Thursday, May 18, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

Beat of a different drum

This being a sequel it would be smart of me--obligatory almost--to declare that lightning doesn't strike twice, that Gunn has sold his soul to the corporate suits at Marvel, that this lacks the freshness of the original and so on and so forth. 

Might be true--is true, arguably--but what the hell enjoyed it anyway. 

The first Guardians was a come-from-behind monster hit, Gunn's basic idea being that plot A (quest for metal egg housing all-important all-powerful Infinity Stone) served as background to plot B (Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) quest to surround himself with surrogate family), the inversion of priorities being Gunn's way of standing apart from all the other oversized projects being squeezed out of the Marvel Studios pipeline.

The gambit worked, surprisingly enough; the movie earned over $700 million worldwide, which doesn't put it in the top ten (Joss Whedon's first Avengers movie earned $1.5 billion) but does place it in the same respectable neighborhood. More surprising the movie works using an obscure comic-book title, directed by a filmmaker better known for low-budget genre efforts (Slither, Super) indulging his own geeky mix of humor and pathos (in Slither a man turned monster attempts to maintain the fiction of marriage with his still-human wife; in Super a man turned superhero attempts to win back the love of his runaway wife; in this movie a monster turned man attempts to rekindle the affections of his long-lost--but you get the idea). 

Qualifying that thought further: the surprise isn't so much that Gunn successfully stuck to his guns but that so many folks embraced his willfulness so warmly, to the tune of hundreds of millions. His success is a function I suspect of the bland uniformity of Marvel product: when something relatively different comes along it sticks out like a sore thumb, or tree root, or raccoon tail.

Quill's Walkman incarnates Gunn's approach to Marvel Studios filmmaking: pop in Awesome Mix cassette; slide on earphones, plug in jack; moonwalk to own (as opposed to Marvel's) unique beat. The ploy keeps supervillains from drawing a bead, keeps girls (alien human otherwise) too off-balanced to say 'no,' keeps oneself looking unexpectedly unaccountably cool. 

Has the surprise worn off in Vol. 2? The filmmaker signals his intentions early on with a swirling long-take shot of the Guardians battling a space octopus in the background, Baby Groot (offshoot from the original picture's Groot, both voiced by Vin Diesel) tripping to the rhythms of ELO in the foreground. Ballsy idea pulled off with style, the challenge being to maintain that carefully achieved myopia for the rest of the movie's 130 minute running time.

Lord knows Gunn tries. He does touch gloriously giddy heights, as when Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) in a moment of galactic peril demands a piece of Scotch tape from his sorely beleaguered colleagues--but the sequence is quickly followed by yet another outsized CGI battle, blowing one's memories (not to mention good feelings) of the scene out one ear. Gunn unfortunately is following two conflicting impulses: the need to make the familiar surprising again (fairly successful); the need to top what's happened before with bigger and better yet still the same (with rapidly diminishing returns). He does best following his more perverse instincts--like casting the still-charismatic Kurt Russell as Ego the Living Planet, a small-scale god and Quill's reputed father (as with all orphan heroes Quill has highborn origins), then pitting Ego against Quill's adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) in the young man's heart. Leading-man Russell vs. character actor Rooker? "I'm your father!" vs. "I'm gonna eat you!?" Snake Plissken vs. Henry? The competition's so lopsided it would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Gunn is helped in no small part by the B cast: the aforementioned Rooker and Russell plus Karen Gillian as Nebula, who hides more pain in her menacingly blue noggin than has been previously suspected (or thought possible). Rooker in particular scores a triumph; thought he was wasted in the previous installment, glad he's finally been given his due--and a brief moment center stage--here. 

Gunn's action sequences have improved somewhat--he's at his best when he embraces the tangential view, either with Baby Groot sashaying in the foreground or through brief glimpses from out a tunnel entrance  (accompanied by the occasional demand for Scotch tape); when the action is shot head-on (while battling the Sovereign fleet for example) they're standard-issue CGI snorefests, thousands of ships lined up like so many swarming Aryan mosquitoes (though to his credit Gunn slyly parodies said image by likening control of the ships--basically robot drones--to hi-tech arcade-style videogames).

One thing Gunn does right is render his palette as bright and garish as ever. Ego's edenlike planet is slathered in colors so kitschy it would make the late Thomas Kinkade's eyes roll; during a cremation late in the film flames bloom from all directions, in all the colors of the rainbow; later when friends and ships visit they pay tribute by shooting off fireworks in space. Too many colors may be too many, but way too many (to the point of possible temporary blindness) can sometimes be just right (glad I saw this in 2D; the added dimension might have been excessive).

Same goes with the soundtrack--are "My Sweet Lord" and "Father and Son" mawkish, sentimental? Perhaps, but they're Gunn's mawkishly sentimental favorites, and I suspect he's trying to do here what Dennis Potter did in his dramas: using cheap overfamiliar pop tripe in such a way as to give them fresh power. Does he succeed? Depends I suppose on how much you like Gunn's approach, the idea of jukebox musicals, and Cat Stevens; a lot of variables in the soup but for me they fell in line like so many tin ducks.   

Let's be clear on one point: Vol. 2 is unabashed junk food--but (I submit) well-cooked junk, crunchy and salty and coated thick with powdered cheese. Not very nourishing but I do get to lick the powder off my fingertips afterwards.

First published in Businessworld 5.11.17

1 comment:

radishhorse said...

This is still better than most MCU entries. Better than the much praised, shaky-cam fests, kinda clever yet actually dumb Civil War and The Winter Soldier.
I like it that Gunn focused on the characters' stories and did a proper sequel, despite the overall distracting blockbuster package.
And of course, Mr. Grant Grant for the win.