Summer movies don’t need to take themselves so seriously. In recent years there’s been a push to ground everything in grim, realistic takes on adapted material—probably in part due to the success of movies like “The Dark Knight.” The franchise’s director, Christopher Nolan, took decades of continuity about a guy dressed up like a bat to fight crime, and turned it into a morality film about order, chaos and duty.
Once one archetypal movie succeeds, Hollywood copies and pastes the process. Unfortunately, grounding everything is often a recipe for sucking the fun out of a film. Summer blockbusters don’t need to be dour; instead, they need to be unshackled, so they become something greater. Almost all the films I’ve enjoyed this summer have a sense of whimsy: “Snowpierecer” is a serious movie with an insane premise and production design, and “Lucy” comes wonderfully weird—now there’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“Guardians of the Galaxy” renders master-class fun. It understands that just because the lives of billions are at stake, it doesn’t mean characters can’t crack a joke. Director James Gunn (“Slither,” “Super”) has delivered the most satisfying summer movie in ages. It’s a spacefaring adventure, featuring a cast of misfits on a quest to save the galaxy from an epic threat. The film packs to the gills with characters and happenings; but none of it feels superfluous, and it’s all ridiculously entertaining.
Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”) plays Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, a thief who cons his way through a cruel universe. He’s quick with a joke and a laser-gun-stealing treasure out to make cash. Peter’s a lovable rogue that, in the movies of yesteryear, would’ve been a swashbuckler, swinging across the bow of a pirate ship on a rope, with a knife clenched between his teeth.
While trying to obtain an ancient orb, he ends up in space jail with a host of characters who share a similar goal. It’s like “Orange is the New Black”—but instead of “Crazy Eyes,” you get an 8-foot talking tree that can only say: ”I am Groot.”
All the characters are connected by this mysterious orb. Quill wants to sell it for cash—a goal shared by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned master assassin determined to escape the cruel patronage of her father Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax (Dave Bautista)—who wants vengeance on Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), an evil-alien warlord hellbent on destroying worlds with the orb’s power—is a literal killing machine. Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) are two bounty hunters, looking for a piece of the action. They join as a tentative team of mercenaries, who seek a large fortune to bankroll a new life.
Their divergent goals come with many hindrances. Ronan commands an army that searches every inch of the galaxy for the thieves. Quill’s former boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker), is a down-and-dirty looter, who doesn’t take kindly to double crosses. On top of that, Gamora’s sister, Nebulae (Karen Gillan), a genetically enhanced weapon, has been tasked with capturing the orb seekers. Like I said: This movie is big—huge. There’s a lot going on, and it all works at breakneck speed. It rarely pauses between amazing spectacles.
Much credit goes to its director for making such a satisfying movie. The story never supersedes the characters and rarely devolves into clichés. Our heroes are an extremely likable group of misfits; all atypical in a superhero universe populated with Iron Man and Thor. These are the other guys. They’re reluctant, lack impulse control and aren’t exactly a think-tank.
The other heaping helping of recognition goes to Chris Pratt; he owns this movie. Pratt’s vulnerable and has no problem being the butt of a joke. People make Han Solo comparisons; though misguided, they’re understandable. In truth, Pratt’s Peter is more like Bruce Campbell’s Ash in “Army of Darkness.” (For the record: I love that.) There’s a scene toward the end of the movie where Pratt challenges a villain to a dance-off. It may be the most fearless scene in a summer blockbuster I’ve seen in years. (Something I never could picture Harrison Ford pulling off.)
Pratt is the real deal, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” achieves great heights because of his willingness to entertain and not be taken too seriously. This is a great, great summer movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Starring Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper
Directed by James Gunn