A glorious hodgepodge of superheroes, futuristic space battles and anachronistic ’70s pop tunes, the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” stands among Marvel’s best adaptations.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” — the title inspired by the “awesome mixtape” found at the film’s end that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) pops into his weathered Sony Walkman — hardly erodes the franchise’s reputation.
“Vol. 2” provides an often funnier and deeper work but admittedly lacks the breakneck momentum of the original.
Like the classic rock soundtrack powering this picture, the hits outweigh the misses, yet there are times when one is tempted to press the fast-forward button.
With the scene-setting graphic “Missouri, Earth,” we’re introduced to Quill’s alien father, Ego (Kurt Russell). As he woos a Midwestern gal to the syrupy strains of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, he also plants a strange glowing shrub in the Show Me State topsoil.
Flash forward 34 years. The titular characters — which include avocado-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), blunt brawler Drax (Dave Bautista) and belligerent “trash panda” Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) — defend a valuable energy source from a Lovecraftian monster. While these teammates dodge the tentacles and gaping maw of the beast in the background, the oblivious seedling Groot grooves to the bouncy orchestrations of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in the foreground.
Such a bizarrely perfect way to get the movie going: The right mix of action, humor, satire, special effects and pop culture allusions. This despite the fact the toddler-sized Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel) looks at best adorable and at worst like the creepy dancing baby from “Ally McBeal.”
The mission earns the Guardians their payment: reclaiming Gamora’s malevolent sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) as their prisoner. But Rocket also steals some of the energy “batteries” from the Sovereign, the golden race that hired them. This prompts their leader, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to employ blue archer Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his pirate gang of Ravagers to hunt down the thieves.
Coming to the rescue is Ego. A powerful being known as a Celestial, who describes himself as “a god with a small ‘G,’ ” Ego discloses secrets about Quill’s own “unorthodox genealogy.” It ushers the needy adventurer toward an escalating struggle between loyalty to his father and to his fellow guardians.
Few movies have built up more advance goodwill than this sequel to the 2014 blockbuster. Writer/director James Gunn doesn’t waste the opportunity, crafting an epic that capitalizes on the colorful characters (often buried beneath Oscar-worthy makeup effects) while devising a completely different story arc.
The main improvements involve expanding the roles of two supporting players. Yondu reveals more complex motivations than initially assumed from a mohawked redneck with a murderous whistle. Nebula, who was just a one-dimensional cyborg in the previous pic, regains some humanity due to her “Jan Brady” sister issues with Gamora.
The regular Guardians aren’t shortchanged in the process. Each gets standout moments in both the heroic and comedic categories. But ex-WWE wrestler Bautista (who is pushing 50!) comes across strongest. The gag that the teal-and-red patterned Drax hails from a race unfamiliar with metaphors contributes all kinds of candid observations, usually punctuated by his infectious laugh. These hilariously inform his interactions with Ego’s empathic servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who Drax inexplicably finds repulsive.
Less effective is the whole story with Ego. In action movies, revenge plots (as in the first flick) tend to work better than exploration/revelation plots. Even though amusing bits happen during this journey — particularly how a mutiny is handled aboard Yondu’s craft — the journey itself isn’t very intriguing.
Most disappointing is the soundtrack. The genius of the original film was tied to how Quill’s lone remnant of his Earth-born heritage orbited around a crappy cassette recording. There was a shaggy quality to mixing singles by Redbone, Blue Swede and the Runaways that proved endearing. The “Vol. 2.” selections feel less organic. Force-fed. The planet-busting finale scored to Silver’s middling 1976 hit “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang” smacks of desperation rather than Tarantino-style musical counterpoint.
It’s a daunting task faced by Gunn, and his new “Guardians” does almost enough to recapture the irreverent magic of the first movie. Almost.
But as Silver sang in “Wham Bam”: “Then comes a time that you’re ridden with doubt / You’ve loved all you can and now you’re all loved out.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2’
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content.
3D or not 3D box
With barely a shot in the film that doesn’t capitalize on visual dazzle, the 3D makes the action scenes livelier and the fringe details more distinctive.