GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2
(***)
"...more a product of Gunn's heart than that of a corporate machine dictating plot points..."

Guardians Newest Mixtape: Second Verse, Better Than the First.

(051217) There are not one, not two, but five "stinger" sequences in the credits of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." Five. Normally, I'd dutifully mention the presence of such things as an aside or postscript to a review, so you don't walk out early and miss a good joke or plot point - although we should all know by now how pretty much every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie will feature one or two of them, teasing the next in the series. But including five of them in "Guardians 2" is emblematic of the film itself, which is passionately overstuffed, as if filmmaker James Gunn was, as a kid, told he could bring three action figures on a car trip, and despaired at the thought of not having his 40 favorites. So now that he's an adult, he gleefully crams all of his ideas into one movie.

Implication being, "Guardians 2" will give you your money's worth. It's chock full of wild characters, action, comedy, music and locations. What brings it all together is color - eye-candy design, ear-candy dialogue, soul-candy emotion. And it's all slightly crazy, offbeat and garish without alienating the consumers who made the first film a $773 million-grossing global smash in 2014. For me, the first film wore me out with its snarky smart-assy-ness. It was too self satisfied with itself. While the sequel feels like it's part of the uber-conglomerate Marvel franchise, it's more a product of writer/director Gunn's heart than that of a corporate machine dictating plot points linking dozens of movies together into one massive arc. He's inspired by the pre-adolescent thrill of watching space warriors zapping each other with ray guns and zooming through the cosmos in roaring ships (the original 1977 "Star Wars" is a significant reference point), as well as the weirdo niches of Marvel Comics, including Steve Gerber's original "Howard the Duck" series and the wild B- and C-level creations of Jack Kirby.

Oh, and also wistful nostalgia for dusty AM-radio hits, Gunn again craftily and cleverly employing his favorite '70s tracks to emphasize themes or inspire scenes; he uses the film to quietly will ELO and Glen Campbell towards pop-cultural kitschy-coolness.

Speaking of, ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" soundtracks the movie's wonderful opening sequence, featuring a lengthy tracking shot where everyone's favorite space tree, Baby Groot - voiced by Vin Diesel ( 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy ), and rendered a wide-eyed tot after the events of the first "Guardians" chopped him down - dances to the song in the foreground as his fellow Guardians battle a toothy, tentacled Cthulhu-thing behind him, in soft focus. The scene is representative of the sequel, which is a bit funnier and shows a smidgen more technical panache than the first, but sticks to its successful formula.

The story is the series' "Empire Strikes Back" of sorts. Gunn splits up his group of heroes, explores the sexual tension between the primary male and female leads and employs highly dramatic paternity as a primary plot point. In the first film, the half-Earthling Peter "Star Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt, 2015's Jurassic World) lightly stewed in angst over never knowing his extraterrestrial father. He and the other Guardians - green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana, 2016's Star Trek Beyond), burly warrior Drax (scene-stealer Dave Bautista, 2015's Spectre), wisecracking critter Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper, 2012's Silver Linings Playbook) and Groot - are now mercenaries on the fringe, and when their latest gig goes awry, their bacon is saved by Ego, a powerful humanoid played with goofy gusto by Kurt Russell (1994's Stargate ).

It's no spoiler to reveal that Ego is Quill's long-lost pops. The film's preamble flashes back to 1980 for Ego's time on Earth, giving Quill's pregnant mom a ride in his T-top Mustang, and giving the audience a gander at his amazingly feathered hair, which is even further beyond "Big Trouble in Little China" than we ever thought possible. On Ego's planet, Quill attempts to address the "unspoken thing" he feels with Gamora, who resists such sentiment. She's too busy smelling a rat in this plot, symbolically speaking, and of course, that symbolic rat would probably be a six-eyed, tri-tailed flying space rat, because in this movie series, a six-eyed, tri-tailed flying space rat would be way awesome, and also too much, and too much is almost never quite enough, it seems.

Numerous other entities are mixed into the plot. Yandu (Michael Rooker, recently of tv's The Walking Dead ), a morally shaky father figure to Quill and a holdover from the first film, is exiled from his space-pirate Ravager clan by their leader, played in an extended cameo by Sylvester Stallone ( 2015's Creed ). Gamora's sister, Nebula (former Doctor Who girl "Amelia Pond", Karen Gillan), is the Guardians' prisoner, and fosters a nasty sibling-rivalry grudge. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) is Ego's personal assistant of sorts, an empath who can sense emotions by touching others. Blasting lasers at the heroes' tail - Rocket compulsively stole some valuable thingamabobs from them - are the Sovereign, led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, 2015's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), whose dress and throne are one interlocking unit, and whose wide, intense eyes just barely point in different directions, rendering her extra-otherworldly. The Sovereign are comically pompous, and are head-to-toe gold, roughly the shade and composition of, one assumes, Donald Trump's toilets

The character interaction is frequently amusing, and sometimes self-referential; just when you're thinking it's difficult and silly for Quill and the ever-prickly Rocket to argue while fighting off the bad guys, Gamora implores, "Can we please put the bickering on hold until after we survive the massive space battle?" Weaved into the narrative is a consistent and meaningful thread about the definition of family, be it bonds of blood or the commonality of suffering - loneliness and rejection, primarily - the Guardians misfits share.

It's nice to see substantial character asides here, effectively spiced with comedy, although they seem self-consciously shoehorned in, and a little overwritten. The film's midsection drags some, weighed down by a series of consecutive one-on-one heart-to-hearts between numerous characters, compromising the narrative fleetness of the movie's many action sequences. Gunn indulges a distinctively busy visual aesthetic, and it's very nearly overwhelming, especially come the third act, which peaks with a predictably cataclysmic and noisy conglomeration of explosions and shouting and other dramatic clichés of the genre. The climax is at least coherent, and is punctuated with Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," one of those nifty moments in cinema where film and song are dramatically in sync. If only the sequence didn't run on so long.

Before "Guardians Vol. 3" arrives, these characters will smash headlong into the greater Marvel arc in "Avengers: Infinity War," due in May, 2018, with a cast list currently at 24 recognizable actors/characters from the series. I worry Baby Groot will get stepped on. Also, that the idiosyncrasy Gunn puts into his films will be steamrollered by spectacle. He shrewdly blends camp and sincerity into his characters and situations, taking them seriously enough to make this "Guardians" movie work. But not so seriously that their entertainment value is sacrificed at the altar of "dark" themes (see: "Batman v Superman"). Dropping these characters into a roaring maelstrom of hulks and doctors strange may dilute their charm. But I'm getting ahead of myself - before then, we'll get this year's "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Thor: Raganrok," which will keep the Marvel narrative and the money-printing machine chugging along. The world keeps turning, and turning, and turning.

Directed & Written by:  James Gunn
  Based on the Marvel Comics characters
Starring:   Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista
Released:  050517
Length: 136 minutes
Rating:   PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 ©  2017 Walt Disney Pictures

Review © 2017 Alternate Reality, Inc.