‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is a sci-fi high: 3.5 stars

07/31/2014 8:00 AM

07/31/2014 1:00 PM

Look. Up in the sky. It’s a … wisecracking raccoon with a rifle.

What?

Never fear, superhero fans. This isn’t a DC Comics movie. This is the latest effort from mighty Marvel Studios, which is blazing a quality streak to rival Pixar’s heyday.

And this time Marvel took a D-list team launched in a 1969 comic book — one that nobody cared about back in the day — and turned it into the slickest, funniest action blockbuster of the summer.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” proves you don’t have to be an Avenger to rescue the Marvel Universe.

Without being shackled to fanboy expectations of how iconic costumed characters should be depicted, filmmaker James Gunn (“Super”) runs wild with the opportunity. He introduces us to grieving youth Peter Quill, kidnapped by aliens and raised to be opportunistic thief Star-Lord (a career-skyrocketing performance by Chris Pratt). His only Earth keepsake is a Walkman and cassette titled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” compiled by his mother.

Trying to capitalize on an outlaw name no one seems to recognize, the tech-fortified Star-Lord roams the cosmos pilfering items while grooving to tunes such as Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” (Every hit from his personal soundtrack is incorporated amusingly into the flick.)

His latest theft of a shot-put-sized orb earns the wrath of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who wants to use its mysterious contents to wipe out the enemy Xandarian race.

Helping Star-Lord foil these plans are green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who always classes up the joint) and vendetta-fueled warrior Drax (ex-WWE wrestler Dave Bautista). Also joining are tandem bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically modified raccoon, and his enforcer Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid with limited communication skills. Really.

This motley crew of weirdos appears to have no chance of working together. The movie’s best moments involve the steep learning curve the five must endure, and putting aside ego, prejudice and personal gain before bonding as a team.

The newly ripped Pratt makes quite an entertaining ringleader, weaving effortlessly between fight scenes and comedy gags.

“I see losers. I mean, folks who have lost something,” he stumbles while attempting to whip up this troop before a big battle.

Drax hails from a race that has no concept of the metaphor, so everything that comes out of his mouth is literal. Bautista plays it with stampeding sincerity, and he looks downright otherworldly in a teal/red tattooed frame that nearly measures up to the Hulk without any CGI. (All the makeup and creature effects are so impressive that entire chunks of the film could rival the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”)

And Groot? How much mileage can you get from a character capable of speaking only the three words “I am Groot”? Apparently, two hours’ worth, as every joke sticks the landing.

The film’s only significant hitch is its villain. Ronan’s hooded costume may be armored, but its occupant is pure cardboard. He lacks the chaotic malice of Loki or the conflicted backstory of the Winter Soldier. He’s simply another self-important conqueror. Single-minded. Humorless. Such a letdown for a movie that makes a talking tree interesting.

Fortunately, Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s screenplay doesn’t merely offer a good guy versus bad guy setup. Other more ambiguous entities factor in, from the greedy Ravagers (led by Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned redneck) and the Xandar planetary military headed by Nova Prime (Glenn Close in a hairdo that looks like a vanilla soft-serve cone) to the elder powers that roam the sidelines (Benicio del Toro as the compulsive Collector and Josh Brolin as uber-warlord Thanos).

Following the equally surprising “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” emphasizes how the resourceful Marvel Studios can craft superior event movies regardless of the source material.

Awesome Mix Vol. 1, indeed.

‘GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’

3.5 stars

Rated PG-13 | Time: 2:02

Fantastic Five

Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” is based on an evolving team of comic-book heroes who first appeared in 1969 (though this particular lineup came together in the comics in 2008). Here’s who’s who … and what’s what (from left):

Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper): A genetically altered, cybernetically enhanced talking raccoon who also happens to be a bounty-hunting mercenary and a master of munitions. And yes, his creation was inspired by the Beatles song “Rocky Raccoon.”

Gamora (Zoe Saldana): An assassin who was raised by uber-bad guy Thanos to be the deadliest killer in the galaxy.

Drax (former pro wrestler Dave Bautista): This humorless and rage-filled hulk is out to avenge the deaths of his family, who were killed by the Kree zealot Ronan (more on him on D4).

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt): Abducted from Terra (Earth) at a young age, Quill is an interstellar adventurer and scavenger who calls himself Star-Lord.

Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel): He is Groot.

Source: Marvel Studios

3-D OR NOT 3-D?

Nearly every scene benefits from 3-D, from you-are-there action scenes to the visual details that paint the edges of the frame.

Bring on the bad guys

Among the villains making life miserable for the galaxy and its Guardians:

Ronan (Lee Pace): A radical warrior fighting an ancient battle between his race, the Kree, and the Xandarians, Ronan seeks a mystic object for Thanos in exchange for victory over his enemies.

Nebula (Karen Gillan): Another of Thanos’ assassin daughters, the cybernetic Nebula is a loyal lieutenant to Ronan.

Source: Marvel Studios

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