Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (PG-13)

Movie Review Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Leave it to Troma veteran and “Slither” director James Gunn to take a lower-tier Marvel sci-fi/superhero property like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and elevate it to delightfully quirky cinematic heights. That trend continues with the aptly titled “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” But for all its otherworldly action, epic space battles, and relentless visual effects, this loose, warm, and playful follow-up is much more intimate than it’s predecessor. It’s also a bit darker. Do these attributes make it better? Not necessarily, but it’s still a lot of fun. And not surprisingly, it’s all complemented by one hell of a soundtrack!

In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” everyone’s favorite saviors of space (this side of the crew of the starship Enterprise) are learning to work together as a cohesive unit. But when it comes to individuals like Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), there’s bound to be a little bit of contention and family dysfunction.

The primary focal point of “Vol. 2” revolves around Quill. His thirst for knowledge regarding his heritage is ultimately quenched when he is reunited with his long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a godly, salt-of-the-Earth type who’s positively giddy to have his son back in his life. Gamora doesn’t know what to make of the sudden reunion, but how could she when she has daddy issues of her own? Making matters worse, she’s engaged in a harsh sibling rivalry with her angry and resentful sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Meanwhile, Drax develops a charming bond with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego’s somewhat naive but undeniably lovable servant. As for the abrasive (and sarcastic) Rocket, he and innocent Baby Groot are on their own and find themselves in a hostile mutiny situation after being taken hostage by colorful ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his villainous cohorts.

Movie Review Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Maybe too much. That’s okay, though, because by and large, this is a fun time at the movies. And, as is the case with the “Fast and Furious” franchise, it’s the theme of family that resonates most once the end credits have rolled. Yes, “Vol. 2” is all about family, but not just the blood-related kind. This is also a story about those individuals who come into our lives and have such a profound impact on us that they just as well be family members.

Furthermore, the very idea that Gunn has been able to give this series a standalone vibe in a universe where all the Marvel movies are seemingly connected is undeniably refreshing. Granted that vibe will be a thing of the past once the “Guardians” make an appearance in the next “Avengers” movie, so let’s enjoy it while we can.

Based on the “Vol. 2” trailers, you might expect cute Baby Groot to steal the show, and while this infant tree creature provides the film with some of its biggest laughs and undeniable heartache, there are plenty of other sources of hilarity and warmth to be discovered in this picture. Key among them are the sweet and goofy scenes between warrior Drax and childlike Mantis. Bautista and Klementieff provide wonderful, spot-on chemistry, and if you’re anything like me, you may hope that Drax and Mantis become a couple at some point down the line, because oddly enough, they have quite a bit in common.

Of course, it’s the relationship between lovable smart-alec Quill and his bigger-than-life pops that serves as the heart of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Who Ego is and what he’s all about are best left unsaid here, but it’s clear that there’s a bit of a “Star Wars” saga ring to this union between father and son, and Pratt and Russell appear to have a blast playing off of each other. Funny enough, though, there are a few aspects of this pivotal relationship that feel a bit rushed. There are a couple of surprises that stem from this reunion, and had this bond been given more time to gel, the payoff might have felt more important. Still, the very notion that Jack Burton is Star-Lord’s daddy is a grand one, indeed. Further props to the effects team for a jaw dropping Kurt Russell de-aging process in the early portions of the film. It has to be seen to be believed, and adding to its overall effectiveness is in the realization that it was not done entirely through digital trickery. Damn impressive stuff.

Elsewhere in “Vol. 2,” Gunn expands a few character backstories. Rocket is actually more of a jerk this time around, if you can believe that. But as expected, there’s a reason for his sarcasm and irritability, and by the end of the picture, this fearless raccoon comes to a certain understanding and self-realization brought about, in part, by a most unexpected character.

Perhaps the strongest and deepest of character arcs in “Vol. 2” comes courtesy of Yondu. Rooker is so great here! He’s colorful, unpredictable, and even a little scary. But this time around, we see a vulnerable side, and I’ll be darned if Yondu doesn’t doesn’t emerge as one of the most memorable characters in this movie. In addition to learning a bit more about his fierce ravager and the reason behind his abducting Peter Quill years earlier,  we also learn more about his profession and his connection to a character called Stakar Ogord (played by the incomparable Sylvester Stallone). To Stallone’s great credit, he makes the most of very limited screen time, and quite frankly, I hope we see more of his character in the future. It should also be noted that Sly’s appearance makes “Vol. 2” a “Tango and Cash” reunion of sorts. If only Stallone and Russell were given the opportunity to share a scene together.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is certainly stuffed to the brim — watch for Easter eggs aplenty and a staggering five post-credits stingers — and while there are clashing tones, moments that lull, and even a handful of gags that fall flat, very little of that hurts the overall experience, because once again, where Gunn truly succeeds is in the character beats. As demonstrated before, this cast has a genuine rapport, and Gunn wisely lets the family dynamic dictate the action and the stakes. In the end, this lends a new level of intimacy to the proceedings and that has never been more apparent than it is in the last 10 moving minutes of this movie.

Where does “Vol. 2” rest on the uber-popular list of Marvel’s box-office hits dating back to 2008’s “Iron Man”? That’s debatable, but I’d say somewhere comfortably in the middle. Whatever your opinion is in regard to that matter, one thing is certain: These are wonderfully entertaining characters, and I’ve had a blast spending time with them. Here’s hoping that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (which Gunn is currently writing) delivers in even grander (and quirkier) fashion.

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