Okay, take a somewhat goofy outlaw, an assassin, a berserker who takes everything literally, a genetically enhanced raccoon and a dim bulb of a tree man. Now make that work as both drama and comedy. I dare you.
This movie is Exhibit One in why writing matters more than anything else. Good writing can make anything work. Kevin used the word “rollicking” in comments on the spoilers thread below, and that's spot on—“exuberantly lively and amusing.” Guardians of the Galaxy is an almost unworkable concept soaring on genuine charm. The characters may be a bit 2-D but they still engage the viewer with more funny lines than any Marvel movie to date. I laughed out loud multiple times. It even offers a simple moral as the cherry on top of a delightful confection.
We open with a boy listening to his mother’s 70s mix tape while she dies of cancer. His tearful flight from the hospital leads to alien abduction, and twenty-six years later young Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) is a modern Han Solo, cocky and competent to the bone yet prone to embarrassing mishaps. He’s been hired to find a long lost orb that's also wanted by a loose cannon Kree psychopath named Ronan. Our heartless villain wants to use it to judge an inhabited planet in its entirety. In short, to become a one man Death Star.
Ronan sends a skilled assassin named Gamora after Quill. Having seen her own planet destroyed as a child, however, she’s not really down with the whole mass, mass murder thing. She intends to betray Ronan by delivering the orb into safe hands. Quill also has a price on his head after the orb theft, which draws in bounty hunter Rocket Racoon and his muscle, a tree-like creature named Groot. The tree man's one line of dialogue is “I am Groot,” a bon mot deployed to remarkably fresh effect throughout the movie. The collision of these four lands them in an interstellar jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer, a brute who takes every stray comment literally. He also happens to want revenge on Ronan for the murder of his family. The great escape is on.
One of my favorite lines is when Rocket explains that Drax doesn’t get metaphor, that “it flies right over his head.” Drax’s deadly serious response? “Nothing flies over my head. I would catch it.” Another good line is when Quill complains to Rocket that he can’t just build a bomb on Quill’s spaceship. Rocket’s annoyed response? “I was gonna put it in a box.” It's that kind of movie.
Gamora’s attempt to deliver the orb to safety gets sideswiped by Drax’s desire for revenge. That leads to an over-the-top battle inside the skull of a deceased celestial entity in which Ronan captures the orb. But our five misbegotten heroes have found something in each another to believe in and decide they can’t just let billions of people die. As Groot puts it with surprising eloquence later when asked why he’s sacrificing himself for the other four, “We are Groot.”
Of course Ronan is defeated. Of course our five misfits become heroes (Groot gets regrown from a twig). And of course there are hints of all kinds of things to build on in the growing Marvel cinematic universe. It absolutely is a rollicking good time.
The score is brilliant, too. All the music comes from the 70s mix tape that Peter's dying mother gave him, which he still has. That framing device represents more than just an instantly empathetic insight into Peter Quill's character. The average viewer doesn't understand this universe far, far away, but they know what to feel when they hear the refrain "Ouga Chaka Ouga Chaka Ouga Chaka" lead into Blue Swede blasting out the classic "Hooked on a Feeling." Or the Runaways sneering "Cherry Bomb." The integration of music and action is simple and inspired.
All in all, it's top tier work for the summer blockbuster line. Certainly beats Transformers 4 up one side of Cybertron and down the other.
We are all Groot, every one. And I can’t think of a better cinematic fate this summer.