Marvel's tenth film is a full-throttle and zany space adventure that will surely top many "best summer movies of 2014" lists.
In short: Rogue treasure hunter Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) stumbles across an intergalactic treasure, making him the target of an intense manhunt across the galaxy. Quill forms an uneasy alliance with a rag-tag group of outlaws - a dangerous assassin (Zoe Saldana), a bloodthirsty warrior bent on revenge (Dave Bautista), a wise-cracking raccoon bounty hunter (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a sentient, talking tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) - to prevent the sought-after treasure from falling into the wrong hands.
"Guardians of the Galaxy," which barrows generously from rollicking space adventures like "Star Wars" and thrilling treasure hunts like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," is simply the most fun Marvel film to date.
This ambitious space adventure doesn't rely just on incredible action sequences and amazing set pieces to make up for its less-than-familiar cast of characters - "Guardians" is a sprawling action flick featuring an unlikely team of "heroes" united by a common foe, but undeterred from violent infighting among themselves. The dysfunction within the Guardians make the Avengers look like a happy, cohesive family.
Like all Marvel films, there's a MacGuffin that can destroy the world and a villain intent on doing just that. What sets "Guardians" apart from many of the Marvel films is its strength: director-writer James Gunn has crafted an offbeat ride centered completely on five interesting and conflicted characters.
It's impossible to imagine any other actor filling the shoes of Guardians leader Peter Quill. Chris Pratt joins Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) in the elite group of actors perfectly cast as their Marvel characters. Pratt's reluctant hero is a perfect hybrid of the rogue scoundrel Han Solo, the bold & brash Captain James T. Kirk, the sly/decisive gunslinger Malcolm Reynolds and wry adventurer Indiana Jones.
Peter Quill is a balanced and dynamic character who loves to dance, will risk his life for his Walkman and refuses to ignore a threat that endangers the entire galaxy. Pratt's performance is not just entertaining - it's absolutely crucial to the very core of "Guardians": he had to embody a character who could unite (albeit reluctantly) five brutal criminals to fight for a noble cause. Simply put: Chris Pratt has "it."
Yet, the true scene stealer is the CGI raccoon with a love of anything with a trigger. Rocket - the irritable gun-toting raccoon - is not just the stand-out character of "Guardians," he's also in the running for the title of "best characters of 2014." Cooper absolutely nails the gun-loving, pint-sized bounty hunter with a Napoleon complex.
Rocket - a tactical genius more likely to make fun of children than to lend a helping hand - absolutely reflects the eccentric, but somehow heartfelt, tone of "Guardians." James Gunn's entry into the Marvel universe is a stark departure from the traditional hero's journey of Steve Rogers or Thor - none of the hard-drinking, womanizing or violence-loving Guardians would be worthy of wielding Thor's hammer or Captain America's shield. Gunn's outer space odyssey has its own zany and charmingly campy vibe - but Gunn's film is still commanded by characters who are, at their core, truly good and noble heroes.
"Guardians" is the tenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series and the last feature leading up to "Avengers: Age of Ultron" next summer - yet, this sci-fi romp is the most isolated Marvel film so far. Unlike previous Marvel films confined to either Earth or the very Earth-like planet in "Thor," this film is set across a galaxy overshadowed by tenuous peace treaties, filled with exotic aliens and threatened by Thanos. This independence allows "Guardians" the freedom it needs to expand the Marvel Universe well beyond Earth. While "The Avengers" and "Thor" dip their toes into the worlds beyond Earth, "Guardians of the Galaxy" offers the first full jaunt across the galaxy, exploring desolate moons, thriving cities, space prisons and outposts run by outlaws.
"Guardians" is close to perfect - but its flaws don't fundamentally hurt the movie that much. Veteran actors Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro are sadly underutilized - their respective characters have the absolute minimal impact on the overall story. Their biggest contributions seems to be in explaining what's going on (ie, exposition). The film's villain - a crazed zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace) - is not one of Marvel's strongest antagonists. His background is essentially "he wants to kill a lot of people" - namely the long-standing enemies of his alien race. Beyond that, Ronan is not very interesting.
But in the end, "Guardians" works because its five main characters - who would sooner fight one another to the death than team up - are genuine heroes. Each has their own internal motivation and each of the Guardians are noble warriors to the core -- even if they're totally OK with quickly resorting to violence, mayhem and outright destruction.
Final verdict: "Guardians of the Galaxy" joins the shortlist of amazing, fun and thrilling sci-fi adventures. Packed with a solid cast playing dynamic characters, Marvel's latest movie is arguably the most entertaining and heartfelt entry yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
P.S. -- Although this review is spoiler-free, if you want to read about the leaked details of the bonus after-credits scene, read here :)
"Guardians of the Galaxy" opens in theaters nationwide Aug. 1 and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.