With his performance in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, former funnyman turned leading man Chris Pratt asserts himself as the Cary Grunt of contemporary cinema, a somewhat out of the ordinary romantic leading man meets infinitely likable action star with a cheeky presence and an extraordinary goodness that so dominantly fills up the big screen that you're immediately immersed in the world that he's created.
In this case, of course, Pratt is back as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, and he's accomplished the extreme rarity of actually improving as an actor while helming a crew that includes the returning Drax (Dave Bautista), a blunt talking whose inability to pick up social cues is given deeper meaning here, the rascally raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Zoe Saldana's Gamora and, of course, we can't forget Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), whose fate in the first film leaves him the Baby Groot who has dominated many of the promos for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Putting it simply, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is certainly less surprising than its predecessor but an immeasurably more satisfying cinematic experience with strikingly enhanced visuals and a narrative arc that adds depth to all the key players that turns this growing family into a, well, family.
The film kicks off not long after Guardians of the Galaxy ended and sets the tone quickly with a delightful Baby Groot dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while the rest of the Guardians fight for their lives and, for that matter, for Baby Groot's. It's a tone that will be maintained throughout much of the film's nearly 2 1/2 hour running time, a running time that goes quickly and is more immersive than excessive. It may only be early May, but Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 kicks off the summer season with a cinematic experience that is so purely fun that you'll mostly forgive its mostly minor flaws and obvious familiarity.
The opening battle sequence, which makes it quite evident that returning writer/director James Gunn isn't resting on his $750 million in laurels from the first film, finds the Guardians battling on behalf of a group known as the Sovereign to protect a valuable group of batteries in exchange for Gamora's evil sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). The mission is accomplished, though on the way out Rocket snatches the batteries setting off a universal race in which the Sovereign hire Yondu (Michael Rooker), who knows Peter well as he raised him and who has complications of his own. Into this mix arrives Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial who claims to be Peter's long lost father.
If you've already concluded that there's substance beneath the immensely stylized Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 you would be absolutely correct. While Gunn doesn't short us on the dazzling special effects and action sequences, he's also managed to construct an immensely satisfying, admittedly loose at times, series of story threads that all weave themselves around the theme of family and family of choice.
While this may sound like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 gets heavy, rest assured it doesn't. The film's emotional resonance is woven beautifully into the film's tapestry as the fabric that holds its multi-colored kaleidoscope together. Gunn wisely avoids, as well, what many directors and studios fall victim to - centering a film around its breakout star. Pratt remains front and center here, but family's the thing in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and the rest of this truly exceptional ensemble isn't just given a moment or two to shine but shine throughout the film. The under-appreciated Zoe Saldana is a gem here as Gamora, arguably the most logical and practical of the Guardians and the Guardian who nicely balances Peter's own weaknesses. Dave Bautista's Drax is, I'd dare say, the character that most benefits from Gunn's commitment to as much depth as razzle-dazzle as his social cluelessness goes deeper and becomes much funnier. The film's breakout vocal work comes courtesy of Bradley Cooper, whose spin on Rocket takes a potentially one-note character and brings him to life in ways that are inspired and funny and downright sweet. Even Diesel's Groot, who arguably is a one-note character, expands and broadens and gives the film a wonderful spark.
Among the film's truly supporting players, Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker most shine as Nebula and Yondu, respectively. Kurt Russell is a welcome addition as Ego, though Stallone's fairly brief appearance as Stakar Ogord, more is likely planned in the third volume, feels a touch wooden here.
D.P. Henry Braham lenses the film to truly dazzling effect, an opening sequence serving as evidence that rather than sit back and enjoy success that Gunn and Braham are determined to create an even more entertaining,satisfying and wholly immersive experience. Indeed, they've accomplished their mission. There are production sequences here that are simply awesome from Ego's planet to the Ravagers' rather grunge-styled ship to that opening sequence that I just keep talking about.
While one could potentially argue that the ending for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, which won't be explained here, is perhaps the film's most formulaic segment, kudos to Gunn for balancing the inevitable action sequence with choreography that works and full-on character involvement that kept me involved and delighted. The film's use of music, as should be expected, continues to excel and, if you're paying attention, contributes to the film's narrative structure. As nearly everyone has noted and anyone who's ever seen a Marvel film should know, staying through the credits is a must as Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 includes five, count 'em five, extras.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is pretty close to everything I've ever wanted from a superhero flick with its seemingly effortless weaving together of entertaining action with heart and humor and an emotional resonance that feels honest and natural and true. It's the kind of film that reminded me that I'm not just a film critic, but I'm also a film fan and it's that rare film that I immediately began planning to see a second time solely because I wanted to do so.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic