joy at the chaos during one space battle was worthy of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Worf.

ROCKET -- Bradley Cooper wouldn't have been my first choice to voice Rocket Raccoon, but the idea to give Rocket a New York tough guy accent was a fun one.  It was important to show that Rocket was more than just a pissed off space raccoon, so it was nice to see the partnership with Groot carried over from the comics.  Presuming we'll get to see the Avengers teaming up with the Guardians against Thanos in Avengers 3, you just know the meeting between Rocket and The Hulk is going to be absolute gold.

GROOT -- As anyone who bawled their eyes out in the climactic "Superman" scene at the end of The Iron Giant knows, Vin Diesel was a fantastic choice for the sentient tree known as Groot.  It would've been easy to turn Groot into a simple rehash of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, but the character's charming innocence certainly shined through in the scene where he smashes dozens of Ronan's goons then abruptly turns and beams a warm, lovable smile at the Guardians (and the audience).  Yes, we are Groot.

RONAN THE ACCUSER -- Lee Pace absolutely kills it every week as a cocky computer executive on AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, so it's interesting to see him in something so completely different here.  He gets to really ham it up as the movie's central villain, but the script doesn't really let him make his character into something truly special. 

YONDU UDONTA -- The decision to cast Michael Rooker as Yondu just reeks of watching him as Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead and thinking how great it would be to have Rooker as an alien.  Not that it was a bad thing mind you, but this take on Yondu bears little resemblance to the hunter from Centauri IV from the comics.

NEBULA -- Meanwhile, the decision to cast Doctor Who actress Karen Gillan as the cyborg daughter of Thanos showed that she has considerable range beyond Amy Pond.  With her head shaved bald and barely recognizable under blue makeup and dark contacts, Gillan crafts a formidable enemy for Gamora to fight, with hints that perhaps we haven't seen the last of her...

THE COLLECTOR/TANELEER TIVAN -- Benicio del Toro returns as The Collector after his mid-credits appearance at the end of Thor: The Dark World.  The Collector doesn't get to do a whole lot, but he does provide the necessary exposition explaining the importance of the Infinity Gems and teases the inevitable Infinity Gauntlet storyline in Avengers 3.

KORATH THE PURSUER -- After his role as Papa Midnite in the film Constantine, Djimon Hounsou returns to comic book movies as an intergalactic hunter for Ronan.  He gets a fun sequence with Star-Lord early on and a brief fight with Drax that results in his death, but that's pretty much it.

CORPSMAN RHOMANN DEY -- John C. Reilly provides the audience with some snarky background on the Guardians during a prison lineup, then quickly does a 180 and suggests the bunch of misfits are Xandar's only hope even though there's not much of a reason for him to do so. 

NOVA PRIME IRANI RAEL -- In the category of "I can't believe so-and-so is in this movie," we have Glenn Close as the leader of the Nova Corps.  Close gives the movie a bit more gravitas than it would've had otherwise, but essentially serves as the movie's version of Mon Mothma from Star Wars.

OBLIGATORY STAN LEE CAMEO -- Stan "The Man" turns up in a nonspeaking role as Xandarian ladies' man, who is promptly mocked by Rocket.  It's not his best cameo, but at 91, it's just good that he's still able to do them.

THE OTHER CAMEO -- Alexis Denisof returns as Thanos' space lackey The Other after his previous appearance at the end of The Avengers and is promptly killed by Ronan for irritating him.  I guess a simple "Shut up, Wesley" was out of the question?  (Bonus points if you got that double reference.)

THANOS CAMEOS -- Although Thanos is depicted in CGI once again, James Brolin debuts as the character's voice for the first time.  He gets the cool line of telling Ronan that he "will bathe the star ways in your blood" if he fails to retrieve Gamora and the orb, then later vows to kill Ronan after he's destroyed Xandar.  So he's a great motivational speaker.

COSMO CAMEO -- The dog Fred (not to be confused with Cletus Snow from Smokey and the Bandit's dog Fred) plays the canine cosmonaut Cosmo in the post-credits scene where he is shown licking The Collector's face in the middle of his destroyed archive.  Cosmo doesn't communicate telepathically as he does in the comics, but at least he made it into the film.


HOWARD THE DUCK CAMEO -- Finally back on the big screen after Lucasfilm's 1986 box office bomb, Steve Gerber's creation also turns up in the same post-credits scene as one of the freed exhibits.  Howard has a drink and mocks The Collector with Seth Green's voice.

All in all, Guardians of the Galaxy is the fun, sci-fi adventure we were hoping it would be, giving Marvel a wonderful and huge new playground for future movies.  The sequel was greenlit before the first movie debuted in the United States, arriving on July 28, 2017, so if you enjoyed this one, you have less than three years to get a second fix at the movies.  If nothing else, "Awesome Mix Vol. 2" should definitely be worth the wait...

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Man of Steel (2013)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

9. Iron Man (2008)
10. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
11. Watchmen (2009)
12. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
13. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
14. X-Men: First Class (2011)
15: The Wolverine (2013)
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

17. X2: X-Men United (2003)
18. X-Men (2000)
19. Thor (2011)
20. Batman (1989)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles


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