Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Movie Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)



Out of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe we have gotten so far, from the politically-driven thrills of Captain America to the Objectivist musings of Iron Man, 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy still stands as my personal favourite of the lot. Hell, my defence for Suicide Squad likely came from how much it reminded me of Guardians in both tone and intent. Apart from what people have come to expect from a modern Marvel film, like the pitch-perfect casting and the industry connections to some of the greatest effects wizards working today, it also opened the gates for a more bizarre and kitschy brand of superhero story, one that director/co-writer James Gunn was more than apt to tell. Despite how late this review ultimately is, with the film in question being out for quite a while before I finally got around to it, I was definitely eager to see just how it would measure up to the original that I hold in quite high regard. Once again, this is the year that sees fit to kick audiences square in their expectations, so here’s hoping for a solid project. This is Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

The plot: Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), while trying to escape the Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) after a business deal between the Guardians and their people went sour, encounters Ego (Kurt Russell), his long-lost father. As he and the other Guardians learn more about Star-Lord’s alien heritage, his former mercenary group the Ravagers as well as the Sovereigns are both chomping at the bit to track them down and claim retribution for past slights. Oh, and they once again have to save the galaxy; just another day in the life of the Guardians.

Strap yourselves in because, when dealing with Marvel, there’s always a lot to cover when to comes to the cast. Pratt is still charming as all hell as the bastard with a heart of gold, although the delving into his family tree results in a lot more earnestness springing out of his character which Pratt delivers extremely well. Zoe Saldana is still solid as the Valkyrie Bitch of the main group, and the increased presence of Karen Gillan as Nebula results in some very strong conflict between them. Drax is quickly devolving into a walking laugh track, which coupled with his problematic approach to the opposite sex is a little disconcerting, but credit to Dave Bautista for still keeping him as hilariously literal as always. Vin Diesel as Baby Groot doesn’t get nearly as much pathos to work with, resulting in probably the only member of the cast who ends up weaker than before; Groot may be insanely adorable to watch on screen, particularly during the opening credits dance sequence, but compared to how memetic he became at the end of Vol. 1, it’s not nearly as effective. Bradley Cooper still nails the sardonic jackass Rocket, while also softening where the plot needs him to to, once again, deliver some real hard-hitting emotional moments. Russell as Peter’s father not only makes perfect sense, given the mannerisms we see from both of them throughout, but also delivers the rather nuanced character he’s been given as well. And as for a returning Michael Rooker as Yondu… holy hell! I mean, with his ‘magic arrow’, the guy already has a reputation for being awesome, but here, he goes beyond that into possibly one of the best characters the MCU has ever brought to life. For a studio like this, that’s one hell of an achievement. Klementieff is decent as Mantis, Debicki works as the vanguard of ‘perfection’ that fits nicely against the main aesthetic of the Guardians themselves, a cameo from Sylvester Stallone adds some nice textures to the scenes he’s in and Miley Cyrus… yeah, she’s in this movie too, and the fact that she works as well as she does here is once again proof that Marvel’s knack for actors is un-goddamn-touchable.

James Gunn got his start, like a surprisingly large number of notable filmmakers, under the tutelage of Troma Studios. The meeting point between grindhouse exploitation and outhouse trash filmmaking, Troma has a special place in the heart of renegade film buffs everywhere for their place in the industry. What helped make the first film feel as welcome as it did, something that continues into this film, is the sense that a lot of what we’re seeing was included simply because it looks cool, the main calling card for a lot of Lloyd Kaufman’s oeuvre. The fact that a techno-mohawk controls an arrow that take out an entire spaceship with just a few whistles is proof that Rule Of Cool is indeed in effect. Now, that’s not to say that this is the only film to run on this logic; it’s just that this film does it better than most. Whereas most other films that try this end up running into the problem of feeling like cinematic gumbo, made of so many disparate parts that it fails to form a cohesive whole, this film gets around that by ensuring that even the biggest tonal shifts work to the film’s advantage. The way Gunn and co. weave effortlessly between hard-hitting laughs and heart-crushing drama is definitely to be commended, especially since it doesn’t even trigger my long-since-established pickiness with tone. That’s probably because both the highs and lows originate from the exact same place, the expertly mapped-out characters, and the fact that they are as defined as they are makes both the good and bad that happens to them affect the audience just that much more.

It probably helps that, sewn into every single aspect of the production, is an unshakeable love for 80’s nostalgia. Now, since nostalgia is so prevalent that it is almost an industry in its own right, this is hardly unique in that regard; just look at how many cheesy TV shows from that era have gotten or will get film adaptations. However, what makes it work so well here is how ingrained it is in everything we see. From the garish technicolour visuals to the deliciously retro soundtrack to the embracing of largely-overlooked Marvel characters like Howard The Duck and the Watchers, even down to the little things like the Sovereigns using what are essentially arcade cabinets to pilot their attack ships or an appearance from Pac-Man in the climactic fight scene, this film shows its adoration with open arms. It even seeps into the casting as well, with not only the inclusion of Russell and Stallone, two 80’s action movie titans, but also an appearance from David bloody Hasselhoff. But all of this easily could have fallen into just surface-level instances that would otherwise bolster a weak premise, but here, it’s part of the premise itself. Much like Star-Lord himself, the film feels like what happens when humanity leaves Earth for the stars, taking memories of the good ol’ days with them wherever they go.

All the positives I have listed so far, from the aesthetic to the characters, all stem from the exact same place: The idea of the outsider. That which is weird and altogether not of the norm is a crucial part of the DNA of the Guardians’ story, and it is here that it is expanded upon into something truly remarkable. The motives of the enemies that the Guardians have so far faced, from the prejudices that fuelled Ronan’s vengeance to the fascistic eugenics-tinged mindset that is embodied by the Sovereigns, is built on the idea of seeking some form of perfection; taking an imperfect stretch of space and, basing themselves as the blueprint for all that is worthy to exist, changing it. Our ‘heroes’, on the other hand? They are scum. Selfish, aggressive, abrasive, sexist in ways that the films almost seem scared to call out (which is thankfully lessened compared to the worrying moments in the first film) and they spend most of their time yelling with each other for what they continuously do wrong. 

But even with all that, they still stand by each other. That’s what happens when you become an outsider: When the universe at large deems you scum, you end up only with other scum to co-exist with. But within that co-existence comes an understanding of how a person’s flaws can shape them, resulting in a connection that goes beyond the superficial and into true bonding between persons. They may be vile in their own ways, from the womanizers to the homicidal rage vessels to the opportunistic mercenaries, but they still stand by each other because of their mutual faults rather than in spite of them. For a story that, from the production outwards, is meant to celebrate all that which is considered abnormal, this film improves on the pathos of the original to create a story that strengthens the bonds of the outsiders even harder, resulting in the kind of film that feels like a welcoming pat on the back for anyone who was ever ostracized for being in any way “different”. Or, as put rather inelegantly by Drax, easily the biggest idiot of the lot: “When you’re ugly and someone loves you, it means they love you for who you are.”

All in all, without a single doubt in my mind, this is my new favourite MCU film. Building on the 80’s kitsch, sharp character definitions and mastery of tonal shifts from the first film, this sequel manages to one-up pretty much everything that made that film as good as it was. The action is spectacular, the acting once again continues Marvel’s fantastic pedigree, the writing furthers the characters and endears them even more to the hearts of the audience, and the overall intent of the series comes screaming into the foreground as a tip of the hat to all those who exist outside the realms of the ‘sane’. All our friends are Heathens, but they’re far more than just friends; they’re family, and we know that they will always have our backs. It may not instil me with ecstatic glee like the first film, but the utterly disarming nature of its message and the efficacy with which it is delivered truly hit home for me, as it likely will for many others. Even the one real gripe I had with Vol. 1, Drax’s ultimately unchecked misogyny, is severely reduced here, making the enjoyment of this film a far easier prospect. It’s better than T2: Trainspotting, as the emotional character-driven moments manage to hit even harder on this one. However, for as much as I love this film’s comforting hand to the renegades, it still doesn’t engage my love for reading into a film’s minute details as much as John Wick: Chapter 2.

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