When GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY blazed into theaters a few years back, it set a high standard for effects-laden sci-fi played for laughs. Volume II has now blazed into theaters, but that standard has not quite been met. This sequel drifts a bit into maudlin sentimentality that has no place in this particular universe, even if this installment is all about daddy issues. It’s a shame, but fortunately, not a total loss for a film that is even bigger than the last one, which is ironic because one of the bigger things is Baby Groot, the propagated twig for whom CGI was invented.
We rejoin our heroes in media res, protecting some very expensive batteries from an interdimensional being on behalf of the Sovereign, a snooty civilization of overdressed and overgroomed golden narcissists. Leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is fretting that Gamora (Zoe Saldana), on whom he is crushing, has switched from her usual swords to guns for the coming battle; Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) is attempting to hook up a sound system that will blast the appropriate soundtrack for the interlude; man-mountain Drax (Dave Bautista) reveals an unexpected vulnerability; and Baby Groot, the clone of the late co-Guardian, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) is exploring his bombastic environment with all the insouciant wonder and innocence that childhood can confer. It’s a spectacular tableaux, full of writhing tentacles and green goo, but, it being the start of the film, there can be little doubt about the outcome. And knowing Rocket’s ethical nature, there is little surprise when he pockets a few of the very expensive batteries for personal resale.
Of course, it turns out badly.
In short order, Peter and company are being chased through the cosmos by the drone army of High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), giving us another spectacular tableaux of gilded space pods and a deadly quantum asteroid field as Peter and Rocket banter about who is the better pilot. That point becomes moot when an egg-shaped vessel piloted by a mysterious savior, Ego (Kurt Russell) and Mantis, (Pom Klementieff) his antenna-sporting insect-esque companion. And why would Ego, aptly named as we are shortly to find out, want to save Peter and company? Because this perfectly coiffed swashbuckler is Peter’s long-lost father, and thereby hangs a tale.
Meanwhile, Gamora is dealing with sibling rivalry issues with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who was the price of their battery-and-tentacle battle; and Yonda (Michael Rooker), the Ravager who raised Peter instead of delivering him to Ego, is suffering the effects of being told off by his Ravager mentor (Sylvester Stallone, even more unintelligible than usual) about being exiled by the other Ravagers for breaking their code. This, of course, sends him on a collision course with Peter that will bring them all to a climactic battle in yet another spectacular tableaux. There are, if you haven’t already guessed, a great many spectacular tableaux, and of varying quality, ingenuity-wise, leading some of them going on for long than they should for maximum impact. Even with the quips and taglines that fly as freely as the debris.
There is a great deal to unpack here, and writer/director James Gunn has certainly not stinted on plot, humor, or his homages to other films. There is a soupcon of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, a pinch of TERMINATOR, and, as has been noted by my esteemed colleague, Richard Von Busack, a whole mess of STAR TREK V. The question that floats to mind, and is never answered, is why one would want to emulate arguably the worst of the Trek cinema franchise. Granted, one of the many running jokes in the story is Peter’s worship of David Hasselhoff as a great actor, and a cloying pop song from the 70s as one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed on Earth, but those are obvious jokes playing on irony. If that was Mr. Gunn’s intention with the TREK V, it is too subtle for its own good, melded as it is with the worst of the maudlin sentiment here, as Peter asks Daddy some uncomfortable questions in far too serious a fashion for the general tone previously, and subsequently, established.
The star here is Baby Groot, whose three-word spoken vocabulary (I am Groot), serves as a vehicle for a far more accomplished verbal acuity. At least as interpreted by Rocket. Brought to stunning animated life, his range of facial expressions, and general affability are far more eloquent than words. He is also the character gifted with the largest character arc, as his innocence is trampled, but not his spirit. Or his slow-wittedness. In a film rife with irony, that is the acme, though there is much else to enjoy, including Peter and Gomora’s discussion of their unspoken attraction to one another; Drax’s complete >lack< of irony; and Rocket’s patented snarky smart-ass. Only he would have the, ahem, spheres or the chutzpah bring low the mutineer about to kill him by pointing out that his choice of name is inordinately silly.
For the most part, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOLUME II is a delicious tongue-in-cheek romp that embraces its cheesiness with a bear hug of extreme prejudice. It’s only when it tries to be something it’s not that it stumbles. Here’s hoping that the next installment, previewed with four (count ‘em four) vignettes during and after the credits, doesn’t make the same mistake.