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Chicago’s Michael Rooker plays the (blue) hero in ‘Guardians 2’

Yondu (Michael Rooker) connects with Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." | ©Marvel Studios

SPOILER ALERT: The following discusses plot points and the ending of the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Bail now if you don’t want to know how it all goes down.

The newest Guardian of the Galaxy not only steals the latest movie but saves the day, in emotional fashion.

Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned space outlaw Yondu Udonta comes to the forefront of the Marvel universe in the cosmic follow-up “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” by rescuing Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) — though it means sacrificing himself to make sure his adopted son lives.

The Ravagers leader appeared in a supporting role in 2014’s original “Guardians,” which introduced Yondu as the guy hired to pick Peter up on Earth when his mother died. Yet he’s the center of the sequel in many ways, director James Gunn says. “Michael Rooker is a guy who’s been acting for a long time on screen, and this is the role of a lifetime for him,” he says.

Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige calls the Chicago actor’s performance “an achievement. I get emails from people who can’t believe that the movie got them to cry for a blue person with a big red fin.”

Yondu’s “Vol. 2” arc begins on the cold, Vegas-y planet Contraxia, where he runs into his own surrogate father, Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone), and is exiled from the Ravagers for breaking their code.

Michael Rooker | Ian Gavan/Getty Images
Michael Rooker | Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Vulnerability and regret are shown in Yondu’s body and eyes, and “I love how all that worked,” says Rooker, who co-starred with Stallone in 1993’s “Cliffhanger.” “What makes it more amazing is it’s all without words.”

Rooker’s new Guardian also shares poignant moments with Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), though the most memorable come at the end with Peter. The heroes set off a bomb to blow up the living planet Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter’s real father, after Ego reveals he plans to use his kid to help take over the universe. And during the melee that unfolds, Peter and Yondu reconnect: “He may have been your father, boy,” Yondu tells him. “But he wasn’t your daddy.”

Only one life suit remains as they’re stranded in space, and Yondu gives it to Peter. “Those moments are a song,” says Rooker, 62. “Yondu brings his hand up to Quill’s face and, in that moment, he gently pats his face with his hand, as if to say, ‘It’s OK, it’s going to be all right, I’m good with this.’ It was beautiful.”

The scene was “incredibly emotional” to craft, Gunn says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder choice to make in my entire storytelling career.” And while filming that sequence was hard, “I saw two actors turning in what was probably the performances of their careers thus far while they’re hanging from wires. They had a strong moment with each other, and that’s always a joy to see.”

Will Rooker miss Yondu? “Naah,” he jokes with a big laugh, but admits that “it’s going to be difficult” watching Gunn’s “Guardians Vol. 3.”

Rooker, a Wells Park High and Goodman School of Drama grad, has had a varied résumé full of tough guys and antagonists going back to 1986 with the Chicago-made “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” and hopes that his recent roles in “Guardians” and “The Walking Dead” inspire new fans to revisit his earlier career, from “Mississippi Burning” and “JFK” to “Days of Thunder” and “Tombstone.” But he’s not resting on his cosmic laurels.

“Hey, I’m out of work, baby,” Rooker says. “Looking for a job!”

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY