There's no time like the first time, of course. So the oddball characters and stacked-up wisecracks of the 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy , which aired out the Marvel movie universe in a most refreshing way, can never be entirely fresh again. But in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the main crew of space adventurers is still lively and likeable, and their tossed-off zingers still hit home more often than not.
Returning writer-director James Gunn had even more money to play with on this film (the L.A. Times estimates a budget of $200-million). Unfortunately, he blew a good bit of it on sprawling techno-bloat and general over-stuffing. (At 136 minutes, this picture is 15 minutes longer than its predecessor.) But Gunn has also expanded the cast in an entertaining way (any movie with Kurt Russell in it is usually a much-improved movie), and he has created some gorgeous scenes—an affectingly melancholy space funeral, a brief, haunting shot of a shoal of bodies floating among the stars, and fantasy landscapes bathed in a golden light that recalls the paintings of Maxfield Parrish. The production design offers a lot to like; the movie's problems lie elsewhere.
The picture begins with a prologue set in Missouri in 1981, in which we hear the first of the soundtrack's many vintage tunes—in this case, the 1972 AM-radio hit, "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" (later described by a terminally nostalgic character as "one of Earth's greatest musical compositions"). This "mixtape" element of the Guardians films—which here goes on to canvas back-in-the-day oldies by Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, and George Harrison—already feels a little gimmicky. And some of the songs—like Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights"—feel arbitrarily inserted into the scenes they accompany.
But the movie benefits from an adjusted focus on some of the familiar characters. Still aboard, and still given plenty of narrative room, are Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Earthling who wishes more people would call him "Star-Lord", and green-faced assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The problem with these two is that they continue to carry on an unrequited-love affair that's so vague it's virtually inert, even when tricked out with a half-clever Cheers reference. But ex-wrestler Dave Bautista, as the often clueless Drax, gets off some of the movie's best lines—especially in his flirtations with a strong new character called Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the lovely owner of a pair of swaying, bug-like antennae.
The real stars of the show, though, are the furry battle master Rocket (once again voiced with great invention by Bradley Cooper) and the diminutive Baby Groot (a chip off the now departed big Groot, whose three-word "I am Groot" refrain is still voiced by Vin Diesel, collector of Hollywood's easiest paycheck). The scene in which Rocket works himself into a fit of comical frustration trying to teach the tiny sprig how to prime a bomb would be the movie's funniest interlude if it weren't for another scene, set in a jail cell, in which Rocket fails hilariously to describe to Baby Groot the simple implements he would need to break out. (This new Groot is super-cute beyond the call of sci-fi: when one of the story's evil dudes expresses a desire to kill the little guy, he's told not to dare: "He's too adorable.")
The story, such as it is, begins with Peter and company scouring the galaxy for some very special batteries (really) that belong to a race of golden-toned people called The Sovereign. Their leader (Elizabeth Debicki) launches the tale by looking into Peter's soul and seeing… well, something I won't go into. The story then proceeds to round up a few other familiar characters from the last movie, among them the swashbuckling Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the mechanically enhanced Nebula (Karen Gillan, very cool), who you'll recall is Gamora's embittered sister. When Kurt Russell finally walks on, playing a mysterious celestial being called Ego, he deploys the smooth moves of an old pro in bringing complex emotional clarity to an initially inscrutable character.
There's lots and lots of zooming around and space-battling and blowing stuff up as the movie proceeds, and more than one CGI-gobbling monster moment, too. A lot of this stuff is beautifully done; but it's practically nonstop, and by the final third of the film it becomes oppressive, allowing us to tune out and contemplate some of the movie's missteps. For one, I don't think a picture like this needs "turd" jokes. And while I understand that director Gunn is a non-ironic David Hasselhoff fan—which explains the Baywatch guy's presence here—I don't understand why a need was felt to bring in Sylvester Stallone as well. Then there's the villain who's been lazily named Taserface. This battered gentleman looks like a Travolta stunt double from Battlefield Earth, but he doesn't look like a Taserface—Tasers being, as a piece of equipment, not especially fearsome to look at. I insist that this is more than a quibble.
Guardians 2 may not be able to provide the fresh kicks of the first movie, but it's still fun. If only it weren't so exhaustingly long (thanks in part to the 'leventy-seven promotional scenes seeded among the end credits). The picture will of course do big box office. But next time around, Gunn might want to think a little smaller.