Laugh-out-loud funny and production-designed to death, “Guardians of the Galaxy” pops off the screen, the last but far from the least of the summer of 2014’s popcorn pictures.
A willing cast playing stupid-cool characters, video-game friendly action beats, ROFL gags and a touch of heart make this franchise-opener a rare pleasant surprise in a summer that has sorely lacked them.
In 1988, a little boy sits, lost in his Sony Walkman’s mix tape, as his mother dies in a hospital. He weeps, flees into the parking lot and is promptly abducted by aliens.
Decades later, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt of “Delivery Man” and “Parks and Recreation”) is a “junker,” tracking down this orb thing for The Broker. He’s still listening to that Sony Walkman and its ‘70s hits mix tape.
But Peter, who wants everyone to call him “Star Lord,” runs afoul of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who wants the orb so he can wipe out an enemy. Peter is pursued by Ronan’s relatives – Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) – and Ronan’s minions, led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou).
He’s already being hunted by his blue-faced redneck boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker, spot on).
But the ones who catch him are the space police of the Nova Empire, ruled by Nova Prime (Glenn Close), policed by Dey (John C. Reilly).
Quill finds himself incarcerated with Gamora, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a science experiment that looks suspiciously like a raccoon, and Rocket’s towering tree-root sidekick, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). To get away, they enlist the hefty, single-minded avenger Drax, whose dimwitted dialogue is a form of poetry. Just don’t call him “thesaurus.” That goes right over his head.
“NOTHING goes over my head,” Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista, hilarious) declares. “My reflexes are too fast!”
Feisty Gamora tries to resist Peter’s “pelvic sorcery.”
The raccoon flips out if you call him “vermin” or “a rodent” because in this universe, “ain’t no thing like me EXCEPT me.”
And Quill spends WAY too much time explaining his taste in music – Blue Swede, 10cc, Mickey Thomas and Elvin Bishop – and his still-Earthbound slang, gestures and pop culture wisecracks.
“I come from a planet of outlaws ... Billy the Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, John Stamos.”
They have to bust out of prison to get the orb to a safe place before Ronan gets it. And yes, the raccoon is the brains of the outfit.
The script provides a laugh a minute, thanks to the wisecracks, dated music and great running gags. Groot, for instance, has just one sentence at his command: “I am Groot!”
It has a different emphasis and meaning every time he utters it. No, you can’t tell he’s Vin Diesel, but Bradley Cooper, liberated of his pretty-boy body, cuts loose as the voice of Rocket, an old-school wise guy trapped in a raccoon’s fur.
Everything about this, from the gadgets to the glorious makeup and digitally created characters – a cornucopia of aliens – to a dazzling space pod chase and space battles, is just as cool as you’d hope a summer sci-fi action comedy to be.
But stupid? Oh yeah. And pandering? My stars and garters!
Whatever the original “Guardians” were – the Marvel universe comic book series dates from the late ‘60s – its 2008 comic reboot and the film incarnation have been tailored for the fanboy and fangirl universe. The Western style lovable-rogues-in-space-theme rips off of everything from “Star Wars” to “Firefly,” with a healthy dose of the gone-but-not-quite-forgotten “Ice Pirates.”
If fanboydom has a reason to exist, it’s to rescue discredited and dismissed pop culture and give it the imprimatur of “classic.” Thus, the cute but goopy ‘70s pop soundtrack.
The characters, to a one, are variations on ideas born elsewhere – Groot as a cross between Treebeard (“Lord of the Rings”) and Chewbacca, for instance. There’s no point in starting your sci-fi franchise without fanboy pinup Saldana in the cast. If the role calls for a lot of makeup, tight costumes and high-kicking beat-downs, Zoe’s our lady.
And Pratt utterly commits to the part – singing and dancing and fearless about looking foolish. He wears the “Firefly” by way of Han Solo macho space leather well. He will never be the new Harrison Ford; he may become the new Nathan Fillion. As it stands now, he’s more the new Robert (“Ice Pirates”) Urich.
They’re going to make more “Guardians,” which is both good news and bad news. Director/ co-writer James (“Super”) Gunn won’t have the novelty of introducing us to this universe and these weirdos again. And since that’s pretty much the whole joke here, how will he get a curtain call out of them?
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
3 stars (Grade: B)
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, John C. Reilly, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Dave Bautista, Benicio Del Toro
Directed by James Gunn, scripted by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn. A Disney/Marvel Studios release.
Running time: 2:01
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language