James Gunn, Michael Rooker Elevate ‘GOTG Volume 2’ Past Predecessor

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Marvel Studios

Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2

Written and Directed by James Gunn

Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, and Kurt Russell

136 Minutes

Everyone has that one question that, while fairly common, evokes a twitch from the corner of your eye because you lack a definitive answer. That question for me is the most difficult to answer in the universe – “What’s your favorite movie of all time?” Sweet Christmas, nothing makes me tweak more. (Okay, well, if you ask me who David Hasselhoff is, that’s worse. Or admitting you’ve never see Back To The Future.) You may as well grab yourself a comfy chair, stretch out your legs, and get ready for a lengthy lecture as to why I can’t settle on just one or two films. Hell, I can’t even name a top three without my brain breaking a few gaskets. Now, if I break down the question into various genres and sub-genres, then that’s a easier question to remark. For example, if you would inquire what my favorite Marvel Studios film is – well, that’s actually a quite superb question. There are times I can easily peg 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers as my fave, the genius of Joss Whedon unfolding in front of our widened eyes. Other days I sway more towards last year’s Captain America: Civil War, the Russo Brothers bringing eight years’ worth of growing turmoil to a head.

Most of the time, though, I circle back to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s just something about bringing together five people that have absolutely no chemistry or common bond, but are united to form an eccentric clan to save the universe. Sure, they don’t need to do a damn thing for a single soul, but they inhabit the same universe that Ronan wants to obliterate – well, and after saving Xandar, they all see a way to save the day and earn money. What made the movie work so well was what James Gunn has done best in his other films, never mind the smaller scale – the wild and sharp-tongued sense of humor, eclectic cast of characters, the offbeat blending of action and quips, perfection in song selections, and multitude of stars who assemble in front of the camera. Even as Gunn announced he was returning to write and direct the sequel (Guardians of the Galaxy did earn $773 million – from a director helming his first big budget flick) my tongue was wagging. The wait would be painful but worthwhile.

Thankfully, those two years passed by fast and here we are, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 finally playing in screens across the globe. I sit here at home blaring Awesome Mix Volume 2 (itself as addictive and fun a listen as Awesome Mix Volume 1) and my mind whirring about what to gush on first, my senses still ablaze from a sold-out excitable crowd. Yet, even once I publish this review for you all to see, the one conclusion I’ve made will still remain true – not only is James Gunn’s sequel the most fun chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (more so than even the dazzling Doctor Strange) but I was more satisfied than I felt leaving the theater following both Rogue One and The Force Awakens.

No, don’t blink your eyes. You read that right. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a surreal and mesmerizing character-driven opus into the far corners of the galaxy, less about the action and more on the familial aspects of our core characters, all while exploring the backstories only teased previously with a pulse-pounding denouement that boasts the most impressive visuals Marvel has had in a film yet.

Without needing to introduce our five sort-of-heroes to us all over again, we dive wildly back into the lives of Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and (Baby) Groot. Sure, other properties need to have their teams led by a patriarchal or matriarchal figure to ensure there is order in chaos. Well…you see, the Guardians ain’t that sort of team though – actually, the word “hero” is a stretch maybe – and they function not as a core collective, but in disarray. Rocket and Quill bicker back and forth like the two older brothers vying to establish who is the crème de la crème of the team. Drax is more the questions-last, fight-first type lacking a filter on his blunt honesty, backed by a hearty boisterous laugh. Gamora can be marked as the tomboy sister who doesn’t stay behind in combat, instead standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest. Groot, well, he’s the infantile figure who’s still growing and learning, yet remains feisty thinking he can take on the world. (He’s just a wittle guy though.) They’re an imperfect family but get the job done.

Without the strain of needing to introduce audiences to our characters and their histories, James Gunn is free to break the storytelling mold and do as he sees fit. The narrative is pretty standard and common (hero meets daddy while hero and his friends are on the run from baddies) but Gunn takes a pretty formulaic model and flips the structure right upside down. What exactly keeps these five together? Certainly can’t be camaraderie, since they behave more like children on a elementary school playground. No, see, what Gunn understands is that they’re a family. Sure, they’re far from perfect. Quill is a pillager, Drax and Gamora murderers, Rocket and Groot thieves who take on galactic bounties. Their imperfections brought them together in the first place, thus creating a family who doesn’t ever say the word “love”but, because their skills combined make for a one-two punch, ally with each other for the galaxy’s sake. People need saving and the Guardians of the Galaxy await any challenge presented to them (for a fee). The more they cohabit with each other, the stronger a bond develops among them.

Family seems to be a common thread among the most successful films of 2017 so far, first with Logan and most recently with Fate of the Furious. Though, the main difference between all three is James Gunn’s ability to scrawl words together into long form that reference popular culture and palpable tropes, stitching his script with colorful metaphors, seemingly drawing on his own childhood with his brothers to create dialogue that feels very natural. The banter between Rocket and Quill doesn’t feel like a guy trading barbs with a feisty raccoon but rather two brothers with larger egos to one-up each other. The exchanges between sisters Gamora and Nebula feel like rival siblings coming to the realization they don’t want to further their rift with each other but peaceably figure out how they’re arrived at their figurative plateau of strife. Yondu, more of a background figure on the first go around, finds himself questioning what sort of mentor he’s truly been and if he can atone for the mistakes of his own past. Quill spends time with his father Ego trying to understand why, in the face of death and uncertainty, that his father would pack up and whisk away rather than face the inevitable. And Groot? Well, Groot’s the young child that loves to explore, to run and crawl, yet be chided by his “parents” in his fellow Guardians when he’s afraid and seeking solace. Gunn’s exploration of the analogy of family and growth make for some sincere laughs but some earnest inflections of our own interactions with friends we consider brothers and sister.

Though, one of my first thoughts really was how Gunn could pack so much thematic material into a 136 minute movie without fully stopping the pacing, given that the seeds of these themes were planted in the original installment. Gunn himself took to his Facebook page earlier this week to announce that you won’t be spoiled when being seated into theaters. Only the film’s first 20 minutes were part of all of the marketing that has besieged the Internet and at home. As the lights dimmed, the Dolby mix rose through the speakers, and Baby Groot began to cut a rug in the opening credits (much akin to the post-credit scene from the first Guardians) I came to the stark realization he was correct. While many marketing plans do their best to hold back on any spoilers, there is literally maybe the first thirty minutes witnessed in all of the trailers. I was very unsure of what the plot would be, aside from the Guardians crossing paths with Ego and Mantis, but once those scenes I had seen before were long gone, I was taken for a ride I didn’t expect. Sure, much of the film is all about growing our characters and exploring what keeps them going each day, but the best action sequences haven’t been been witnessed yet.

Gunn’s affinity for popular culture comes in handy for some of these scenes. One scene is a direct echo from one of our favorite George Lucas films (and no, not from the prequel trilogy), though more hyper kinetic and interwoven with gut-busting ridicule. Gamora herself gets her own thriller on foot that feels like Hitchcock descended from Heaven and approved Gunn’s desire to honor North By Northwest. And what would a Marvel be without a bevy of Easter eggs to B-list characters we clamor for but haven’t seen yet? Yes, a couple of favorites return from the 2014 original, which a somewhat expanded presence. The more the movie runs, the more one gets the sense that Kevin Feige looked at Gunn and told him to do what he does best – get creative, get excited, and do what you want. Gunn is quickly becoming the new Lucas or Spielberg. The journey here from his Troma days in the 1990’s may be long and coursing, but his knack of creative genius is finally allowed to be liberated. We’re all the better for a happy James Gunn.

Even while our television screens have been aglow with thirty-second commercials for weeks now, one’s first impression is the plot is centered around Quill finally discovering his father is, in fact, not just some fairy tale his mother dreamed of in her dying days. Rather, while the theme is clearly centered on the definition of family, there’s one character with whom the Guardians find themselves circling around – and that’s Yondu, the Ravager who mentored Quill as he was growing up.

I’ve a firm believer that Michael Rooker is one of the most criminally underappreciated and overlooked actors in Hollywood currently. Sure, he’s credited to the neighborhood of 115 acting credits. Henry: The Portrait of a Serial KillerEight Men OutJFK, The Dark HalfCliffhanger. I could rattle off film titles all day and gush on how his performances have all added layers to each project he’s been involved in. Rooker has truly shined the most with Mallrats (and no, I don’t want a chocolate-covered pretzel), alongside Call Of Duty: Black Ops II and Slither. Yet, his brief appearance in 2014’s franchise starter offered some of the more memorable moments. The sequence on Xandar with Yondu goading The Broker with nonsensical chatter? Absolutely priceless (and my current text ringtone may I add). So, for all of his other works in the last 21 years since his career has been in flight, the time is right for Rooker to finally steal the spotlight and earn his due diligence.

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Volume 2 is Rooker’s show once Yondu is first shown deep in contemplation, there’s no question on that generalization. Though each of the Guardians have their own inner struggles to overcome, Yondu’s may have the heaviest and meaty tale to tell. Rooker takes Gunn’s material, which is clearly tailored and runs away with it, his eyes doing most of the talking in a lively performance that makes Rooker stand up over the rest of the cast. With each step forward in the story, Rooker makes Yondu look very much human. Torn apart by his devotion to keeping Quill for his own and raising him not just as his own but as a Ravager, Yondu is guilt ridden. By breaking the Ravager code, has Yondu become more compassionate? Or was his mistake for his own personal gain? Yondu’s journey through self exploration is one of the best side stories that I’ve seen in a genre film in ages. Patrick Stewart may have had a hell of a role in Logan but the waves of emotion that Rooker dramatizes is dazzling and stunning. The amount of introspection and humanity that Rooker gives off as Yondu is touching, steals your beating heart from your chest, and runs out of the theater without taking a glance back. I personally believe Rooker as Yondu could go down as one of the best acted performances in a science fiction film as time passes. Amen, Rook. Gunn finally gave you your comeuppance and your time to shine is now more than ever.

Oh, and Sean Gunn as Kraglin? Though heavily underutilized in Volume 1, we’re given more screentime with Yondu’s right-hand man. Sean Gunn doesn’t disappoint as usual and actually steals the scene several times away from the likes of Karen Gillan and even Rooker himself. Why isn’t he a full-fledged Guardian yet?

Surprisingly, the film has a few other additions that run away with Gunn’s gifted wording and transform their roles into something more. Sure, Kurt Russell could have easily played Ego The Living Planet straight but channels a little bit of Jack Burton driving the Pork Chop Express across the cosmos instead of just another doting father figure who appears from nowhere looking for forgiveness. Despite what the trailers depict, Russell actually heavily factors into the furthering of the plot, his scenes with Chris Pratt feeling organic and raw with emotion. Pom Klementieff too has many scenes as the empath Mantis, who’s been by Ego’s side since she was just a newborn, finding herself attached to the doting Drax and, in his own way, original way of saying what he’s feeling, still lacking the ability to handle metaphors and sarcasm. Though we see little of Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, her roots are planted for a comeback as her goal is to eradicate the Guardians from existence following a mishap involving Rocket. (Who else could piss off a queen except a foul-mouthed surly trash panda?) However, if one addition is too little felt, it’d be Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord, a more virtuous Ravager who has an ax to grind with Yondu. Stallone isn’t in the film much but, like Debicki, has enough screen time to give audiences a taste of what to expect on his return. (Marvel’s already made it known they want Rocky Balboa, err, Stallone back for more.)

Though the song selection for Volume 1 was a greatest hits selection of what young Peter Quill listened to growing up with Yondu, Gunn truly digs deep into the well with a diversified playlist that plays the right beats. Some songs are more mainstream and are familiar – ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, even Cheap Trick’s Surrender – yet others that are way off the beaten path. Cat Stevens’ Father and Son? Silver’s Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang? Yeah, I didn’t quite understand it the first time I listened the soundtrack the entire length through. Now, in hindsight after watching Volume 2, the selections all make sense. I get the feeling Gunn picked out the songs as he began to envision musical sequences to lens overlaid with the action. From the get go, we witness the opening credits to the tune of Mr. Blue Sky that instantly wipes your mind of a scene we’ve seen previously. Fight sequences are orchestrated to the more off-beat songs, the beautiful harmonies making a perfect companion with the mayhem onscreen. Then there’s the last song, a little ditty called Guardians Inferno by The Sneepers – James Gunn’s band – that is a throwback to Meco’s Star Wars theme of the late 1970’s. Now, mix the song in with the closing credits which are brought to life with more dancing (with some surprises) and you’ve got a song that’s utterly infectious.

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If you read through this expecting me to drop a surprise or two on you – sorry to report, that won’t be happening. I want you all to walk into Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 with the same expectations that I did as I sat down with my popcorn and soda. You know James Gunn has much to prove but aren’t sure quite how he’ll pull it off. Yet, by the time all five post-credits scenes unfurl during the credits (and yes there are five such scenes), you realize he has done it. Unlike the previous Marvel movies, all with the same type grounded-in-reality tales that feature extraordinary men and women, Gunn plays to his own beat and rhythm. Chock full of 80’s references and packed-to-the-gills humor, Volume 2 proves that Gunn without any restrictions is the best thing for a interstellar superhero tale. Even just listening to Awesome Mix Volume 2 brings the scenes the songs overlay to life before my eyes. If you were warmly surprised three years ago, just wait till you see what James Gunn has waiting for you this time.

Reber’s Rating – A

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