Sunday, 14 September 2014

"Are you telling me that the fate of thirty million inhabitants is in the hands of these criminals?"

When it comes to taking risks, there's arguably no ballsier studio than Marvel currently working in Hollywood. No doubt keenly aware that this movie lacks even a smidgen of the brand awareness of its previous output, Marvel has savvily located its latest megabudget entertainment firmly in the Venn diagram overlap between modern innocence and 1980s Irony.

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon (1980), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Flight Of The Navigator (1986), Back To The Future Part II (1989), Total Recall (1990) and a certain other operatic space saga all donate their DNA, and Guardians Of The Galaxy isn't about to apologise for replicating it. Indeed it's clearly proud of its heritage, right down its 1988 Earth set prologue, cassette tape soundtrack, and scoundrel hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) describing the film's spherical MacGuffin as having an "Ark Of The Covenant, Maltese Falcon vibe".

Writer/director James Gunn (Super), true to his roots, even injects some fluorescent Troma flavour making it all feel like a parallel universe where Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was actually Lloyd Kaufman.

A good portion of the film is solid, set based and relatively grounded, avoiding the wispy daylight glow of pixel created backdrops. Gunn's strengths are most evident during the central team gathering sequence, where Quill, wiseacre Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel), green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and vengeful maniac Drax (Dave Bautista) discover their synergistic power during a hugely enjoyable prison break, which somehow involves the removal of a prosthetic leg and its subsequent use as a weapon.

Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman keep things bright and snappy, importing the Avengers' banter-bickering into the self-aware science fiction B-Movie setting – which, given the Joss Whedon connection, means this is also reminiscent of the short-lived Firefly TV series and subsequent Serenity (2005). And Gunn's cast appropriately, with Chris Pratt signalling his ascension to the leading man big leagues with a performance as comedic as it is charismatic, while Zoe Saldana's predictably solid as the team's femme fatale, but it's others who truly charm. Bradley Cooper steals the show as the heavy calibre weapon wielding Rocket, delivering enough cynicism, emotional complexity and comic book cool to make a talking raccoon far more than the one note visual gag it could have been, and Vin Diesel's nuanced readings of the same three words over and again ("I am Groot!") prove it was far from a simple stunt casting. But while the bark and bite pairing certainly have their moments – the big surprise here is Bautista's Drax. Cursed with a genetic inability to understand metaphors, the movie's apparent muscleman actually has many of the film's wittiest lines ("Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast... I would catch it!")

The antagonistic contingent, however, is less successful. Lee Pace's (The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug) Ronan, Djimon Hounsou's (Blood Diamond) Korath and Karen Gillan's (Doctor Who) Nebula feel barely written, although Gillan certainly looks fantastic with blue skin and shark eyes and exhibits a tight focused anti-charisma in a thinly sketched part. And the less said about Thanos (Josh Brolin) the better – a lantern jawed CGI cartoon blessed only by his minute or so of screen time.

Overall the film's tone pinballs wildly between heartfelt emotion and crazy science fiction weirdness, and one near perfectly straddled in no short thanks to Gunn, whose creative fingerprints mark Guardians Of The Galaxy out as a blockbuster that's always keen to surprise. The "Awesome Mix" soundtrack is as brilliant as it is eclectic, the cinematography and design as dirty as it is pretty, while the through current of subversive humour undercuts expectations at every turn and propels the plot through its sporadic pacing problems. That Marvel actually sanctioned a phenomenally blue gag about a Jackson Pollock painting and some salubrious ejaculatory shenanigans into a mainstream family science fiction is not only insane, but should be applauded.

But as much as Guardians largely thrives through its lovably dirty style, it cannot avoid Marvels seemingly prerequisite final act. Only a few months ago, reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was frustration at yet another climax which involved a frantic sky battle, culminating in a giant object crashing to the ground. Well here we have yet another. For all the digital artistry on display, these Marvel final set pieces are becoming suggestive of a climax by committee default.

Still, Gunn thankfully pulls the film back onto its own turf once the big fight's over. And Guardians Of The Galaxy does expand the breadth and diversity of the Marvel Universe, going beyond simply superheroes and threats to Earth. It also proves how even a kid raised by Troma in the filmmaking badlands can succeed in blockbuster territory.

Colourful, tongue-in-cheek fun, purpose-built for grown-up lovers of kitsch '80s science fiction, Guardians Of The Galaxy reboots the space opera in the most surprising, entertaining and emotionally satisfying of ways. Mad and marvellous, Marvel's riskiest move is arguably their most surprising success yet.

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