The right soundtrack can make or break a movie, especially one as big, bright, and go-for-broke crazy as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We’re not talking about scores, here, although those are still important, but the mix of recorded songs used to underline the film’s action. The worst of these amount to a merchandising ploy, less a soundtrack than an excuse to produce albums of disposable pop songs. The best of these, however, add a rich and intangible kind of coloration to the proceedings, a synergistic surround sound. Quentin Tarantino has proven himself to be the master of the cinematic mix tape, but he has a strong rival in James Gunn, the writer/director who gives Guardians 2 its unique voice.
Gunn starts the film off with an action sequence that completely encapsulates the endearingly eccentric charm of the Guardians franchise. While the Guardians do battle with a giant, many-tentacled, razor-toothed space beastie, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) spends his time dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” The camera stays mostly on Groot, with the other Guardians out-of-focus in the background, at least until their battle ends up smashing the stereo system providing the music.
The rest of the scene brings the viewer up to speed on the Guardians themselves, who display their personalities through their combat tactics. The ostensible leader is still Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), whose plans almost always require a re-write half-way through. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the resourceful and level-headed weapons master, while Drax (Dave Bautista) is the raging, classic RPG barbarian. Then of course, there’s Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), who just loves to blow things up whenever he can.
The rest of the film involves the Guardians fleeing from the Sovereign, a race of sanctimonious, gold-skinned genetic purists who hired the Guardians to kill the beastie mentioned above but who turn on the team when Rocket steals a few of their shiny things. The Guardians take refuge on the planet of Ego (Kurt Russell), a cosmic being who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. They soon find out that their change of scenery might be just as dangerous and are left with the unenvious choice of deciding which bad situation would be the least difficult to escape.
The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have consistently been colorful, bold rollercoasters, unashamed of their comic book origins. Guardians 2 takes this to an entirely new level. While the MCU got shaken up by the palette-stretching psychedelica of Doctor Strange, that film still had at its core a typical, sometimes basic origin story and save-the-world super-plot. For all its head trips, though, the good Doctor has nothing on Guardians 2’s unapologetic, neon-blooded, cosmic weirdness. Like the best Jack Kirby comics, there’s a kind of earnest, objective fantasy present in every element of the film.
Guardians 2 isn’t a satire, however, at least not in the usual sense. While it treats its characters and their adventures with affectionate seriousness, Gunn is not afraid to inject everything with a heady dose of metatextual comedy. Unlike a film like Deadpool, however, this fourth wall bends instead of breaks through the reactions of the characters to their own story, punctuated by precise references to 80s pop culture thanks to Peter Quill’s attachment to his childhood on Earth. This may be the only time where the classic light-rock staple “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” plays such a vital role in a film’s narrative. Ditto for Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, whose tense emotional resonance is used to make the film’s climax that much more epic.
As in the first film, the cast is almost beyond reproach, only this time each of the actors feels much more comfortable in their roles now that we’re all past the getting-to-know-you stage. Each member of the team is given a chance to shine and display their full range, especially Dave Batista, who’s Drax swings pendulum-like from exuberant comic relief to berserker fury. Bradley Cooper again does a tremendous job as Rocket, proving that sometimes a voice-only role can be the most multi-dimensional kind of performance (it helps that Rocket’s CGI has improved to nearly true photo-realism). Rocket spends a lot of time with Michael Rooker’s returning character Yondu, who gets to be the ringmaster of one of the film’s most over-the-top action sequences. Despite never being on set together, Cooper and Rooker have some of the best chemistry in the MCU, and their scenes together are easily some of the film’s biggest highlights. Similarly, the hate/less hate relationship between Zoe Saldana’s Gamora and Karen Gillan‘s Nebula is effortlessly organic thanks to the great rapport between the two actresses.
While there are a tremendous amount of new characters in Guardians 2, it never feels overfull or confusing. Much like how X2: X-Men United built solidly on its predecessor’s grasp of unity, so too does this film manage to keep its cast coherent and integrated. While some attention must be paid to Pom Klementieff’s surprisingly affectionate take on the empath Mantis or Elizabeth Debicki’s ice-cold Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha, Kurt Russell is by the far the best of the new cast members. Much like how he turned his easygoing, disarming charm into a hidden weapon in Tarantino’s Death Proof, here he subverts his everyman image by playing an enigmatic, godlike alien who just happens to look like the cool dad every 80s kid dreamed about.
There’s so much going right about Guardians 2 that seems almost mean-spirited to mentioned what goes wrong, especially because it’s relatively minor in the list of super-hero cinema sins. Despite his knack for snappy dialogue and giddy action, Gunn lets the middle of the film drag as it turns its focus to inter-character drama and slow-moving plot points. While this all pays off in the end, it still saps a bit of the film’s energy right when it needs to keep going at full steam. Gunn also sometimes overplays his 80s references. A running joke about David Hasselhoff grows old very quickly, as does the talk of the “unspoken thing” between Quill and Gamora, which is a naked transcription of the will-they-or-won’t-they hook of shows like Cheers and Moonlighting.
Even with those minor demerits, Guardians 2 is a brilliant spectacle in more ways than one, serving to both amp up the first film’s chaotic-good energy and delve deeper into the personalities, histories, and motivations of its characters. With intoxicating visuals, a dedicated and enthusiastic cast, and an impeccable taste in classic rock, James Gunn has created one of the most outrageous and thoroughly entertaining films the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen to date. It’s going to be hard for Gunn to outdo himself for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but it’s going to be exciting as hell to see if he can.
FBOTU Score: 8 out 10 / A-