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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

August 1, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Guardians of the Galaxy Poster

I wasn’t expecting Guardians of the Galaxy to open that way that it does.  We focus on a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) listening to his beloved Awesome Mix cassette tape while visiting his dying mother (Laura Haddock) in the hospital, before running out of the building in tears and being abducted into a spaceship.

This beautifully realized scene provides an appropriately heartfelt prologue to the film.  And when we flash forward 26 years to the adult Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), having fully adopted his nickname Star-Lord and ridiculously dancing through the swamps of some abandoned planet, it’s this opening scene that helps remind us of the human element behind his larger than life personality.

The latest piece of the much larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy finally opens today after months of increasing anticipation, and for the most part the film lives up to the hype.  This is a big and bright space epic that sets out simply to entertain and ultimately does just that, while riffing on everything from Indiana Jones to Star Wars in the process.

The story begins when Star-Lord steals a mysterious Orb, which puts him on the run from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a shadowy figure hellbent on using the object to destroy the universe.  But when the ruthless Gamora (Zoe Saldana) attempts to steal the Orb, and the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tree companion Groot (Vin Diesel) try to bring Star-Lord into custody to collect a bounty, the four of them end up thrown in prison.  There they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who has his own reasons to seek revenge on Ronan, causing them to reluctantly band together.

There are some great sequences here, and the ensuing prison break that sees these five unlikely heroes working together for the first time is one of the best in the film, perfectly balancing exciting action with sharp verbal and visual humour.  For the most part, director James Gunn does a commendable job of balancing styles and mixing genres.   But there are still some odd tonal switches, and at times I found myself wishing that the story was taking itself a little more seriously, with the quieter character moments sometimes feeling shortchanged by the immediate switches back to comedic quips.

A few of the more juvenile one-liners are actually distracting, especially during the more serious later scenes, and the constant wisecracking and irreverent sense of humour sometimes feel a little too much like self parody.  I’m also not sure that I followed all of the mythology behind the story, but these small quibbles hardly matter, especially considering that there is never a dull moment throughout the fast paced 122 minute running time.  Everyone involved seems to be having an absolute blast, and there is ultimately a lot to love about Guardians of the Galaxy.

This includes Rocket and Groot, who are easily two of the biggest high points, a pair of impeccably designed characters that are brought to life through seamless animation.  The tough as nails but still oddly loveable Rocket is in many ways the heart of the film, a fascinating character who is angry at the universe for ripping him apart, but still musters up enough strength to help save it anyway.  Bradley Cooper’s memorable voice work really allows Rocket to come alive, and in many ways he delivers one of the most involved and fully developed performances of the strong ensemble cast.

There are some hilarious and also deeply touching scenes with Rocket and Groot, and by the end we find ourselves really caring for this foulmouthed little “what the hell is a raccoon” and his humanoid tree companion with a limited vocabulary.  I think that is one of the most unlikely and special things about Guardians of the Galaxy.  There is a unique and often impressive look to the visuals of the film, mixing between brightly coloured special effects and some appropriately gritty cinematography during the darker scenes, with a distinctive look and feel that is unlike anything Marvel has done before.

It’s fascinating how many different stories exist in this world, the same series that gave us Captain America: The Winter Soldier earlier this year, an exhilarating sequel that doubled as a smart political thriller.  But Guardians of the Galaxy still fits into this larger franchise, and through a brief scene with The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), we start to see the connective tissue between these films.  Although the post credits scene wasn’t included on the screening I attended, I have since seen the brief stinger and am now wondering what the surprise cameo could mean for the future of one infamous Marvel character.

Another blast of fresh air in Guardians of the Galaxy is the music, a selection of 1970s classics that provide one of the best soundtracks of the year.  There are plenty of great and ironically appropriate song choices here, stemming from the cassette tape that provides some of the most memorable moments.  It’s impossible not to rock along with the characters as songs like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways reverberate throughout the theatre, or be touched by a perfectly timed use of The Five Stairsteps “O-O-H Child.”

The fact that all of these different elements even ended up in the same movie together is brave and should be celebrated.  When the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” grooves us right into the end credits, the song leaves us anxiously awaiting another chance to spend time alongside this endearingly ragtag group of characters.  With plenty of great moments along the way as well as a genuine heart behind the story, Guardians of the Galaxy is tons of fun, and any film that makes us feel something for a talking tree and raccoon is easy to love.

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