Opening this weekend:
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—Back in 2014, I was delighted by Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel movie based on a comic I had never read. I don't think I had ever even heard of it prior to the movie version, and this comparative obscurity has been a sign of success, for me, among Marvel productions. Some of their most charming efforts have been adaptations of their less prominent titles, like Ant-Man or Dr. Strange. Possibly the less-familiar characters afford the filmmakers more creative latitude then icons like Spider-Man or the Hulk.
In any case, Guardians of the Galaxy the First was driven along by a sensational soundtrack of '60s and '70s pop hits, sourced from the "Awesome Mix Tape" in the Walkman of goofball Earthling hero Peter Quill. More importantly—though only a little more importantly—the movie had a droll sense of incongruity between epic space action and the petty bickering of the title heroes, a motley crew of thrown-together interstellar mercenaries.
They're all back for Vol. 2: In addition to Peter (Chris Pratt), there's the sensible, green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the burly, inappropriately mirthful Drax (Dave Bautista), the talking racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an endearing juvenile cutting of the talking tree from Part One, jointly parented by the other Guardians. Michael Rooker is also back from Part One, as Peter's scurvy space-marauder stepdad.
The story this time has Peter, whose late mother was an Earth woman, at last meeting his alien father, Ego, the humanoid incarnation of a protean planet. Ego is played with effortless geniality by Kurt Russell, under a godlike mane and beard. Sylvester Stallone turns up in a small role as well, but those hoping for a Tango & Cash reunion (are there any?) will be disappointed; Stallone and Russell have no scenes together.
There's a lot to like about this sequel, directed, again, by James Gunn. It retains the strong acting of Part One, and it's maybe even more visually imaginative and lush—I especially liked the shiny, Plasticine look of Ego's planet. The plot, which suggests elements of Lem's Solaris blended with one of David Mitchell's fevered fantasies of narcissistic, predatory immortality, had promise as well.
On the whole, Vol. 2 is reasonably entertaining, but it suffers from sequel-itis. It's too long and too grandiose, the pacing is slack, and gags which worked beautifully in Part One because they were silly throwaways are played self-consciously here, and too many of them go thud. This extends, alas, to Peter's second "Awesome Mix Tape," which, though another superb collection, is unwisely brought center stage in its psychological importance to our hero.
That said, it's hard to disapprove too much of any movie paying such heartfelt tribute to the 1972 Looking Glass hit "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)." After the two Guardians soundtracks and the use of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys in last year's Star Trek: Beyond, someone may get an interesting term paper out of the symbiotic affinity between space opera action and nostalgic radio standards.