The action-comedy genre has very few auteurs, despite being the easiest slam-dunk in the film industry. Off the top of my head, I can only name Martin Brest, early James Cameron (at least in the True Lies days), John Carpenter, and especially Jackie Chan and Edgar Wright. Perhaps the reason there are so few geniuses of the craft is because it is incredibly difficult to balance the tone of comedy and action-unlike horror and comedy, the build-up and climax fall on different beats. That’s what makes it not only so much more fun, but more impressive when it is done right. And based on James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, you can add his name to the list of masters of the craft.
It’s been a few years since the Guardians of the Galaxy saved the, erm, galaxy. Since then, they’ve been travelling about working as mercenaries, cracking wise and getting on each other’s nerves. When Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) goes rogue and steals valuable atomic batteries from a powerful government, the team finds themselves stranded on a deserted forest planet, alongside their prisoner, teammate Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). While there, they are confronted by Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial (the human form of a planet, just go with it) being that also happens to be team leader Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Soon the team is split up, with Rocket and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) guarding the ship and Gamora from the enemy government and the mutinous crew of Ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), while Peter, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) travel to Ego so Peter can reconnect with his father.
A great metaphor for this film is the soundtrack. As a whole, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 2” is not quite as strong as Vol. 1. The bar was just set so high in the original, you just can’t match the sheer joy that comes with it. However, certain songs used in the film are actually better than any use of music in the entire film. An early use of “Mr. Blue Sky” kicks the movie off on an incredibly high note, and this film’s “Hooked On A Feeling” is “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac (an incredible choice, because Mac are one of the greatest bands ever). A late use of “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens is tear-inducing (although that may be because of Stevens’ incredible voice). And then there’s the “Come A Little Bit Closer” sequence. I’m already a huge fan of the song, and the fact it is used to great effect in the film’s best action sequence is icing on the cake. That scene should be studied by anyone trying to be funny during an action sequence, and it may be my favorite scene of the entire year, in a way I’m not sure can be topped. And I haven’t even mentioned Sam Cooke yet. That’s sort of how the movie is as a whole: it doesn’t exactly match the magic of the original (a film that came in as the #8 best of 2014) but that doesn’t stop it from being a magical experience on its own, or keep sequences from standing on their own as being magical.
What’s nice about this film is how clear its vision is. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and it doesn’t let anyone or anything change that. The “f*ck you” spirit of the protagonists is mirrored in its creators. Despite pressures from Marvel and Disney to adhere to the norms of Marvel series (I assume), James Gunn continues to do his own thing, making his characters crass d*cks (I gave up counting the sexual jokes at the 30 minute mark) instead of likable do-gooders (not even Tony Stark would joke the way this lot does). Hell, they only do the right thing when they absolutely have to, even if they are all good at heart. Along the way, there’s a spirit of middle fingers all around. Howard the Duck is seen at a brothel. Stan Lee has a cameo that is a mockery of all of his other cameos. And the overall set design is a wonder to behold-there’s a lot of obvious CG in the film, most of which looks fine, but then there’s stuff that looks so real I have to assume it’s a something they lavishly built, like a golden hallway or an intergalactic pirate ship. Gunn knows what he’s doing, from the writing to the directing to the scenic design, and it all comes together in a gloriously dissident manner.
Another nice thing about this film is that there really isn’t a stereotypical “villain.” Oh, there’s definitely people that our heroes have to beat, but there’s no Ronan the Accuser that stands as a big super-powered being. Instead, it plays out much more like you’d expect from a team of intergalactic assh*les: there’s just a bunch of people that these antiheroes have pissed off along the way. As weird as it may sound, that’s what makes this film so refreshing. I can think of nothing more tedious than the frequent string of villains that Marvel has trotted out just to be quickly defeated, with weak reasons and even weaker plans, all leading up to a portal in the sky. Here, all that is tossed away for a “loudmouth vs. the world” outline. It’s a buck against tradition, and makes the film feel more like an adventure instead of a side mission.
In terms of the performances, there aren’t any that really change the game, but there’s also so many good ones I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’ll start by saying all of the Guardians are wonderful. I’m really loving what Cooper is doing as Rocket, and Pratt is really coming into his own as a movie star. Dave Bautista’s Drax is arguably the scene stealer of this movie-having learned sarcasm since the last film, Bautista’s Drax is now attempting to crack wise, and watching the former wrestler express these emotions is an absolute joy to watch. I’d love to see an action movie with him, The Rock, and John Cena, because it would be glorious. And while Saldana is the least interesting of the main characters, I don’t think that’s because she’s bad in the role. I just think that Gamora will be stunted in terms of recognition because she’s the straight man of the five, so to speak. Meanwhile, Russell is expertly cast as Peter’s father. They have two scenes together that are both well-shot and laced in irony, and it feels like the perfect passing of the torch, as Pratt’s personal brand of dumbass-but-handsome hero seems like the heir to Russell’s 80s protagonist who created the mold. But the two greatest stars of the film are Michael Rooker and Sean Gunn as a pair of Ravagers (essentially space pirates/Vikings). I pair these two together because they are similar in their careers, as well as extended roles. Gunn is the brother of the director, and saw his role expanded as Ravager First Mate Kraglin, and he brings all the quirky wonder to it that can be seen in his storied television career (imagine an alien Kirk from Gilmore Girls). As for Rooker, he has done everything under the sun, from the indie scene to The Walking Dead to Oliver Stone to Mississippi Burning. However, despite a wonderful, wonderful career, I’m not sure he’s ever been as cool or as sweet as he’s been here. Yondu is the film’s secret weapon, and I enjoyed every minute he was onscreen.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is a wonderful composition. It’s not quite as good as the original, but the best scenes outshine anything in the last film, or many action films in the past few years. The characters still feel fresh, the writing still sharp, and the execution still enjoyable. And above all, it is still capable of standing on its own, without knowledge of any activities from a certain group of Avengers on Earth. It is its own experience, living in its own wonderful world, and one you can appreciate as an individual entity instead of a series of nonsense.