GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Chris Pratt (Jurassic World), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Dave Bautista (Spectre), Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious 8), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Pom Klementieff (Oldboy), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Slither)

Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes

Release Date: 28 April (UK), 5 May (US)

It’s still hard to believe three years later that Guardians of the Galaxy became such a huge hit. What seemed like a film that would appeal only to the most diehard of comic book fans has become a movie that even those otherwise uninterested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grown to love. It was my favourite film of 2014, my favourite film in the MCU so far, and one of my all-time favourite comic book movies in general. Topping that is a task that I don’t think anyone would feel up to, but James Gunn proves to be more than up to the task of trying. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 by no means surpasses its predecessor but, thankfully, it is a more-than-worthy sequel that makes all the right choices in all the important places.

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Like its forbearer, Vol. 2 doesn’t factor too heavily into the rest of the ongoing Marvel storyline, but it does rest heavily on your connections to these characters from the first film. The story gets off to a breakneck start and quickly gets into the meat of the story, answering pretty much all of the lingering questions left at the end of the previous movie, and it results in something far more personal and emotionally driven than you might expect. There’s still a lot of action spectacle with the fate of the galaxy at stake, and even more of James Gunn’s unique and exaggerated sense of humour, but it feels far more intimate than before due to its multi-strand structure and a bigger focus on the theme of family. The story splits up the Guardians for a majority of it and, whilst this does allow for the team to sink into new situations and interact with different characters, it does take away some of the unity of the group.

The focus feels spread a little too thin between the various story threads, with some getting more focus than they should when more vital stories feel lacking. There are a lot of scenes of characters sitting down to explain their neurosis and hang-ups and, whilst a lot of the character depth drawn from these moments is extremely satisfying and well executed, it’s a beat that gets repeated far too often; the entire cast might as well be sitting in a trust circle as they spout their inner issues. Gratefully, it all does come together eventually into an extremely satisfying finale on both an entertainment and emotional level. I’d say it’s slightly more comparable to The Wrath of Khan than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s a flattering comparison nonetheless. All in all, it’s still an constantly hilarious and delightful experience that I can see many enjoying even more than the first film, and in many respects it does surpass it in terms of scale and depth, but it doesn’t have quite the same sense of focus and simplicity as the original that allowed its idiosyncrasies to stand out.

The characters are what ultimately made the first Guardians so immensely enjoyable, and here everyone gets more time to develop and add more quotable zingers to their repertoire. Chris Pratt is as lovable as ever as Peter Quill and he obviously gets the most focus as he learns to connect with his father (Russell). It’s a powerful and touching journey that he goes on which pays off in dividends by the climax, one that really drives home why Quill is the way he is, but it does come at the cost of some of his humour. His story is so serious and grave that it sometimes robs Pratt of chances to be the dopey and charming Star-Lord we love, but it’s a payoff that just about balances out before it gets too grave.

Rocket feels like he gets the next-best development as learns to be more of a team player, forming a relationship with Yondu (Rooker) that I wish had more time to develop, and Bradley Cooper’s performance once again helps make this foul-mouthed raccoon come to life in endearing fashion. Dave Bautista continues to be the film’s secret weapon as Drax, providing even more laughs with his blunt honesty and literalism, and he even forms a lovely bond with newcomer Mantis (Klementieff). Zoe Saldana’s Gamora can feel a little sidelined at points, spending her time either trying to reconcile with her sister Nebula (Gillan) or playing hard-to-get with Quill, whilst Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is pretty much relegated to comic antics and being adorable. Admittedly, that’s not too far removed from his role in the first, but he doesn’t get a “we are Groot” payoff moment in this climax that makes him more than just the butt of jokes.

Michael Rooker is the real show-stealer here as Yondu, building immensely on his character and defining his relationship with Quill in a really honest and heart-warming way; he is the true core of what this movie is about. Karen Gillan continues to be a fun presence as Nebula, especially since she spends way more time with the Guardians here and bouncing off their antics with her bitterness, but she ultimately seems a bit superfluous. She gets some great scenes, especially any moment with Gamora and a really funny bit with Kraglin (Sean Gunn), but it doesn’t connect cohesively back to the main plot like the other side stories do.

In regards to new faces, the big draw is of course Kurt Russell as Ego and yet, even though Russell’s performance itself is as charming as you might expect, the film never quite sells you on the character’s motivations. The moments where Quill and him begin to bond and learn about each other are fantastic, but his ultimate turn lacks the emotional justification he had built up to that point. He’s meant to be misguided and disconnected, yes, but the story doesn’t quite do enough to explain why. Pom Klementieff makes for a great foil to Drax as Mantis, countering his brusque straightforwardness with an endearing emotional honesty and innocence; this is one relationship I hope continues to blossom. Elizabeth Debicki makes for a distinct secondary antagonist as the highly conceited Ayesha, and the film leaves plenty of room for her and her Sovereign followers to grow in future instalments, but their presence feels more like more conflict for the sake of scale rather than anything that connects deeply with the main narrative. Sylvester Stallone’s role (which I won’t spoil here) is basically an extended cameo but it’s fun while it lasts, mainly helping to give more depth to Yondu’s storyline, but it’s a role that also has plenty of potential for expansion in future instalments. There are even more fantastic cameos throughout that I won’t ruin here, but if you’re seriously into your deep lore cosmic Marvel characters then you won’t be disappointed.

Everything you love that made Guardians of the Galaxy such a distinctive film in the superhero landscape on an aesthetic level returns here on an even bigger scale. There are oodles of imaginative designs here for aliens and planets and spacecraft and weapons, all captured with mounds of brightness and colour that make it feel like a comic book come to life. The action sequences are gigantic in scale and they run the gamut from intense one-on-one scraps to intergalactic dogfights that look like a game of Galaga come to life; the break-out sequence on the Ravager ship and the final destructive showdown on Ego’s planet really take the cake. Guardians wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable without its music and, along with yet another rousing score from Tyler Bates, the soundtrack selection for Awesome Mix Vol. 2 is an interesting selection of 70s and 80s tunes. There aren’t quite as many well-tested classics as in the first mix, opting instead for more offbeat choices, but they feel more intimately connected to the story at hand; a finely tuned emotional playlist rather than a jukebox of party hits.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t quite match up to the original, but it’s still a fantastic movie well worth seeing in the cinema for anyone who loves these characters even in the slightest. What it perhaps lacks in originality and focus is a result of a slight adjustment in priorities, and instead delivers a touching and intimate story about the nature of family; it’ll make you cheer, it’ll make you laugh, it might even make you cry (I certainly did). It feels like a distinctive beast from the first film, a natural evolution rather than just a bigger version of the same movie, and that ultimately helps me to forgive some of its shortcomings. The Guardians still have a lot of interesting places to go and this film certainly sets up a lot of possibilities for a whole new slew of cosmic adventures they could go on, but more imminently it’s going to be interesting to see how they fit in when Infinity War finally rears its head next summer.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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