Guardians of the Galaxy

Name droppers. They’re annoying in most walks of life, but I will wager my life savings that in the world of celebrity they are more prevalent than anywhere else, so it would be in bad taste to mention how in tweeting to James Gunn to ascertain whether there was any validity to rumours of a cameo featuring Nathan Fillion in his new film I already had a strong feeling this was going to be a special film, Captain Mal’s non-appearance non-withstanding. As the monthly appearance of yet another Marvel movie I objectively don spectacles and head inside for two hours of entertainment in the hope that the magic of the comic book movie hasn’t worn off and become yet another clichéd studio cash cow.

For those unfamiliar with Gunn’s work, he is best known for having written the screenplay for the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, to this day one of the best remakes in Hollywood, the success of which allowed him to write and direct the cult B-movie Slither starring fan-favourite Nathan Fillion, their friendship leading to the aforementioned rumours, a natural progression for a man who cut his teeth working for the infamous Troma studios. The video game Lollipop Chainsaw allowed him to show his range with a bejewelled-chainsaw wielding cheerleader who slashed hordes of zombies with the disembodied head of her jock boyfriend strapped to her belt, confirming that Gunn brings a humorous approach to any subject matter.

With Marvel looking to expand their burgeoning cinematic portfolio to include more of their universe of characters, a burden is placed on the shoulders of the still relatively young director James Gunn to keep a core of fans happy with the source material and also bring the rest of the audience in on a largely unknown ensemble of heroes and villains in an enjoyable and exciting way, whilst also recouping a budget estimated at £103M/$170M US.

So how does Gunn fare in this first outing under the Marvel banner? With such a big budget, one could attempt the Michael Bay approach, spending it all on pyrotechnics, or the traditional Hollywood gamble of contracting big name superstars. Instead, there is a touch of Tarantino in this film, not in stylised ultra-violence and vintage editing but in the ensemble cast comprising a terrific mix of young talent.

Neither the main guardians nor the principal villain are recognisable A-listers, with the more recognisable veterans confined to supporting roles, helping to immerse the audience without too much exposition, a fault demonstrated in another summer “blockbuster” this year, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Add to that some slick dialogue with great one-liners and an eclectic soundtrack which has gone straight to number one in the I-tunes and Amazon album charts, and there is much here Quentin would be proud of. That is not to say this is an homage, and each member of the cast adds much in their own performance to create a rich tapestry, and Gunn’s direction has the real feel of the action adventure films of the eighties such as Flash Gordon, Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and that feeling hits from the start.

In 1988, Young Peter Quill runs crying from the hospital where his mother has just died when he is taken by a UFO; twenty years later, and enter Chris Pratt (best known as ditch dweller Andy in the hilarious Parks and Recreation) as the adult Quill aka Star-Lord, shimmying and dancing around an abandoned planet hunting for a mysterious treasure. No sooner does he find it then he is set upon by the Kree, who have their own designs on the powerful orb.

Deciding it is valuable, Quill betrays his partner Yondu (Michael Rooker, another graduate of Slither, more recently seen in The Walking Dead) to sell it himself. Yondu places a bounty on Quill’s head which Groot and Rocket (voiced by Riddick’s Vin Diesel and Limitless’ Bradley Cooper respectively) hope to collect.

The Han and Chewie of this universe, these mercenaries will do anything for cash: that Rocket is a cyborg racoon and Groot is a large tree-like creature who can only say “I am Groot” is by the by, and whereas all others we meet are humanoid, they are the only aliens in the film, which doesn’t stop Rocket stealing many of the best lines and the understated Groot adding to the charm of the film.

When the Kree learn of the orb’s location, their leader Ronan (Lee Pace, unrecognisable as Pushing Daisies’ gentle piemaker), working under the powerful Thanos (True Grit’s Josh Brolin), sends Thanos’ daughter Gamora (Star Trek Into Darkness’ Zoë Saldanda) to retrieve it, leading to a four-way fight between Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot on the main planet of the system, Xandar.

Arrested by Nova police Corpsman Dey (John C Reilly) and sent to the prison ship Klyn, the presence of Gamora puts the group in danger from those seeking revenge on Thanos through his daughter, and first to try is metaphor impaired inmate Drax the Destroyer (Riddick’s Dave Bautista) attempts the feat. Can Quill keep Gamora safe long enough for them to escape before Ronan’s forces arrive?

Unlike the painful characterisation of the Star Wars prequels, the Guardians of the Galaxy are genuine and believable; they argue, they fight, they joke, and despite their own expectations, they take care of each other. They make no pretence to be more than they are, but they are good people trying to survive in bad times; how the wider universe will feed back into the ongoing Marvel cinematic universe remains to be seen, though the link is there, with Benicio del Toro’s Collector and Thanos’ vizier The Other both having cameos in previous films, Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers.

unlike The Phantom Menace and its successors, while the vast majority of the locations and two key characters are fully virtual, not once does the setting or those who inhabit it feel less than real; the environments may be digital, but they are solid rather than the overly fussy halls of the Royal Palace on Naboo; the story is in the action rather than the design, and while the bright yellow Nova Corps fleet may superficially resemble the Naboo starfighters as they swarm around Ronan’s Dark Aster, the feeling of the final battle, in fact the whole film, is more akin to A New Hope, and if space opera can once again be as fun as this, that hope is long overdue.

Guardians of the Galaxy is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX




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