Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

And now for something completely different. Since 2008, Marvel Studios has had no trouble in introducing its characters to a wide audience. One thing that has aided the Marvel Comics Universe is finding writers and directors that know how to blend action with comedy. Taken too seriously, the superhero genre would fall flat on its face, and not in the good pratfall kind of way. Just as important, they have a knack for humanizing their protagonists, making them relatable people worth rooting for. Even with all the action flying around the screen, “Guardians” is very character-driven. With the exception of Thor and his two solo films, these movies have all centered around human heroes. But even Thor, who has the physical appearance of a human, has had mostly Earthbound adventures. In “Guardians,” we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’ve stepped through the looking glass. We’re beyond Thunderdome. Yet, we’re in a galaxy not so far, far away at all.

The film stars Chris Pratt (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) as Peter Quill, a human who has been away from Earth since 1988. He was taken from our world on the day of his mother’s death by Yondu (Michael Rooker), an alien with little resembling morals or common decency. In his adulthood, Peter, who from this moment on I’ll refer to by his outlaw name of ‘Star Lord,’ has become adept at the criminal lifestyle, betraying even Yondu. No honor among thieves! Like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds before him, Star Lord is a terrific smuggler and a scoundrel, but not too bright. His latest prize, an orb of some importance and power that he knows not what, comes highly sought after. In particular, a murderous individual known as Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it very badly. The mere mention of Ronan’s name on the planet Xandar causes Star Lord’s buyer to back out of the deal, and that’s when he meets the people who will become his best friends in this or any other world. If you’ve already been enjoying the movie up to this point, it’s also the moment when “Guardians” truly kicks into high gear.

Star Lord’s new friends don’t exactly ingratiate themselves to him right away. The green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by Ronan to Xandar to retrieve the orb. She intends to betray Ronan and sell it to someone who doesn’t intend to use the powerful stone that lies inside it. To accomplish this, she steals the orb from Star Lord just after his deal goes south. During the ensuing fight, Star Lord is bagged (literally) by two bounty hunters: Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), whose surname explains what kind of creature he is, and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking, talking tree. Rocket is an ill-tempered, at times mean-spirited little fellow, but you would be too if you were the product of several genetic experiments. Groot is really handy in a fight, but it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with him since his entire vocabulary consists of the sentence “I am Groot.” Actor Vin Diesel may not get much to say, but he makes up for that by emphasizing the words differently to express multiple feelings and to show us that he really isn’t just saying the same thing over and over. Rocket, who has been with Groot for long enough that he can translate for him, helps out with the rest. Before the end, Star Lord will need everyone that isn’t trying to kill him (and some that are) on his side if Ronan is to be defeated.

There was still one “Guardian” left to introduce after the incident with the orb. Xandar’s security force, the Nova Corps, breaks up the fight and arrests and incarcerates Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot. In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) whose wife and child were killed by Ronan, and whom will be instrumental in the group’s escape from prison. Knowing full well that the other actors could handle their roles, I was the most interested in Bautista’s performance. A professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Bautista has not had much acting experience outside of the ring, and certainly no starring roles. He’s chiseled enough that he provides the physicality necessary for Drax, but Bautista also brings a highly emotional performance to the role. Drax is single-minded when it comes to seeking the death of Ronan, and this often causes him to act before thinking. He’s got friends now who can help in that area… when they have more than just part of a plan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson he ain’t, but Dave Bautista’s highly honorable Drax is every bit as lovable as that of Andre the Giant’s Fessik from “The Princess Bride.” He’s also in a much better movie than Johnson has ever participated in.

Although some of the supporting cast does not get as much screen time as maybe they should, I recognize that it’s hard for this big a cast to get the attention they need with a running time of approximately two hours. For example, Glenn Close’s role of Nova Prime could probably have been played by just about anyone. Others do just fine with the time that is given to them. Karen Gillan, recognizable for TV’s “Doctor Who” but thoroughly unrecognizable here, is cast completely against type as Nebula and seems to have enjoyed playing a baddie for once. Her character also takes part (unwillingly so) in one of the movie’s funniest moments. Maybe one of the more impressive things this movie does is with John C. Reilly. Ordinarily, Reilly’s near the top of my list of least favorite actors, in part for his goofy roles. When he is “normal,” as he is in “Guardians,” Reilly can be tolerable. This is the most tolerable I think he’s ever been. Kudos. In addition to the supporting players, there are also cameos to look for. There’s the usual appearance from Stan Lee, still with us at age 91, bless him. Look fast for Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as an inmate at the prison, and be sure to sit through the end credits for the triumphant (albeit brief) return to the big screen for a certain Marvel Comics character since his 1980’s solo film tanked and became regarded as one of the worst films of all-time.

Just as important a character as any in the film is the music. Peter’s mother had given him a mix tape, which he still listens to on a Walkman, and he has made it the soundtrack to his life. Comprised of hit pop songs from the 1970’s, it emphasizes as well as anything ever could the fact that the writers are laughing right along with us. Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” are among the highlights, and any movie that has Marvin Gaye in its soundtrack is okay in my book. If it teaches us anything, it’s that it’s okay to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” just as long as nobody is watching you.

This is one of Marvel’s best efforts thus far, and the best one that doesn’t feature Robert Downey, Jr. It’s the one that has taken the most direct route to comedy, and certainly the only true outer space adventure, complete with giant spaceship battles. Inevitably, comparisons with “Star Wars” and other science fiction franchises will come to mind. For example, one can watch the scene where Ronan receives instructions from the disembodied head of his boss, Thanos (Josh Brolin, whose part will only grow larger in future Marvel films) and recall a similar scene between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Ronan’s ship is even referred to as the Dark Astar, which isn’t that far removed from “Death Star.” But, as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” has in common with those and other films, it is definitely its own animal and will continue to be, with a sequel scheduled for 2017. When the time comes, there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to the theater.

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