"....proudly off the beaten path at first, it then proceeds to return to that path..."

Fails to Take a Chance

(080814) My general state of antipathy regarding the glut of movies inspired by comic books that has inundated multiplexes in the last few years is not due to some form of snobbery over a lesser art form. My problem is that too many of them rely on the same storytelling formulas and after a while, they all tend to blend into each other as one giant, noisy and increasingly tiresome mass of oddly costumed people beating the stuffing out of each other while the CGI scenery explodes around them. When one of them tries to break the mold by offering viewers something different and does it well--as was the case with the first two "Superman" movies," the Christopher Nolan Batman epics, "Spider-Man 2," "X-Men: First Class" and Ang Lee's gloriously odd and arty "Hulk"--I respond to them with as much delight and excitement as a fanboy who has been counting down the hours until the first show.

If nothing else, "Guardians of the Galaxy," the big screen version of a Marvel Comics title that I must confess to having never read a single issue of, is certainly different from the majority of other recent page-to-screen transformations and not just because one of its heroes is a homicidal and smart-assed talking raccoon. As a result, it caught my interest for a little while until I began to realize that once it gets beyond the surface details, it shares many things in common with most movies of its type--a repetitive and oftentimes confusing storyline and super-villains that aren't especially impressive or memorable. It doesn't really work but as these things go, I would certainly take it over stuff like "Green Lantern" or the last few entries in the "Spider-Man" franchise.

Our hero is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who has been bouncing around the galaxy since being abducted by aliens at the age of 9 following the death of his mother. Now he works as an interstellar bounty hunter in the employ of the treacherous and blue-hued Yondu (Michael Rooker) and is known as Star Lord to himself and practically no one else. As the story opens, he has just completed a mission to steal a mysterious orb but when he goes to claim his reward, he finds himself a target for a number of people who want it for themselves. It turns out that, big surprise, the orb has astonishing powers and if it falls into the wrong hands--such as those of the malevolent and grudge-holding Ronan (Lee Pace)--it could destroy entire worlds. When Ronan does end up acquiring the orb, Peter finds himself leading the charge to steal it back and save everything in the ta-daa nick of time.

To assist him in his mission, Peter winds up acquiring a rag-tag group of quirky misfits who could never in a million years pull together and work together as a team. . .could they? There is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a sexy, green-skinned assassin that Peter cannot help but hit on even though their first meeting found her trying to kill him to retrieve the orb for herself. There is Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a brutal prisoner who joins up to have a shot at killing Ronan, who murdered his beloved wife and child, with his own bare hands. There is Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a giant tree that can walk, talk and fight--this is not quite as impressive as it sounds since the only thing Groot can say is "I am Groot," though the phrase does prove to be more flexible that one might immediately imagine. Finally, and perhaps most infamously, there is Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the aforementioned sass-talking rodent who takes out his anger at having been the subject of countless genetic experiments with whatever weapons happen to be within paws reach. Only in a film like this could a walking tree with the voice of Vin Diesel be considered the second strangest character.

Needless to say, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is not your ordinary comic book adaptation by any means and considering just how blandly interchangeable those things have become recently, that is certainly a blessed relief. Forget the fact that the cast list includes a talking raccoon and a walking tree--how many films of this budget level would dare to cast the likes of Chris Pratt as its hero? (Yes, he is a decidedly goofy hero, but still. . . ) Although the publicity for the film has been trying to force a connection between this film and "Star Wars," the film that it is closer in tone to is "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension" thanks to its emphasis, at least in the early going, on its oddball characters and wise guy sense of humor. How many other summer blockbusters of recent vintage can you think of that invokes Jackson Pollock as the subject of one of its wittiest jokes? These early scenes are the best thanks to a fairly amusing screenplay by James Gunn, the relatively inspired byplay between the characters as they come together. Dave Bautista's Drax is frequently hilarious as a brute who comes from a line of people who are relentlessly literal-minded, while Vin Diesel manages to get an astonishing amount of mileage out of his one line of dialogue. It all give one the sense that this is the rare tent pole blockbuster that could theoretically fly off in any direction that it dared to go.

The trouble is that, having established itself as being something proudly off the beaten path at first, it then proceeds to return to that path with grim determination. For starters, if a film like this is to succeed, it needs a memorable villain to make things interesting. Unfortunately, our Big Bad here is such a bland entity that I kept assuming that he was merely a placeholder baddie and that the real antagonist would eventually pop up. Additionally, the film never quite manages to establish what he hopes to achieve once he gets a hold of the mysterious orb (presumably on loan from the framing device from "Heavy Metal") other than the kind of senseless destruction that he already seems more than capable of carrying out on his own.

A bigger problem is that in addition to writing the screenplay, James Gunn has also been given the job of directing it as well--a big step up in size and scope from his previous efforts, the gory horror spoof "Slither" and the really gory superhero spoof "Super" and he just does not quite have the chops to pull off such a mammoth enterprise. When the focus is on a bunch of oddballs bantering back and forth, he is fine but when it comes to staging elaborate battle scenes and breakneck action set-pieces, his work is comparatively clumsy and uninspired.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is more ambitious than most of this summer's big-ticket items but never quite makes the leap from "curiosity" to "interesting curiosity." I don't think it works but while I came away from it feeling some disappointment, I didn't have the outright hatred for it that I have felt for many of its neighbors at the multiplex. It has some good jokes, an engaging cast (even though Saladana is given precious little to do except to stand around and look hot in green skin) and a reasonably funky spirit until the plot mechanics take over. With any luck, when the all-but-inevitable sequel comes around, the filmmakers will create a follow-up story that avoids the stumbles and lives up to the full potential of its premise. And if there is any chance of making space for the character that pops up in a surprise appearance during the inevitable sequence after the end credits, so much the better.

Directed by:    James Gunn
Written by:    Screenplay by James Gunn & Nicole Perlman,
 based in part on the comic by Dan Abnett & Andy
Starring:    Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista
Released:    080114
Length:    121 minutes
Rating:    PG13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and
 action, and for some language.

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Review 2014 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")