The second time around, James Gunn’s motley crew of aliens, trees, and raccoons cast much the same unsettled, antic, amusingly insecure shadow as they did in the first film. Gunn doubles down on the emotional hesitancies of the titular Guardians in the final act, but, for the most part, he stays the course of compositional whimsy and philharmonic ‘70s tunes, all egg-beating the action scenes into a whipped fervor of aesthetic inflammation. In this case, second helpings is fine, considering how ecstatically messy the course was the first time around, and how off-handedly flirtatious and cunning it continues to be three years later. That is, when the film isn’t trying too hard by settling for the idea of Guardians of the Galaxy more than the real item. But we’ll get there.
The cohort still consists of the same five core members as last time, with a few will-they-won’t-they potentialities hanging on the side. The main cats are earth-plucked human Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), daughter-of-the-most-feared-being-in-the-Universe Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), whose hulking, kind-of-metallic skin continues to belie comic misanthropy, the genetically-engineered space pirate Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, mo-capped by James’ bother Sean), and poster-child Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), here rendered in baby form after his sacrifice and re-growth in the last film. The newcomers? Back around from last time with more meat on their emotional bones are Yondu (Michael Rooker), a mercenary captain who informally sired Quill, and Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s rebellious sister who is angry at Gamora for always being their father’s favorite. Finally, the lone newcomer (as in, not seen in the previous film at all), is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who has antennae and is capable of empathic abilities, or feeling, knowing, and affecting others’ emotions.
And then there’s Ego, a living Planet who takes on the corporeal form of Kurt Russell, and who is revealed to be Quill’s genetic father, having come to Earth in 1980 and impregnated Quill’s mother. The basic thrust of the Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 “narrative”, and I use that term loosely, is that the characters are rescued from a heist-gone-wrong (of a sort) by Ego, who has searched for Quill for years. When they land on him (remember, he is a planet, walking around on himself as Snake Plissken), he serenades them with stories of his adventures and, more or less, everyone hangs out dealing with various emotional hang-ups. All the while, something not-as-it-seems bubbles underfoot about Ego.
Guardians boasts an emotional through-line in plumbing the characters’ and their reservoirs of emotional instability, but the script is an unwieldly beast with many itches and temptations all crashing together as the film stutters and staggers between the characters on Ego and Rocket, Groot, Yondu, and Nebula who, for reasons uninteresting, end up captured by Yondu’s crew. It’s extraordinarily haphazard storytelling, jilting sub-plots to hustle over to other characters in a flurry of energy. This is, I suppose, akin to the scrappy, unfinished tone the franchise endearingly aspires to, so the narrative nonsense is something of an oxygen source for the herky-jerky screenplay. The plotting faults aren’t exactly failures of the film, per-se, or rather, they don’t detract from the experience as much as they should. They don’t exactly add anything either, but I do admire the screenplay’s disinterest in catering to a typical main storyline with all the tendentious storytelling that entails. Instead, Gunn’s film is drawn to the marginalia, the emotional sidelines of the characters that might remain dormant if subjected to a more gung-ho, forward-thrust narrative.
So, while Guardians relishes the sloppy mania of the raffish characters and their combustible brew of interpersonal strife and competitive camaraderie, everyone is emotionally wounded this time out, for better and worse. The performances fall in line: they are, if anything, more forced than before, with some of the characters straining to mimic their comic discharges with an equal and opposite sense of dramatic ambiguity. Pratt is as good as ever, Bautista relishes Drax’s maniacal exultancy (sometimes to the film’s detriment when the script reduces Drax to a comic punchline), and Cooper is as hostile as in the first film, but the script demands that he emote more than the character is willing to handle. Saldana is a touch indifferent here, but she is also sidelined by the film’s writing, so one understands why she might be peeved.
The real odd mark is Diesel’s Groot, who vacillates between highlight and nadir several times throughout, the script obviously infatuated with his toddler-like innocence and semi-incompetent understanding of everyone around him. Here, the film too often hits too hard in the wrong direction, inflating its jokes from sly shivs into full-on, minutes-long slapstick set-pieces. The prognosis for these scenes mostly depends on your tolerance for films that are both very aware of how cute they are very much keen that you know it. The guardians are entertaining company enough as it is, and they don’t need the film to stop for several minutes at a time to underline why and how.
Ego, however, is a triumph of design and performance. As a planet, he boasts no shortage of biomes, and the lyrical interplay of lush, verdant flora and curvaceous, futuristic interior set-design is a high-contrast delight. Russell is both inspired casting and a welcome highlight, one more character-notch on his belt after suddenly returning to high-profile acting these past few years. Russell is a marker of the cunning era of lithe comic action films that Guardians obviously feels imaginatively akin to, and his inimitable skill for a double-address – playing both the adept arch-male and a teasing obliteration of that very idea – serves the character exceedingly well. His tonal dexterity – affable and deadly-serious at once, often via the same gestures – allows him to play a fatherly, caring, paternalistic type and hint at something different slithering under the covers.
The other major achievement of the film is not to track the development of the titular crew but their master – James Gunn – and his imagination, emboldened by the success of the first film to produce more eccentric, imaginative set-pieces. The will of its action to shake-up the typical action formula was the cherry on the top of the otherwise middling Dr. Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 represents a fuller flowering of that prior film’s imaginative spirit, the kinks now worked out. Or maybe there are more kinks added in. Either way, Guardians 2 is essentially a collection of kinks haphazardly strung together, an affective object and not a logical one by any means. The film’s marvel is its opening credits sequence, a notional action scene where the crew defeats a many-tentacled beast while the camera really follows Groot in one minutes-long track dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky”. Lapping at the banks of stylistic bravado, Gunn cheerily, cheekily plays around with a focus that vacillates between foreground and background. There’s also a pizzaz-filled bit involving Rocket, a score of traps set in a forest, and roughly one hundred mercenaries on the bad end of the raccoon’s ingenuity and personality. To say the least, this example of grape-shot filmmaking – a tonal trapeze act – writhes around enough that mortification never sits in.
While the film is flailing its many stylistic limbs wildly around in circles, one sequence set to “Come a Little Closer” emerges as another effusive highlight, and seemingly the film’s statement of identity: Yondu, capable of controlling a magical or technological arrow by whistling, commands it to dart around, killing dozens of his mutinous crew, while the red tail of the arrow sketches a crayon-scrawl in the sky. Much like the scene, the film is a crayon-scribble, an ungainly, unpolished, and unstable monstrosity that succeeds through sheer force of commitment, imagination, and personality.