The breezy, character-piloted “Guardians of the Galaxy” shows a Marvel comics film need not offer big stars (at least visible ones) to entertain.
There is no “I” in its team of space misfits who unite in prison. Thus the movie’s ample comedic and action scenes flow from story rather than a desire to let Robert Downey Jr. riff or Scarlett Johansson don a catsuit.
Most of the Guardians lack what you would call movie-star looks. They’re green or covered in bark or wiry raccoon hair. But they show vivid personalities that help cut through this movie’s overly expository early scenes, during which various characters and planets are introduced.
Though “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” allusions abound, “Guardians” still feels fresh. Directed and co-written by James Gunn with the same cheek he brought to the 2006 horror-comedy “Slither,” “Guardians” also offers a 1970s soundtrack of unlikely songs for this film genre, such as 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.”
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The combined effect is one of a movie empowering its audience to make its own discoveries rather than just accept the usual committee-scripted, test-marketed blockbuster. This effect is illusory, yet welcome.
Chief among the discoveries is Chris Pratt’s leading-man abilities. That big ol’ cuddle-dummy Andy from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” can, as it turns out, hold a big screen and anchor a sci-fi action film. Slimmed down and muscled up but still goofy, Pratt plays Peter Quill, a space scavenger who visits an abandoned planet to steal a powerful orb also sought by the villain Ronan (Lee Pace, all baritone, ink-black makeup and menace), who wants to wipe out an entire planet.
The orb has special powers. But that and Ronan’s evil designs are generic story points. They carry little meaning beyond joining the Guardians – all self-interested until their good natures take over – to try to stop the villain’s destruction.
Pratt invests Peter with the same essential sweetness he shows on “Parks.” Peter calls himself “Starlord” – though no one else does – and listens to ’70s jams via a cassette Walkman. Before she died in 1988, Peter’s mother gave him a mix tape of personal favorites.
The night she died, alien scavengers known as Ravagers (led by Michael Rooker, bringing a little “trailer” to space) abducted Peter from Earth and pressed him into service. Raised by them to value only stolen goods and monetary space “units,” Peter nonetheless is sentimental enough to interrupt a prison break to retrieve the Walkman, which the guards collected during intake.
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Most of the future Guardians landed in prison after scraps tied to the orb. The green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, stern, and it suits her) was sent by Ronan to retrieve it from Peter. A bounty hunter also showed up, interested in a Ravager reward for the rogue Peter.
The bounty hunter is a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and his bodyguard the humanoid tree Groot (Vin Diesel, finding new ways to deliver Groot’s stock and only phrase “I am Groot”). Completing the team is Drax (Dave Bautista), a highly tattooed, over-muscled prisoner who wants revenge on Ronan for killing his wife and child.
“Guardians” production designer Charles Wood and the movie’s special-effects team created evocative settings such as the industrial-realistic prison. Action scenes also boast first-rate effects, like those in a scene that offers mid-space heroics suggesting last year’s “Gravity.”
The standout creation is Rocket, lent vocal swagger by Cooper and vivid expression via computer-generated imagery. A cynical tough guy in a leather vest, Rocket is exasperated that no other Guardian is as savvy as he. He brings his little raccoon hands to his eyes to show that exasperation.
It was evident from the movie’s trailer that Rocket would be a hit. Less expected is Karen Gillan’s (“Dr. Who,” “Oculus”) bald, spooky villainy as Ronan’s right-hand woman, Nebula. Gillan is a charisma machine, radiating intelligence and looking constantly ready to pounce. She needs her own action film.
So does former WWE wrestler Bautista, who brings unexpected nuance to the puffed-up Drax. Bautista shines in scenes contrasting Drax’s rough appearance and formal speech. When a fellow Guardian comments that sarcasm goes over Drax’s head, because Drax hails from a literal culture, the big guy responds that it is impossible for anything to go over his head. He’s too flexible.
Though Bautista is gentle at times, his bulk always reassures. A band of heroes consisting of a strong but dorky scavenger, a skinny green lady, fierce but tiny raccoon and a tree needs a Drax in its mix to appear capable of guarding a corner grocery store, much less a galaxy.