'Guardians of the Galaxy' Review: Star Wars-Lite
Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" has its moments. An early prison escape is cleverly staged and creates some real tension and wows. The overall story is a bit of a mess -- something about an orb with an infinity stone that will kill you if you touch it (unless that means no sequel) and the saving of a planet from this orb should it get in the hands of a guy who looks like a Sith Lord.
Trying to save this world are 5 misfits, including Chris Pratt as the dude-speaking earthling Peter Quill (he prefers to be called Star-Lord), whose much closer to Peter Strauss in this than Harrison Ford in that … or that.
The story opens in 1988 with a mawkish deathbed scene. Quill's mother dies of cancer, leaving him a mixtape of 70s-era oldies that pepper the soundtrack throughout. Immediately after losing his mother, young Quill is abducted by aliens and we cut 26 years into the future. Quill is now a scruffy-faced smart-ass interstellar scavenger who calls everyone "dude" and "bro."
In a scene intentionally (I assume) reminiscent of the famous opening from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (which will later earn a pop culture reference, along with a bizarrely misguided shout-out to "Footloose"), Quill unwittingly steals what he thinks is just another bauble but what in reality is The MacGuffin.
Everyone wants Quill's MacGuffin. Not only can this Orb destroy worlds, it can destroy those who want to destroy worlds. It's also worth 40 billion credits. You know what this means… Everyone wants a piece of Quill and the plot is about to become overstuffed to the point of near-incomprehension.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana, playing the sexiest green chick since the original "Star Trek") is the adopted daughter of Thanos, who trained her to be a lethal assassin. Kree Ronan works for Thanos, but Ronan is really the bad guy… Somewhere in there is another daughter, who is also an assassin. But she's blue. Anyway, Gamora is dispatched to steal the orb from Quill.
Also on Quill's tail are bounty hunters Rocket (a wisecracking Bowery Boy of a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his sidekick Groot, a magical 100% CGI'd tree who only says "I am Groot" (for some reason Vin Diesel was hired for this job).
In the mix is Yondu (Michael Rooker -- also blue), the leader of the band of Ravagers who abducted Quill as a boy and made him one of their own. For reasons that never make sense (beyond adding more stuffing to the overstuffing), Quill gets off betraying this very dangerous gang leader.
Finally there's Drax (Dave Bautista) who looks like a tattooed escapee from the WWF. Drax is the only truly clever and original character; a giant of a man on a crusade to avenge the death of his family. Unfortunately, Drax is woefully unprepared to get his wish. More brawn than smarts, his species is also hyper-literal and incapable of understanding metaphors, nuance, or sarcasm. Drax earns the film's only honest laughs.
The film's biggest failure is a total lack of suspense. You never once fear for the lives of the main characters or believe Ronan will achieve his dastardly goals. "Guardians" desperately wants to ape the operatic adventurism of "Star Wars" but seems to forget that the humor came from believable characters and situations, and that the early annihilation of an innocent planet and death of a main character made the stakes feel real.
Where "Guardians" does work best is through the relationships of the characters; their uneasy alliance and how the mercenaries in the bunch evolve into selfless heroes. The chemistry feels a little forced at times but it is there.
The production design is first-rate. Director James Gunn and his CGI artists certainly give you plenty of pretty stuff to look at. The post-credit scene is also a hoot.
I'm glad I saw "Guardians" once. I'm also glad I saw "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone" once.
Once is plenty.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC