Reviewing the Films of 2014, Part IV: Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Cineplex
First, my apologies to any who were hoping I'd post regular movie reviews this year; I simply haven't made it even to many of the films I wanted to see. Even so, just like The Lego Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy was down in my ledger as a film I could NOT miss. The trailer alone, with its infectious use of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" (also sampled nicely within the movie), practically guaranteed that I would be seeing the film. Apparently, I was not alone; as the film's $94 million opening weekend attests, Disney and Marvel's marketing campaign was a success. Between this one and the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the following weekend, studio execs everywhere are scratching their heads and going, "Well, maybe an August release can work after all." Having now seen it, I must say that this is a film that largely lives up to expectations. Certainly the word-of-mouth has been FAR more positive than for TMNT, suggesting a longer and more profitable run. This seems fitting; unlike TMNT, which made me cringe when I heard Michael Bay was behind a reboot, and which I still am reluctant to see, Guardians was that rare film that I was doubtful about when I first heard about it but grew more and more excited as the release date neared, and that did not then thoroughly let me down. To wit, this film is based on one of the B-list properties from Marvel Comics, a ragtag team of space misfits that I previously knew primarily by name. Starlord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, and arguably Groot, along with chief antagonist Ronan the Accusor and the strange Collector were all known to me by name; I have gained much enjoyment from playing Rocket Raccoon in one of the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting games--I think it was Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3--and pretty much any fan of Marvel Comics has at least a PASSING familiarity with Thanos. Otherwise, I was even less familiar with these characters than I was Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye and Nick Fury; growing up, I was into X-Men and Spider-Man, and it could be that my giving Marvel movies more glowing reviews may have something to do with that relative lack of familiarity. However, nerd rage has generally been quieter with these properties than with the ones at Sony and (particularly) FOX, so they must be doing something right. Anyway, on to the review.
Guardians of the Galaxy
As noted before, I definitely enjoyed James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy. It is an irreverent, offbeat comic book movie that really owes more of a debt to space operas like Star Wars and Cowboy Bebop, as well as "super" hero movies like Kick-Ass and Gunn's own film Super, than the sort of genuine super-hero movies audiences have come to expect from Marvel Studios. That said, there are still plenty of touchstones here to suggest a connection to The Avengers and its satellite movies; both the Collector (Benicio del Toro) and Thanos (James Brolin) appeared in the end-credits sequences for previous Marvel films, the Tesseract is featured in the scene explaining the Infinity Stones, and a Dark Elf and a Chitauri are shown in cages in the Collector's base. Also, *minor spoiler* though this is his first appearance onscreen in close to thirty years, the rumors regarding the slight return of Howard the Duck are indeed correct. Even so, this is a great standalone film, one that sets up future crossovers but does not rely on its predecessors to be enjoyed thoroughly.
The film starts with young Peter Quill struggling with the impending death of his mother. He is summoned to her bedside by his grandfather, but is unable to take her hand when she asks. While she is still weakly asking him to take her hand, she dies, and a traumatized Quill runs outside, only to be promptly beamed up by a spaceship. I couldn't help but chuckle at a funny irony here--one of the previews before Guardians had been for a movie called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and I wondered if Alexander's family could possibly have had as bad a day as young Peter Quill. Anyway, the film then skips ahead 20-odd years, and we meet a now-grown Quill (Chris Pratt) exploring a seemingly abandoned planet for an orb-shaped prize that turns out to be far more than most anyone had bargained for. As he is about to make his getaway, he is accosted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), who is also after the orb, working for a nasty Kree piece of work known as Ronan the Accusor (Lee Pace). Quill gives Korath the slip, and also skips out on his longtime colleague Yondu (Michael Rooker) in order to pawn the orb off himself and make a bigger profit. Ronan sends the assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after Quill, Yondu and his men give chase, and Quill also winds up on the radar of a strange pair of bounty hunters--a cybernetic and genetically altered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and gentle-ish tree-creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). When Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot wreak havoc in the middle of the capital city of Xandar, they are arrested and thrown together into a high-security prison. In the interest of limiting spoilers, I'll simply say that it is here that they form a shaky alliance with each other, and with a hulking seeker of vengeance called Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Pratt is brilliant in the role of Quill, infusing him with the spirit of adventurers like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and allowing him to be a cocky ass while also being likeable and someone you can root for. Saldana does a fine job as Gamora, one of her better roles to date but nothing truly earthshattering. Cooper and Diesel both make the most of their offscreen performances, and turn in truly fine voice-work, and Pace does a fair job of giving Ronan the appropriate level of nastiness and menace. Brolin doesn't get to do much as Thanos, but it's clear from this brief cameo that he is likely the right man for the job. Rooker, looking and sounding every bit like a slightly more pleasant, blue version of The Walking Dead's Merle, gets a scene late in the game where I couldn't help but think, "Thank God Merle doesn't have one of those toys." You'll know it when you see it. The real surprise here is pro-wrestler Bautista, who really makes the most of his role to make Drax much more than just a mindless thug, and some of the film's more humorous and touching moments actually have Drax at their center. It is also worth repeating that the soundtrack to the film is practically a character unto itself; it freakin' rocks, and is yet another decisive argument for the need to have a "Best Use of Music in Film" category at the Oscars. The production values are also top-notch, with Oscar-level Production Design, Costumes, Makeup and Visual Effects; to my tin ear, the sound categories are also top-notch. The camerawork is great, but not as decisively awesome. Finally, the direction from James Gunn and writing from Gunn and Nicole Perlman are excellent, nicely complementing Joss Whedon's work on The Avengers while not overshadowing it. Two small complaints, though. Gunn's previous film, Super, featured Kevin Bacon in one of the best roles he's ever had (I seriously think he deserved awards buzz for that role). Some of the best lines in Guardians dealt with Kevin Bacon. Everybody knows he's in everything. And yet, no Kevin Bacon in this movie. Maybe they're saving him for the sequel? Anyway, we can hope, right? Second, while the found music in this film is awesome, the actual original music is relatively pedestrian; it's a shame they didn't put a bit more effort into that, though it should be noted that the effect on the film is minor.
Guardians of the Galaxy 9/10: Oscar-level for Best Director (James Gunn), Adapted Screenplay (James Gunn and Nicole Perlman), Cinematography, Art Direction/ Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Visual Effects, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing. Nominated for Best Makeup and Visual Effects.
Will Purchase? Hells yeah! This was an immensely enjoyable film to watch again and again.
Overall, this was an immensely enjoyable film, well worth seeing on the big screen. Here's hoping Marvel's hot streak isn't going to fade anytime soon, even if we do see a Howard the Duck movie two years from now. One thing, though; I do wish Marvel and Disney would not be so hell-bent on getting entire families out to see these movies. Even more so than most Marvel Studios productions, Guardians is NOT for young children. Older kids, fine, but there were several kids in the theater where I screened the film who really were a bit young for this kind of adult-skewing entertainment. Not that I want Disney to clamp down on Marvel and put out bland, whitewashed family entertainment--God no! I just feel that looking at a movie and saying, "Oh, hey, this has a talking raccoon, so it's aimed at kids" is stupid and reckless. Anyway, just putting that out there. If you are NOT a young kid, I highly recommend seeing this film.