Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman

Rated PG-13

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill
Zoe Saldana as Gamora
David Bautista as Drax the Destroyer
Bradley Cooper as (the voice of) Rocket Raccoon
Vin Diesel as (the voice of) Groot
Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser
Michael Rooker as Yondu
Karen Gillan as Nebula
Benicio Del Toro as The Collector
Djimon Hounsou as Korath
John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey
Glenn Close as Nova Prime

Guardians of the Galaxy is the antidote to the plodding, overlong summer blockbusters that have, if 2014’s box office receipts are any indication, begun to run out of steam. I could apply this to the newest Transformers, as yet unseen by me - but critics savaged it, and audience reaction was mostly lackluster. Meanwhile, Guardians got a late-summer release (first weekend in August), keeping in mind “Summer Movie Season” begins a full six weeks before the actual start of summer.

After scoring earlier this year with lead vocal talents in the awesome The Lego Movie, Chris Pratt is an unlikely but utterly believable action hero. Peter Quill is a young boy in 1988, traumatized by the death of his beloved mother (presumably from cancer), and he is quickly abducted by a group of space pirates, lead by Yondu (Michael Rooker, recently seen as Earle on TV’s The Walking Dead). Flash forward some 20 years later, and what follows is typical in these comic book action films: lots of plot for the simple set up. There’s an orb that now-adult Peter (Pratt) steals, but of course intergalactic villains seek the orb for evildoing. Ronan (Lee Pace) sends his subordinate Korath (Djimon Hounsou) to retrieve the orb, but soon there’s a bounty on Peter’s head.

Eventually, he’s joined by Gamora, a beautiful and green assassin who wants to use the orb for purposes of good. Gamaro is played by Zoe Saldana, who is quickly becoming the heir to Sigourney Weaver’s action-babe-with-brains throne. No small feat. After wowing in 2009’s Avatar, Saldana cinched her ability to play tough-minded heroines in 2010’s Columbiana and as Uhura in the reboot of the Star Trek films franchise. Saldana’s co-star in 2012’s The Words, Bradley Cooper, voices the film’s main comic relief, the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket. Cooper is clearly having a great time voicing the role, and the effects are first-rate. Even more impressive: Vin Diesel as tree-like humanoid Groot. Rounding out the Guardians team is Drax (David Bautista, the WWE pro wrestler and sometime actor), bent on revenge for the murders of his wife and child by the hands of Ronan.

It’s pretty standard stuff from this point, but there are surprises (Glenn Close as the leader of the Nova Corps, an amusing Howard the Duck (!!??) cameo), laughs, action, and a sense of genuine heart. This is a reminder of how fun comic book films can be, reminiscent of The Avengers, another slam-bang action film. Marvel die-hards won’t like this, but Guardians is an antithesis of sorts to The Dark Knight trilogy. It started strong with Batman Begins, but the series became more grim and violent with The Dark Knight and the [ultimately disappointing] The Dark Knight Rises. By the end of the final film, I felt like I had been through an ordeal, and I wondered if there was any truth to the overproduction (and excessive violence) in so-called fantasy/comic book films that may precipitate tragedies like the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Guardians will inspire kids to read comics and enjoy the lightness and humor mixed with the message of good overpowering bad. To me, that is the bonafide successful for a film of this sort.

Guardians of the Galaxy will undoubtedly start a franchise, but it’s one I’ll gladly return to if subsequent films preserve the spirit and wit of this one. Chris Pratt is clearly in his element here, and it’s a refreshing new twist on the comic book hero.

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