Sunday, 30 April 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review

Peter Quill and co are back - but is it with a bang or a whimper? Read on to hear my thoughts on James Gunn's latest...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Marvel Studios sucks. Their characters are bland; their movies are samey; and they spew franchise installments with the sole goal of setting up the next cash-cow to bring the profits in. You must remember, kiddos, Deadpool and Logan are not Marvel Studios movies...

There is, of course, one exception to the rule.

What a sexy promotional image... eh?
2014's summer hit Guardians of the Galaxy was able to capture the hearts of moviegoers worldwide with its hip, colorful, and uniquely underdog sense of wonder that tapped into the mindsets of ordinary people. It was a breath of fresh air for the many millions that solely go to the cinema (woe betide them) for the latest blockbuster Marvel releases - showing a real verve and style from James Gunn with a kick-ass soundtrack (I'm not gonna be the one to tell you that a classic rock soundtrack is clever or unique - but it sure is cool to listen to). And, indeed, a big risk that paid off in droves for the studio, paving the way to what could be it's most important set of movies in history. Naturally, it instantly got the sequel treatment - and presumably will until the very name Guardians elicits the visual of a turd floating in the toilet from Trainspotting; but for now, we've got Vol. 2.

Even more so than the original, Gunn seems to be going straight for the Star Wars vibes this time with a Jack Kirby - esque (man, those were the good days, huh....) cosmic fantasia: an epic of fathers and sons, living planets, and red-light districts. Hell, if we were being a little more picky here, we could really boil the entire affair down to A New Hope/The Force Awakens (given they're the same thing). For some reason, nobody else has really picked this out - but watch it and let me know what you think: the resemblance is uncanny.

Anyways, despite the smaller location count (a lot of the action happens on one planet), there's a lot more imagination at play here - from the almost trippy visual output of certain starry vistas, to the core story-line involving gods and higher levels of threat than merely planetary domination. A paradoxical situation where less is indeed more: it feels like the cinematic equivalent of Creamola Foam. If you're wondering what that is, think crystal meth for kids.

The fearsome Sovereign
The plot doesn't really beg much explaining - so I'll just contextualise what's going on. Basically, there's two kinda MAIN narratives revolving around each other (like a ring around a distant planet): the first is a wraparound asteroid-belt like story involving the guardian's feud with a gold-skinned race named 'The Sovereign' (led by Elizabeth Debicki) - a group from whom Rocket has stolen goods from and who feel the need to eradicate Quill and co as revenge. But the main planet (literally) consists of Quill meeting his father (Kurt Russell) for the first time. Daddy issues ensue... Likewise, Gomorrah (Zoe Saldana) meets her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan) for the first time in a long time.... sister issues ensue. Oh yeah, and David Hasselhof plays himself... It does work - trust me.

Throughout these slightly confused, but endlessly interesting plot strands, Gunn folds in a mix of luminescent characters both ubiquitous with the Guardians brand, and perhaps less so... Of course we also have Baby Groot (Vin Diesel - is that ironic?), the hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista), and Yondu (Michael Rooker) - who is apparently now a good guy.... But we also now have fantastic new characters in Ego (Kurt Russell playing an 80s-tinged crazy role he was just destined to fulfil) and some guy called Tazer Face. The breadth of character can, at times, feel more than a little confusing - and combined with the weird orbital narrative structure I just discussed, the whole thing can feel a bit unhinged. But that's part of the joy of watching a Guardians movie: chaos is allowed - even encouraged - to reign.

OK, I'm sneaking another poster into this review...
Comedically, Vol 2 is shooting things out of the park. From the get go, all characters are working on eliciting constant laughs at a solid rate of about one per minute - impressive for a film that can't really be construed as a straight-up comedy. Although the whole ensemble has a part to play in this hilarity, Dave Bautista's Drax is undoubtedly the star of the show: delivering a barrage of deadpan, often emotionless comments and insults to the other characters that charm the audience into waves of pain-inducing laughter. For a 12a/PG-13 movie, Vol 2 really finds ways to make everyone laugh - eschewing the usual 'a few more grown up jokes and innuendos' format of blockbuster moviemaking for something altogether more organic and exciting. Mark Kermode has always stated that the comedy test is 'can the movie make me laugh at least 6 times' - Quill and co had accomplished that by the 5 minute mark, maybe less.

Emotionally, interestingly, there's a lot of darker content floating around in this iteration. Of course, I'm not going to spoil what's going on; but there are very sinister undertones from discussion of terminal illness and mortality, and as mentioned before, an evil master-plan with some interestingly dark undertones. What this makes for is a more intense and full movie than the first time round - with a larger playing field for our characters to work on. And, yes, there is comparable emotional heft to the ending as with Vol 1.

Obviously it looks beautiful... Saying that about a Guardians movie just seems daft: you already know that it'll be one of the best-looking superhero movies of the year from the title alone. Of course, Logan has probably gone and stolen it for 2017 with it's western-inspired palette, but same rules apply... At times, admittedly it feels a little too safe (the Sovereign ships and space fight scenes seem like direct rehashes from both the first film and multiple other sci-fi flicks), but in general it's a winner. The planet of Ego is rendered in stunning detail - looking intricate, yet unexciting on the surface, but being really quite something else on the inside. Ego's mansion, as well, is filled with the kind of awesome visual inspiration (porcelain-looking statues aid in the telling of stories) to put the cherry on top. An Amsterdam-esque red light environment - all neon signs and sleaze - adds some much needed grit to the production; and at times we stray into Fury Road territory: open galactic vistas, with the brightly colored sky emphasized against the dirt ground (Stan Lee's obvious cameo is a particular highlight in this vein). Large portions of the movie take place on the Sovereign planet - and with all characters here painted an immaculate gold, an ethereal and almost 50s sci-fi aura (*Tommy Wiseau voice* oh hi Jack Kirby once more) perpetuates these secenes - which is always nice. And, of course, by default, all Kurt Russell scenes are oh-so-80s (what with the Hasselhof clothing, vintage tunes, and that goddamn haircut). It's kind of like a jawbreaker melted in a puddle and created a multicoloured spew. In a good way.

And, I don't know what you were expecting - but the soundtrack is the absolute bomb. It would be hard to improve upon Awesome Mix Vol.1, and Vol. 2 probably doesn't - but it does provide an equally satisfying ride. From the ELO-scored opening, to the repeated appearances of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain (I wonder how much that cost), Gunn and co really know how to have a good time. What's more, the tracks align with the story beats - a little George Harrison here on a God planet; a little Cat Stevens there for an emotional reflection: it all just works so perfectly.

This one too...
There are problems - I'm not trying to hide that. There is a way that Vol. 2 could've easily been great: by doing something different. The best sequels and franchise entries (see The Godfather 2 and Logan) turn concepts and core ideas of what such a movie should be on their heads - creating an improved experience than the predecessor. With it's history of invention, the Guardians brand was definitely ripe for this treatment. Instead, we do ultimately get a rehash of the first film's style, humour, and irreverence. Whilst that's not a bad thing persay - it's not fresh enough to amaze or to qualify as a classic. It's been 3 years since I watched the original - and I reckon if I'd watched it again the night before this, I'd have probably been a little more disappointed. Also, 'I am Groot' is really getting on my nerves after 5 hours of  repetition (and the rest of the audience given the absence of laughs on this point)... Kudos to Marvel to toning the amount of the phrase in Vol 2 - but I don't think a 3rd installment will treat it kindly.

The momentum of the story also greatly dips in the third act. We, of course, never fear for the safety of any of the Guardians - they are all key characters who cannot die in the second installment of the franchise. So when the 'end-of-the-world' shtick starts to inevitably fly in, nobody's buying it. This is made doubly hard to take by the insanely long (and I mean insanely long) boss battle that just keeps on going and going, despite the fact that most people would rather be seeing some more cool visual output.

And, finally, the CGI content is overwhelmingly omnipresent. In 10 years time, this movie will be nigh-on unwatchable form the use of outdated technology. I've never understood why studios do this, and I still don't understand now. When you can watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and feel like it was made yesterday; but Avatar looks ancient, you know something's up. But Guardians at many times is almost exclusively a CG creation. For me, the longevity of a film is incredibly important when measuring prestige - and Guardians, as both a product of 2010's pop-cultural obsessions, and of a particular computer generated era, has very little.

Yup. Another one.
Guardians of the Galaxy is, unfortunately, a brand at risk. From its unique and exciting inception, it has spawned another sequel which, to my mind, improves upon the successes of the original - but without taking the franchise in new directions. With a third adventure presumably not so far away, and the Thor:Ragnarok trailer looking suspiciously like an attempt to directly ape the 'multicoloured visuals, 80s vibes, and classic rock' format; Marvel could find itself falling into a hole of it's own conception. After creating and making popular a style of mainstream blockbuster that works for critics and moviegoers - they seem to be doing everything in their power to knock it back down again.

Until then, however, we thankfully have Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. People describe Michael Bay movies as popcorn-movies; this is a Tango ice-blast movie: a neon coloured, sugary, and fizzy slush that crackles and pops at the seams. It's like an LSD trip inside a nursery inside a VHS tape. And that, my friends, is a shitload of fun. Enjoy.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets 4 stars!

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