The original “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a fun romp. Like most sequels, “Vol. 2” is that proverbial guitar amp turned up to 11; it’s grander, louder, and longer than its predecessor. Is it better, though? Well, that’s not exactly a high hurdle to clear. The original was good, but it had room for improvement. And “Vol. 2” is a classic example of one step forward, two steps back. While it improves some aspects of its progenitor, it messes up other ones.
I think the biggest problem is that the plot is a little lethargic. While the first film’s villain was kind of blah, at least he provided some tension. As he chased the heroes, or they chased him, the pursuit gave the film a kind of immediacy, a forward momentum.
“Vol. 2,” on the other hand, doesn’t have that momentum. It doesn’t reveal its main villain until more than half-way through (and even that’s not much of a surprise), and the film suffers as a result. Basically, without a clear antagonist to push a good chunk of the story, it simply meanders in its own subplots. And while this meandering does result in nice character moments and one truly satisfying action beat, it also makes the film feel overlong. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bloated, more like bloated-ish.
But the character moments do work. They’re not necessarily deep; some of it simply boils down to the same trope of “it’s all about family” that the “Fast and Furious” movies have been charmingly hammering, albeit to diminishing returns, over our heads for at least four sequels now, while the rest basically rehashes the same drama from the first film: Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) still lashes out at those he loves, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) still dance about their feelings, etc. But it is satisfying. Even though they’re annoying, we still like these characters and put up with their constant bickering because of the affection they have for one another, and it is nice how much the movie’s writer and director, James Gunn, pushes this affection in the film.
Gunn also pushes the film’s visuals. The original “Guardians” was colorful, but this one is a jaw-dropping, candy-colored diorama (that isn’t helped by the superfluous 3D, so save your money on that if you can). I often lean too much into a film’s aesthetics when it comes to my reviews, and it’s something I’m trying to rectify. Of course, this is the wrong movie to try and do that with; it’s kind of like taking a recovering alcoholic to a bar. So, while I may be relapsing here, I did love the film’s “Flash Gordon” inspired visuals and the return of soft-rock hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the soundtrack.
Some of the action works, most doesn’t. I mentioned a fantastic action sequence earlier. In it, Yondu (Michael Rooker) uses his deadly, remote-controlled arrow to raze an entire crew of villains. What makes the scene pop are the poetic visuals: He walks, in slow-motion, through the ships catwalks while the bodies of his enemies fall like rain drops around him. Later, his weapon knocks out the lights and the violence is lit only by the light trail left by the arrows path of destruction.
The rest of the action, though, is just ho-hum. Been there, done that. The outer space dogfights suffer from the same problems most modern sci-fi suffers from. Like “Star Trek Beyond,” “Jupiter Ascending,” and even the original “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Vol. 2” reuses that stale visual of enemy ships that are so numerous and in sync that they look like a swarm of glistening, CGI objects undulating in unison through space. Our heroes, then, fly through those objects, the camera twisting and turning in disorienting and nauseating movements with them, leaving any kind of geography or understanding of what’s happening on the screen behind, along with the contents of the viewer’s stomach. Remember the trench run in “Star Wars”? It would be nice if we could go back to those exciting, and visually distinguishable, times.
It also doesn’t help that some of the characters don’t have that much to do. Warrior, Drax (Dave Bautista) is funny but spends most of the film sidelined. In the grand finale, he’s just cargo in a space ship. And Gamora doesn’t do much either. During the last set piece, she literally just sits on a rock column, watching the action unfold. I kept thinking about “The Avengers” and how expertly its writer/director, Joss Whedon, juggled its myriad characters, finding a defining moment for each. “Vol. 2” doesn’t manage that feat.
As I said, though, one step forward, two back. While Drax and Gamora don’t get to do much, Gunn brings two slightly reformed former villains to the fore-front with excellent results. Both Karen Gillan as Gamora’s slightly psychotic sister, Nebula, and Rooker’s Yondu stand out. A bit morally askew, but likable, they bring a good amount of fun to the film.
Despite my quibbles, I quite enjoyed “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2.” It’s bright and funny and tickled my fancy. There were several moments where I laughed so hard I began to fear that I was coming off like Robert De Niro in “Cape Fear” (or Sideshow Bob in “Cape Feare”). Still, if a movie can make me laugh, by myself, at a 9 am screening, it must be doing something right.
And I was also very happily surprised by my emotional response to the last sequence, which brought all of the themes together and a little bit of mist to my eyes. It’s got its problems, alright, and I’m not sure I really want to watch it again anytime soon, but “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” works well enough to warrant a recommendation.