Guardians' puts all Han Solos on deck

Marvel's latest film succeeds with unapologetic heroes

Thursday July 31, 2014 04:00 am EDT

An elevator pitch for Guardians of the Galaxy would be that it's like the original Star Wars, if every character were Han Solo. Writer-director James Gunn builds an outrageously entertaining spectacle around a pack of unapologetic space-faring scoundrels, led by Chris Pratt as wisecracking thief Peter Quill.

Guardians unabashedly loves Star Wars, yet gives the space opera genre the lightest possible touch. Gunn's pop culture nostalgia amounts to more than "Long ago in a galaxy far, far away," however. With hot-rod spaceships and a soundtrack studded with kitschy tunes from the likes of Blue Swede, watching Guardians feels like cranking 1970s Top 40 radio while painting an awesome cosmic mural across your Chevy van.

Produced by Marvel Studios and set in the same universe as The Avengers, Guardians doesn't feel like another superhero movie. It does follow Marvel's current formula of colorful characters vying for a vaguely defined all-powerful object. Guardians explains that a prized, glowing "orb" belongs to a set of artifacts that includes the MacGuffins of previous Marvel films (and doubtless future ones). Early on, Quill sets the plot in motion by pilfering the orb from the ruins of an abandoned planet while rocking out on his old-school Walkman, one of the last mementos of his childhood on Earth.

Quill's larcenous ways get him locked in space jail along with a band of lethal misfits who'll eventually become his best friends, including gorgeous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), brawny berserker Drax (Dave Bautista), and talking, trigger-happy raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). The group's most peaceable member is Groot, a towering tree-man voiced by Vin Diesel. Once they're not trying to kill or collect bounties on each other, they team up to bust out of prison and earn a big score. But an alien zealot called Ronan (Lee Pace) seeks to use the orb to destroy an Earthlike planet, so the "Guardians" find themselves reluctantly playing good guys.

Featuring galactic backdrops and two computer-generated roles, Guardians obviously relies heavily on its special effects. But where the CGI practically suffocated the actors in the Star Wars prequels, Guardians' cast seems energized by the project's outlandishness. Pratt's easily punctured bravado sets the table for the film's snappy banter, while Cooper gives Rocket a caustic bluster, like Ratso Rizzo in full "I'm walkin' here!" mode. Despite her fierce physical presence, Saldana gets a little short-changed, but Bautista, a WWE wrestler with little big-screen experience, makes Drax's literal-mindedness genuinely amusing.

Dating to 1969, the original Guardians are obscure even by comic book standards, and the film would rather explore prison-break details than hash out interplanetary politics. For instance, it assumes you'll recognize Thanos as the unnamed puppet master from the end of The Avengers. Josh Brolin takes on the role here as essentially a cameo, but we don't get much sense of how this fearsome purple guy fits in the greater story.

Guardians has a few stumbling blocks, including a prologue on Earth that hits the film's worst false notes, but it has the kind of confidence that allows recovery from such missteps with an "I meant to do that" shrug. Like the early appearances of Han Solo, the film knows how to swagger without being a jerk about it.

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