James Gunn's sequel to the 2014 Marvel hit brings the gang — including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper — back together for more.
When a disarmingly wacky and amusing B-team of Marvel characters parachuted in three summers ago and made off with a worldwide haul of $771 million, the fifth biggest of any Marvel production, Guardians of the Galaxy resembled a makeshift expansion sports franchise that somehow played above its own level all year long and snuck into the World Series. But the second season brings this team back to reality, if not to planet Earth, and while the stadiums will remain packed, the results on the field are not nearly so pretty for this manic and sometimes grating continuation of a scattershot narrative, in which the survival of the universe is treated far more glibly than its knotty superhero daddy issues.
In 2014, writer-director James Gunn emerged out of Troma-land — that is, virtually nowhere — to inject some unexpected irreverence and mangy humor into the customary Marvel format; it was as if a prankster had slipped onto the premises and pinpricked the hot air out of some bloating franchises that were approaching retirement age. In the highly controlled realm of Marvel, where nothing happens by accident, Gunn came off like a court jester who had been officially sanctioned to prove that royalty could tolerate a few jibes made at its own expense.
However, warning signs turn up early on in Vol. 2 that things are not quite as they were the first time around. The factor that most distinguished the original Guardians from its stablemates was its goofball collection of misfit characters: figures who might never have been candidates to carry a franchise alone but who, together, made up an appealing team.
Alas, most of these maverick mercenaries prove rather less charming the second time around; they're like bickering family now and not in an amusing way. For starters, some of the characters who, at first exposure, were ingratiating in part because of their rough edges have now turned downright ornery and are not much fun to be around. First and foremost of these is Zoe Saldana's green-skinned assassin Gamora, whose every line now seems barked out in an elevated state of annoyance. Part of her problem is that her equally badass sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) has returned and not only tries to harm her, but also brings up their unpleasant family history. But even before this, Gamora is in a rotten mood, ostensibly for having to babysit so many loony colleagues.
Then there's Rocket the cybernetically enhanced raccoon (voiced once again by Bradley Cooper), whose ill-tempered wisecracks have curdled in inverse proportion to the growth of his ego. Impatient and far too taken with his own abilities, he's prematurely become a genuine curmudgeon annoyed by everyone and everything. Or maybe stardom's just gone to his head.
At the bottom of the food chain is Baby Groot. His famously three-words-capable forebear having sacrificed himself in Vol. 1, the baby is a literal splinter of the original and spends most of his time observing things warily with big ink-pool eyes. Vin Diesel is back to provide vocals for this critter, but you'd be hard-pressed to identify the speaker just from hearing him, and if the actor spent more than an hour in studio recording his stuff it was too long. Nice payday.
As far as the original crew is concerned, this leaves just two guys. Evidently forbidden by contract ever to appear with a shirt on, Dave Bautista's Drax has more to do this time around in that he's given increased opportunities to burst out laughing at events as they transpire; would that the audience had as many occasions for it. All the same, the muscle man wrestler generates more mirth and goodwill than anyone else does and seems genuinely glad to be on board for the journey, wherever it takes them.
But burrowed in somewhere among the more or less random space battles, showdowns, shoot-outs, personal fights and hair-breadth encounters with instant oblivion, which are mostly staged in a visually elaborate but manically suspense-free manner, is the opportunity for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to get to know his father (Kurt Russell). The latter, simply known as Ego but whose full name is the even more memorable Ego the Living Planet, is an ambiguous figure birthed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over a half-century ago. Although there is doubtless more to this mysterious character than initially meets the eye, he cuts a largely benign figure here as he begins to part the clouds of uncertainty of heritage and mission that have plagued his son, aka Star-Lord. The scenes between the well-cast Russell and Pratt are the best in the film, the one occasion Gunn calms down a bit to stage meaningful exchanges.
One semi-amusing new character is another youngster raised by Ego who goes by the name of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an innocent young thing with thick black eyelashes and two antenna emanating from her forehead; her hesitant, uncertain ways with the guardians are played for mild comic relief, which nicely offsets the more rambunctious behavior of the others.
Aside from the malevolence emanating from Nebula and her golden-skinned colleagues, opposition, such as it is, comes from the Ravagers, a crude bunch of ragtag biker types so lame that one of their own, the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker), has turncoated to the good guys. But threatening to lend new weight to the baddies' cause is a mysterious stranger by the name of Stakar Ogord, who strides through a handful of shots, weapon in hand and very short of words. Given that he's impersonated by Sylvester Stallone, he can only be presumed to play a more important role in Vol. 3, as he does zilch here.
The heavy, elaborate action is both plentiful and rote; in their geometric design and execution, the special effects feel exceedingly computer-generated. Unlike, say, the best space battles in the Star Wars series, the frantic ballistic parrying here often makes the viewer feel as if trapped inside a pinball machine. The attitude toward all the violence and mayhem is mostly good-humored, casual and tossed off, which provokes a few good laughs and chuckles, and writer-director Gunn gets away with a lot of lame stuff simply by moving on quickly to the next gag or explosion. As before, his bluffly cynical, good-times attitude supplies a devil-may-care feel to the proceedings that's quite appealing to audiences. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 plays like a second ride on a roller coaster that was a real kick the first time around but feels very been-there/done-that now.