Midway through Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) is bestowed with superpowers on a distant planet. He ponders this new fact: “I’m gonna make a giant sculpture of Pac-Man eating Skeletor, with Heather Locklear watching. We can make some weird shit!” That’s pretty much why James Gunn is directing these films for Marvel, isn’t it? To make some weird shit, preferably set to disco and funk tunes from the late 1970s. So this sequel is still lots of fun, even if it’s not quite as bouncy as the original.
Our ragtag crew of space thieves finds themselves defending a race of golden-skinned, thin-skinned, eugenics-loving people, but when the job goes bad, they crash-land on a distant planet named Ego that’s not only sentient but can take human form (Kurt Russell). He turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father, who’s been searching for him his whole life. Dad’s overjoyed to find his son to assuage his terrible loneliness as a planet person, but the rest of the crew pick up warning signs that this reunion won’t make for unmixed happiness.
Everybody knows what you want repeated from the first movie, so Gunn gives it to us off the bat. The now-tiny Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel) dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” over the opening credits while the other Guardians battle a giant tentacled space beast in the background. Later on, Ego explains why he left Peter’s mom by using the lyrics from Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”. (Ego calls it “one of Earth’s greatest musical compositions.”) For that matter, the backstory of how Peter’s parents met is illustrated with tableaux using dummies that look like department-store mannequins, a nicely inventive touch. The banter among our five is as finely honed as ever, and there’s a great set piece when Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker) try to use baby Groot to help them break out of a prison cell, only to have the little walking stick repeatedly bring them the wrong item. In the midst of this, Groot goes off on a tangent about why he/it doesn’t like people wearing hats. “I am Groot,” Groot explains.
I just wish the movie had retained more of the original’s caper feel. Every character has to have their own emotional arc here, so we have to make our way through Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her issues with sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who’s still alive and more pissed off than ever at her sibling, as well as Rocket continuing to feel out of place and Yondu trying to get back in with the order of pirates (headed up by Sylvester Stallone) that cast him out. Our Star-Lord was charming as a common space thief, but he’s much less so with superpowers and daddy issues, even though Pratt plays the latter for all he’s worth. Some of this material could well have been saved for the inevitable third film, which gets announced in the closing credits of this one. Not only do all these storylines slow the movie down, pad out the running time to 136 minutes, and cause characters to disappear for long stretches, it also takes away from the emotional wallop that the climax packs, as one of our Guardians sacrifices themselves to save the others. That part’s well done, and had this thing topped out at 105 minutes or so, it might have been genuinely great.
Still, did I mention that Groot is a cute little wooden baby? James Gunn makes good use of his brother Sean, casting him as one of Yondu’s pirates who’s just cowardly enough to be sensible. I could go on about the death of Peter’s Walkman and the awesome way it gets replaced, or the villain who calls himself Taserface (Chris Sullivan) to Rocket’s endless amusement, or just how neatly Russell fits in his role, or how easily Dave Bautista handles a looser Drax. The point is, there’s much more right than wrong in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and enough of the original’s jokey spirit to keep you primed for the third mix.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista. Written and directed by James Gunn, based on the comic-book series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Rated PG-13