What if Han Solo was the front-and-center star of the original “Star Wars” movies, and what if his team consisted of a talking raccoon, a mutant tree-man, a hulking giant and a hot green woman, instead of a Wookie named Chewbacca, a couple of robots and a clueless brother-sister duo? That’s basically the question asked by the new movie “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the answer is that you’d still have a pretty good time at the movies, if not a timeless classic.
“Guardians” is perhaps the summer’s most original movie, and I’ll give the folks at Marvel and Disney studios credit for taking a chance on such a big-budget ($170 million) mix of sci-fi action and comedy. The risk really comes from the fact that “Guardians” has no big movie stars like Robert Downey Jr. or Jeremy Renner in its cast, centering instead on the charms of veteran TV actor Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation,” with Bradley Cooper merely providing the voice of Rocket Raccoon and Vin Diesel serving almost as an in-joke as the voice of the grunting tree-man, Groot, while Zoe Saldana plays the green chick after establishing her bona fides playing a hot blue woman in “Avatar.”
Pratt stars as a guy named Peter Quill, who has given himself the nickname “Star-Lord” and loves to brag about it to everyone in sight. The film opens with Peter as a young boy watching his mother die in a hospital, before he runs outside only to find himself inexplicably zapped by a spaceship and hurtled into the heavens.
Now an adult, he is a junk collector working with a group called the Ravagers in search of a metallic orb that is wanted badly by a diverse group of creatures aside from his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker). The green woman, Gamora, is first on that list, as a highly trained assassin under orders from an evil overlord named Thanos to grab the orb at all costs.
A sarcastic talking raccoon named Rocket and his sidekick, a tree-man mutant named Groot, are also in hot pursuit, though the four quickly decide to team up rather than fight when they realize they need each other’s particular skills and can split a $4 billion bounty if they deliver the orb to the highest bidder in 24 hours.
There are more creatures and characters to be had- almost too many, as the movie bounds from one weirdly-named galactic location to another at a sometimes-confusing pace. But the movie builds momentum and tension well, with the last half-hour a slam-bang barrel of fun that is less serious yet often more fun than the climactic battles of just about every Marvel movie outside of “The Avengers” itself.
The wizard behind it all is James Gunn, who directs and co-wrote the script with Nicole Perlman, based on a series of comics written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Those comics were a daring experiment in themselves, an attempt to create an alternate form of superheroes that served almost as a spoof of The Avengers but with just enough plotline to be compelling as well as funny.
Gunn has done a couple of my favorite movies in the past decade – the highly unique comedy-horror mashup “Slither” and the indescribably original “Super,” in which Rainn Wilson of “The Office” plays a put-upon nebbish who decides to gain revenge on society by becoming a superhero vigilante and winds up taking things way too far. Here, he’s been blessed with the opportunity to go big with every crazy idea in his loony-tunes mind, and audiences will have a great time experiencing it.
“Galaxy” keeps up the Marvel Comics movies spirit of having little to no profanity of any kind, though the sarcastic Quill manages to leave viewers hanging with the idea that he was about to say something naughty at a couple points before catching himself. There are a couple of innuendoes implying that he is a ladies’ man, but no onscreen sex is shown or implied and he and Saldana keep things focused on action of the fighting rather than bedroom sort. The movie also has a refreshingly lower level of violence than the most recent “Captain America,” which was an outstanding movie but marred by a nonstop barrage of bullets. The movie might confuse kids at times more than it will ever frighten them, but Rocket and Groot are destined to be instant childhood movie icons.
All told, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a movie that stands out as one of a kind in a summer full of sameness. Here’s hoping audiences can embrace its weird vision and inspire even more fresh takes on timeworn genres.