Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a chaotic mess, a frenzied hash of explosions, projectiles, spacecraft, characters, legends and allegiances all hurled at each other for a dizzyingly extended sequence which is the entire movie. It’s also subversive, irreverent and a whole lot of fun. It’s like a giant puppy tearing through the house to greet you. It’s so excited to make you happy that you can hardly help but surrender to it. It’s all sensation and energy, and while there are times you don’t understand it, you never want to stop watching it.
Somewhere in Missouri in 1988, a boy is abducted by aliens. Twenty-six years later and a few planets over, this is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a fast-talking, loose-living scavenger who searches the galaxy for rare items he can sell. He has one of those rare items himself, a Sony Walkman that he’s kept from Earth complete with a mixtape of the best (and some of the worst) of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that his mother made for him before she died and he was sucked up into a spaceship. That’s how he was able to listen to Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love as he finds another, more dangerous rarity—an orb bearing a stone that has the ability to level planets.
Such an item attracts attention and the movie’s plot consists of various groups and factions vying for its control. As Quill attempts to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, he collects a menagerie of confederates, a ragtag bunch that have only one thing in common: they were all initially trying to kill Quill. This includes Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green assassin who wants the orb for her own purposes, and Drax (Dave Bautista), a fearsome blue bruiser on a revenge plot who is, terrifically, from a society that takes everything both absolutely seriously and absolutely literally (“It went over his head,” someone says of him. “Nothing goes over my head,” he seethes. “My reflexes are too quick and I would catch it.”). Then there is a team of bounty hunters named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a walking, talking, swearing genetically modified raccoon, and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a giant tree-man who can sprout branches and roots at will but can utter only three words: I am Groot. He certainly is. Given the tricksy and murderous natures of many of their professions, the movie teases that the loyalty of the group to each other is in doubt, a doubt that only persists if you’ve never seen a movie before.Together they become guardians of the galaxy against the evil and ugly Ronan (Lee Pace), a brooding, over actor who is hell-bent on destruction for some reason and will stop at nothing to get hold of that orb.
In the span of two hours, the group will fight each other, fight Ronan a few times, escape from a maximum security prison in space, escape from a giant inhabited skull, and save the universe. The movie is a lot like watching somebody play pinball; there’s a lot of frenetic energy and things pop up and happen that aren’t fully explained, and you sort of feel like it would be more exciting if it slowed down every once and awhile and set up what’s going to happen next instead of just bursting right into it, but we are fortunate that the person playing the game is witty and infectious. This would be James Gunn, the director and co-writer who, along with his lead cast, makes it so easy to grin stupidly first and ask questions later. Yes, the frenzy has its drawbacks, as we never get a very good feeling of the emotional stakes or motives and there’s a love plot that feels more obligatory than natural, and we don’t get characters as much as espousers of zingers. But they are such delightful zingers and delivered with such zany enthusiasm that I was sold.
Even “I am Groot,” not exactly the work of Shakespeare, becomes a living phrase and a joke that somehow never gets old. Vin Diesel would seem to be luxury casting for just three words (though Groot learns a fourth during the movie), but he’s perfectly used here, subtly poking fun at his meathead image while actually developing what passes as characterization. More wasted is John C. Reilly in a throwaway role as a police officer, Glenn Close as leader of the good part of the galaxy, Djimon Hounsou as a mostly unnecessary henchman and Benicio Del Toro as a bizarre collector of antiquities, though there is reason to believe that we will see more of him in the inevitable sequels and spin-offs. I was also left cold by Pace’s indignant preening as the villain (whose motivation, who he’s working for and why, who is working for him and why, were the least adequately explained in a movie in which politics, races and even locations are hardly explained). There was not enough camp to match the rest of the proceedings but also not enough menace. The movie flat-lined whenever Ronan was the focus.
But when he wasn’t, it was a barrel of monkeys, or at least a barrel of men, green and blue men, tree-men and talking raccoons. The movie had a MacGuffin already in the orb, but Ronan himself became an extension, just something to keep the plot moving. And move it does, almost so quickly that there isn’t one, but if you hold on tight and don’t ask any questions, you’ll be back where you started, a little dizzier, wanting to ride it again.