Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro
Director: James Gunn
Runtime: 121 minutes
Release Date: 31st July 2014 (UK), 1st August 2014 (US)
Stewart R: And so here it is, Marvel’s biggest cinematic gamble to date. Not since they threw Jon Favreau the keys to the production of Iron Man in 2006 and nodded an acceptance in his direction for his choice of Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark has the studio risked so much. Yet here we are, eight years on and nine successful movies in the bank for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and it’s clear that Guardians Of The Galaxy is the testing ground to see just how far and wide they might be able to reach with their properties in a live action setting. With general public audiences at least reasonably aware of the likes of Captain America and Thor’s existence before their cinematic debuts it’s not unfair to state that the Guardians Of The Galaxy were probably not even that well known amongst the regular comic book reading crowd until recently. Marvel’s publishing arm have been grinding the wheel hard in the past two years in order to get as many up to speed as they can, yet with no overwhelmingly cherished and recognised template for James Gunn and his cast to be weighed down by they actually manage to produce not only the most humorous Marvel movie to date, but also a contender for the most action-packed film in the collection.
Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman’s script drops us straight into the mid 1980s, where a young, pre-pubescent Peter Quill blasts the contents of his 'Awesome Mix Vol.1' tape - composed of '70s rock hits - into his ears via his trusty Sony Walkman, all the while the realism of his mother’s weakening fight against cancer is witnessed by a crowd of grown-ups in the other room. Both the contents of the tape and that implied sense of loss and isolation become flagpoles for the two hour banner’s worth of space-based adventuring ahead and it’s a quick, succinct glimpse into Peter’s past before we’re then whisked 26 years into his future and a few hundred million miles around the cosmos. It’s here where that adventuring, and the first wave of tongue-in-cheek comedy, struts into view as Gunn mashes up Indiana Jones’ temple-raiding with a very '80s feeling mime-and-dance sequence to perfectly set the quirky, fun tone of what Guardians is going to be and sum up the man that Quill (now calling himself Star-Lord) has become.
The premise of the film is quite straightforward, yet it’s surrounded by other elements en masse, some complimentary, others which lose out in the packed agenda. Whilst treasure hunting and undercutting his mercenary mentor Yondu, Peter Quill finds himself in possession of ‘The Orb’, a much sought after relic of unimaginable power wanted by several agents of the Mad Titan, Thanos, including a war and power hungry Kree terrorist called Ronan. With a bounty on his head, outstanding warrants for his arrest by the Ronan-beseiged Xandarian Nova Corps and other several parties after the Orb, Star-Lord finds himself in the company of a rag-tag bunch of bounty hunters, assassins and killers, all of whom have a story to tell and reason to see their prize(s) not fall into the wrong hands.
As one of those prizes, Chris Pratt, much like Guardians itself, could be seen as big gamble as his resume sports just Parks And Recreation, Zero Dark Thirty and his lead voice participation in The Lego Movie as the brightest moments. He however stands out and justifies his casting as Star-Lord with a terrific performance and quickly convinces as the rogue with a good heart and only slightly misguided visions of grandeur in star systems ravaged by an ongoing conflict and rife with apparent piracy. Quill’s affable nature is captured subtly by Pratt; his wide-eyed mock surprise and disgruntled back chat never outstaying their welcome and shining brighter due to the tougher, harsher surrounds of the wider cast who are a generally surly, stone-jawed bunch who all get to play the ‘straight-guy’ against the confusing (to them) lost in translation gags that spill from Quill’s mouth and the busy script.
There are focussed, character arcs in miniature for Gamora, Rocket and Drax as the story unfolds, their scars and weaknesses become apparent and they then begin to find some peace and feeling of belonging amongst alien strangers. For an ensemble piece, Guardians never feels like it’s spinning out of control when it comes to the core group of five as their relationships develop fluidly and there’s enough variation between them all to keep it interesting and slightly unpredictable. Bautista delivers a strong performance, nailing Drax’s driven hatred and embracing the straight-talking comedy lines which he’s presented with. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket deserves to be heralded as the breakout co-star of the movie - alongside Pratt’s Quill - with a demeanour that flashes back and forth between prickly, bitter loner, frustrated, put-upon team player and fun-loving joker. So rounded is the character and so, SO finely detailed, rendered and believable is the CGI of the knee-high furball, that the Hulk of the now two years old Avengers starts to look remarkably outdated in comparison. Sentient tree humanoid Groot doesn’t quite get that same level of attention in terms of character or CGI - and I’m not convinced the hype about Vin Diesel’s performance is warranted at all - but he acts as a fine sounding board for the rest of the group to play off of and brings a genuine feeling of innocence to a generally ambiguous team.
Then there’s Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. For the needs of the story and a big, Hollywood project she’s the one character who’s arguably had the edges rounded off the most when compared to her comic book origins and outings. In the paper medium she’s had the moniker of ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in the Universe’ and until recently had one of the skimpiest costumes in print. On screen though she’s a more haunted, emotional presence and has less convincing ass-kicking time than Scarlett Johansson was presented with in Iron Man 2, suggesting we may never hear the comic book alias mentioned in theatres anytime soon. Her interactions with Pratt though show some genuine chemistry and as part of the wider group it’s clear to see that the writers have opted to steer her away from the cutthroat single-mindedness of Drax and employ her as the ethical line by which the Guardians will adhere.
Once we get outside the core group things get a tad thin in the character department as there’s just not enough time to spend with them all. To prevent the audience becoming bogged down in the politics of the Xandarian/Kree conflict - no-one dares pull another Phantom Menace out of the hat when it comes to science fiction movies - we’re made aware of the situation via incidental news bites and characters mentioning the bitter destruction, only getting firsthand experience of the warfare during one of the films biggest set pieces. To that end it does feel that both sides of the fight are shortchanged, Glenn Close’s Nova Prime rarely getting more to do than issue frustrated evacuation notices, while Ronan feels like the only actual Kree to be seen and his concerns lie more with his debt in service to Thanos. Lee Pace gives the main antagonist a definite air of superiority and strength, but is given little else to work with aside from the occasional fisticuffs and grab for power (additionally, in full blue-skinned make-up I couldn’t help but keep thinking that it looked like they’d got Tom Hiddleston in to play another villain which was a personal distraction!).
Benicio Del Toro’s Collector has little to do aside from deliver an exposition piece setting things up for the MCU to come and gets outshone by both Christopher Fairbanks’ pompous Broker and Rooker’s southern-tongued Yondu. Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou are also underused, the former teasing us with the potential psychotic nature bubbling under the surface of her Nebula only to then ruin the tease with bizarre, shrill barking of commands worthy of Frau Farbissina from Austin Powers.
This unevenness isn’t just restricted to the cast it must be said as the film initially struggles to find its footing. The aforementioned opening, contrasting between the then Earth and the now outer-reaches is a strong, confident start followed by a clumsy sequence that brings the majority of the Guardians together for the first time as they all, kick, punch, run and shoot through a Xandarian plaza. A feeling of uncertainty washed over me as that scene unfolded - the stuttered cutting and framing feeling out of place with the whole film in retrospect - and I began to wonder at the time if we were possibly in for a jarring ride as we were whisked off to yet another corner of the galaxy in double-quick time to deal with the contractually and property obliged link to the greater Marvel plan, before heading back to Peter and the gang once again.
Thankfully, Gunn, the cast and the script settle into their stride quickly afterwards and with introductions and compulsory plot threads out of the way the spectacle really begins. The action sequences look superb upon the big screen, the stereoscopic 3D complimenting those moments where dog-fights in zero gravity or above a city skyline are order of the day and in terms of scope the Marvel universe has never felt so large, colourful and diverse. The makeup design is impeccable, backdrops expansive, action concussive and, in all honesty, Guardians Of The Galaxy could, with its timing and scale, be viewed as a warning shot across the bows of 20th Century Fox and JJ. Abrams’ Star Wars ambitions for 2015.
Definitely quirky, continuously funny, just ever so-slightly clunky and in-no-doubt warm-hearted, Guardians Of The Galaxy is a fine, high quality crescendo for the 2014 summer blockbuster season, a brilliant example of how you convincingly put together a team of unknown characters in a two hour time frame and shows that there’s great potential to be found in Marvel’s lesser-known canon when it comes to live action treatment. 8/10