Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Glenn Close
Marvel have pretty much got the superhero thing figured out. Each new release is now so eagerly anticipated that they're going to make their money back on the opening weekend. Some studios would take their foot off the gas pedal in that situation, consolidate and play it safe. But instead Marvel have decided to push the boundaries. Which is why several times over the past month I have been to see a film with two principal characters that are a talking raccoon with a weapons fetish and his sidekick, a talking tree. And I enjoyed it hugely.
I think it's unlikely that a divorced, fifty-something British guy is going to be the target demographic for director James Gunn's vision, but by golly it felt like it. As soon as the film opened and the strains of 10cc's classic song "I'm Not In Love" filled the theatre, I was sucked in. The music is coming from a Walkman worn by the film's hero Peter Quill as he waits in the hospital where his mother is dying. Yeah: the pre-credits sequence is pretty much equal in emotional intensity to the first ten minutes of Pixar's UP - it hits you hard, particularly if you're someone who has lost a parent. Young Peter can't deal with it, so he runs out of the hospital - and is immediately hoovered up by a giant spacecraft. Cut to the present day, and Peter has become "Star Lord" - a thief, an outlaw, and a renegade who steers the fine line between being a loveable rogue and not being too much of a dick with considerable finesse. Again, it's music that introduces us to grown-up Peter, as "Come and Get Your Love" by Redbone plays on his Walkman (his only cassette is, amazingly, still functioning perfectly) while he dances his way into an abandoned city to steal the film's MacGuffin. As he does so, he grabs a small monster that he then mimes with (although it comes and goes as the editing and the choreography don't always agree) as the song plays on. Describing the sequence like this sounds ludicrous, and it is ludicrous, but we are deep into the universe as seen though the filter of comics. Through such a filter, panache and exhuberance take precedent and the scene doesn't feel forced, or untoward, or silly. Far from it; it's just huge, huge fun.
And Gunn maintains that sense of exhuberant fun for 121 minutes. His touch is light and deft and accomplished and the film flashes past in what seems like much less than two hours. This movie completely delivers the world of the comic books I read as a child. Gunn gets the wider Marvel universe. It's brash and cosmic and technicolour and the colour palette will have you salivating.
Things really start to kick off when Star Lord tries to offload his booty to The Broker (nice to see Christopher Fairbank back in an SF role again, even if he's barely recognisable under his prosthetics). Because someone else wants the MacGuffin, and as it's genocidal loon Ronan (played by the Elvenking himself, Lee Pace) the Broker very wisely decides to back out of the deal. Things go from bad to worse for Mr Quill, as he has now attracted the attentions of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the mad god of death himself, Thanos (and wow - seeing Jim Starlin's most batshit crazy character on screen in all his glory is totally worth the price of a ticket all by itself.) He's also been spotted by a couple of bounty hunters - the almost perpetually exasperated Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and ambulant tree Groot (Vin Diesel). Not for one moment did I find myself marvelling at the CGI wizardry or at Cooper and Diesel's mo-cap performances. My suspension of disbelief was total. I was completely invested in them as characters. After a huge and entertaining fight, the motley assortment of characters are arrested (with Rocket muttering "fascists!" as they're scooped up by the police). They are all carted off to prison, where they encounter the final member of the Guardians, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Drax has a problem with metaphors: "Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it." and he's been getting a lot of love over the past couple of weeks from autism awareness campaigners. Rightly so - he's one heck of a role model for an autistic kid to look up to (well, apart from his use of the word "whore" at one point, which prompted not just discomfort, but disbelief; it's the film's single "WTF?" misstep). Aside from that, though, Bautista is a revelation - as a wrestler he's well suited to the brutal physicality of the character but he also delivers a well-judged, likeable and nuanced performance in the film's quieter moments.
The idea of a team of heroes who can't stand each other is nothing new, of course, but it plays out here with a hefty dose of self-knowledge. The climactic slow-motion entrance of the team (a shout out to a similar scene in Armageddon) features Star-Lord picking his nose, Rocket adjusting the crotch of his jumpsuit, and Gamora yawning her head off. This team don't trust each other and the bickering is a delight. Rocket's line of "why d'you have to suck the fun out of everything?" got the biggest audience reaction of the film every time I've seen it. And Rocket's observation "Look at us all. In a circle. Standing up," in the scene where they all finally bond together (as you knew they would) serves to underline the nature of the characters rather than mocking them.
Needless to say the Guardians don't remain in prison long - and after The Collector (Benicio del Toro) shows them exactly what the MacGuffin that Star Lord stole can do, and they promptly lose it to Ronan, who wants it for himself, the film ratchets things up to another level. Things become even more complicated when Yondu (Michael Rooker), who kidnapped Peter in the first place, turns up looking for the MacGuffin as well. As he wields an arrow that appears to be capable of taking down pretty much anything up to and including fighter aircraft, things get very interesting indeed and you're never entirely sure who is on whose side.
There are plenty of familiar faces to help things along; Glenn Close plays the boss of the Nova Corps Nova Prime totally straight, which is exactly how it should be, allowing John C Reilly to brighten the mood with the occasional witty observation and/or dick joke. Peter Serafinowicz gets some great lines as Denarian Saal, particularly his reaction when encountering the Guardians for the first time: "What a bunch of a-holes..." and when defending Nova Prime from Ronan's fleet: "I can't believe I'm taking orders from a hamster." Karen Gillan copes well with a script that leaves her almost nothing to do other than kick ass and boss Ronan's minions about, but as she escapes during the big battle to fight again another day I hope she'll be put to better use next time. Make sure that you stick around after the credits for the appearance of one Marvel superhero I didn't think we'd be seeing on the silver screen again, ever. There are plenty of nods and references to keep fans happy, and not just comics fans, either: I laughed out loud when Rocket does the Picard Maneuver at one point.
All the way through, the film's soundtrack is impeccable. The music clearances for this film must have cost an absolute fortune, but each song is perfect for the context in which it's used. We get the Runaways singing "Cherry Bomb", Bowie singing "Moonage Daydream", "Go All The Way" by the Raspberries - and who would have thought that "Ooh Child" by the Five Stairsteps would ever be used in a film's climactic fight scene in quite the fashion that it appears here? Best of all is the dance routine that features "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5, which has already spawned what must surely be the must-have toy for next Christmas.
I wondered whether I was going to enjoy this film as much as the previous Marvel films in their current string of successes, as none of the principal characters is what could be described as an A-List property. But it doesn't matter if you aren't familiar with the characters at all and Guardians of the Galaxy is rapidly becoming my favourite film of the franchise so far. These heroes are damaged, beaten down and, as Quill says, "losers," and the fact that they aren't invulnerable god-like creatures makes them all the more appealing. And you'll be cheering them on. You know you will.
Chris's rating: Five Stars