Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, featuring Vin Diesel as Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Laura Haddock, with Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Runtime: 2 hrs 16 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: The Walt Disney Company
Opening Day: 27 April 2017
Synopsis: Set to the all-new sonic backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ kicks off with a brilliant opening-credits sequence that follows the incredibly adorable Baby Groot bopping and dancing to ELO’s jaunty ‘Mr Blue Sky’ while the rest of the Guardians – the smart-alecky Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), fierce warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), straight-talking tattooed muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista) and irascible Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – battle an outsized tentacled monster in the background. It is about as creative, inspired and delightful as anything that has come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so far, and for a while at least, makes you think that this follow-up to one of the most enjoyable comic-book movies in recent years would meet, or even surpass, the sky-high expectations inevitably set by its predecessor.
Alas it doesn’t take long for you to realise that Vol.2 is hardly as light on its feet, quick on its wit or swift in its moves as Vol 1. To his credit, returning writer-director James Gunn doesn’t follow conventional wisdom by forcing the very ragtag band of space heroes apart right after bringing them together; instead, Gunn deepens the individual character storylines by forcing each one of his bunch of misfits to deal with their daddy, mommy and sister issues. That is hardly a bad thing per se – in fact, one scene where Star-Lord and Baby Groot cozy up while listening to Cat Stevens’ ‘Father and Son’ ranks as one of the most emotionally poignant moments in any MCU movie thus far – but Gunn struggles to balance his characters’ insecurities and emotional scars at the heart of the picture with the demands of spectacle-driven blockbuster storytelling as well as a sheer number of players jostling for time and significance.
To be sure, Peter remains the stalwart focus of the narrative. It is his long-lost birth father Ego (Kurt Russell) who pops up all of a sudden to save him and his comrades from the pursuit of an elitist and vindictive race known as The Sovereign. It is their genealogy that has led Ego to search out Peter, in order to impart vast knowledge and powers so that they can rule the world together. And last but not least, it is Peter’s adopted father Yondu (Michael Rooker) who shows up to save the day, getting the opportunity in the process to restore the dignity he lost from his brotherhood of Ravagers for trafficking child slaves. Oh yes, it all ties together and around Peter, including the third-act plotting that turns one of the key supporting characters into a villain for a long and protracted action-packed finale. But between that and evading annihilation by the Sovereign, there is enough – arguably too much – subplot and supporting characters here to fill a dozen galaxies.
Among the strands in the B plot: Gamora’s feud with her artificially enhanced sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) stemming from their father Thanos pitting one sister against the other during their younger day; Drax's friendly and possible romantic rapport with Ego’s Empath assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff); Rocket’s abrasiveness that Yondu calls out point-blank as a fear of getting close to anyone; and last but not least Peter and Gamora’s budding romance which the latter resists for fear of jeopardising the Guardians. As you may expect, not all of these largely distinct threads are developed or resolved as satisfactorily as one another, but juggling them causes not only the movie to lose momentum during the first half but also come off disjointed. Though the various character arcs do eventually pay off, there is no disguising that the back-and-forth among the multitude comes at the expense of cohesive and compelling plotting, which is almost exercised only expediently to justify yet another big-budget action setpiece.
It certainly doesn’t help that it is altogether less fun than the original. The bickering and bantering among the motley crew is still hugely entertaining - especially Drax’s tell-it-as-it-is dour deadpan – but somewhat diluted in the second act when the team splits up, in order that Rocket fix their spaceship while Star-Lord, Gamora and Drax explore Ego’s home-world. The bombastic action is even heavier on humour than previously, and while certain bits like Rocket teaching Baby Groot to detonate a bomb crucial for their survival is genuinely amusing, the surreal psychedelic sci-fi computer-generated visuals is pretty to look at but often does not amount to anything thrilling. And though the soundtrack picks of just-obscure-enough 70s and 80s still work exceptionally well in carrying the plot along or emphasising its emotional beats, Gunn stuffs too many of them together at the start to try to smooth over the film’s obvious pacing and rhythm issues.
For all its shortcomings though, there is still plentiful bits to enjoy. As we’ve said, the chemistry between our main heroes is still solid, but what stands out too this time round is the dynamic between Star-Lord and Ego (at least before their relationship goes south to serve larger narrative obligations), that between Gamora and Nebula, and that between Drax and Mantis – Pratt and Russell share a nice father-son ritual playing catch with a magical glowing orb; Saldana and Gillan play well off each other; and Bautista gets to share some tender scene-stealing moments with Klementieff. There are also nice inventive touches here and there – such as how the Sovereign engage in battle with the Guardians behind video game-like stations on the mothership, or how Yondu takes out an entire ship of his mutinous companions with a floating arrow that he controls by whistling. Gunn also deserves credit for never over-using Baby Groot, which makes his big moments (one particularly memorable one has him fumbling his task of retrieving Yondu’s fin so as to break Yondu and Rocket out of prison) even more enchanting.
Whether Vol 2 lives up to expectation depends really on where your expectation lies. Because we hardly knew what to expect before, Vol. 1 was privileged with the element of surprise; on the other hand, the same quirks that made Vol. 1 such an unexpected crowdpleaser are still present here, though inevitably not as fresh and therefore as charming as before. The decision to focus on character growth and conflict is admirable, but there is not enough of a plot to hold all of them together in the same movie, let alone accommodate the big-screen violence and mayhem that its status as an MCU movie beholds it to. Of the action too, there is a lot happening at the same time but paradoxically too little to hold our interest, saved only by the wise-cracking Rocket and the irresistibly cute Baby Groot. As the middle-child in what will be a trilogy, you’ll be left hanging with not one, not two but five post-credits scenes as well as last-minute cameos by Sylvester Stallone, Ving Rhames and Michelle Yeoh as fellow Ravagers. If Vol. 1 had raised the bar somewhat sky-high, Vol. 2 definitely brings the bar down – that isn’t a bad thing for Vol. 3, but nonetheless makes Vol. 2 underwhelming and somewhat disappointing.
(The soundtrack is still earwormy, the visuals are still psychedelic, and the chemistry is still strong, but too little plot, too many character diversions, and too much CGI bloat makes Vol. 2 less delightful, witty or thrilling than its predecessor)
Review by Gabriel Chong