Like many a sequel to a slam-bang, much-liked mega-hit, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” isn’t quite as much fun, not quite as clever, not quite as fresh as the original — but it still packs a bright and shiny and sweet punch.
Any big-budget superhero movie willing to place the opening action sequence to soft-focus background while a baby tree jams to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” is all right by me.
The original “Guardians” (2014) was like the class clown of superhero movies, if the class clown also had a strong heart and a supple brain lurking beneath the goofball exterior. It was cool and snarky and warm and fuzzy at the same time. It was one of those movies you know you’re going to see again and enjoy just as much the second time around.
“Guardians of the Galaxy 2” follows the same recipe, from the return of that lovable ragtag band of universe-saviors to the constant bickering and bantering to the “Mix Tape” soundtrack of pop-rock hits from the 1970s. (And of course, in the tradition of just about every sequel ever, we’re introduced to new, important characters as well.)
I’ve always liked the corny, AM-friendly, storytelling hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass. It’s put to good use here, just to the brink of overkill. I’m good with not hearing “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass until about 2020.
One of the most impressive special effects in this candy-colored, explosion-riddled, 3-D extravaganza is the appearance of a young Kurt Russell in a 1980 prelude at the top of the story, in which Russell’s character of Ego is romancing Meredith Quill, who will become the mother of Peter Quill/Star-Lord. (Reports say a combination of CGI and makeup and other tricks of the trade gave us the young Kurt. I’d rather not know. It’s just pretty amazing to see what appears to be a 30ish Kurt Russell, awesome ’80s haircut flowing in the breeze.)
They’re zipping down the highway, clearly in love, singing along to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass. And then Ego shows Meredith a strange orb glowing in the woods, and he talks about his master plan, and …
Cut to 34 years later, with the Guardians of the Galaxy gearing up for battle. In addition to Chris Pratt’s wisecracking but noble Peter, there’s Zoe Saldana’s brave (and green) but emotionally cautious Gamora; Dave Bautista’s hulking and ferocious but rather dim and goofy Drax; the sly and outwardly selfish Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and the adorable Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
The Guardians get mixed up in all kinds of dangerous intergalactic hijinks interspersed with sticky-sweet sentimental moments. Songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” set the tone (and in some cases hammer home the point).
At times the special effects are wondrous and cool; other times, they’re so cheesy and obviously CGI one can’t help but wonder if that’s the effect director James Gunn and the army of special effects wizards were trying to achieve. (Scenes on various planets when oozing blue goop spreads across landscapes, apparently killing thousands of humans and other human-like species, are straight out of a B-movie.)
Michael Rooker has one of the best roles in the movie as Yondu, the infamous space pirate with the blue skin and startlingly horrible teeth and red, Mohawk-like device atop his head. Yondu’s the worst! Or is he? Either way, things liven up quite a bit whenever Yondu starts controlling the deadliest arrow ever by whistling. (Man, Yondu better hope nobody ever stuffs a bunch of crackers down his throat at the wrong moment and quells the whole whistling thing.)
There’s a whole lot of family dynamic at play, with the vengeful and deeply warped Nebula (Karen Gillan) intent on killing her sister Gamora; Drax establishing some kind of weird sibling kinship with the nice but creepy Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who if anything is even more socially awkward than Drax; and the major unresolved relationship in the story, between Peter and his dad, a celestial being that calls himself Ego and rules a planet (and maybe more than just one planet) of his own creation.
Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell are terrific together as a father and son who have a lot of baggage to deal with, even in a superhero universe where it sometimes feels as if MOST fathers and sons are dealing with a lot of baggage. As the story gets deeper and darker and more convoluted, it’s hard to care about the particulars of the plot — especially when the screenplay is constantly reminding us not to take it too seriously, what with the references to David Hasselhoff and “Cheers” and Mary Poppins and other pop-culture touchstones.
Oh, and we haven’t even talked about Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), a golden-skinned warrior princess who leads an army of supposedly perfect creations who are rather terrible at remote-control bombing missions.
And yet even with all the silliness and all the snarkiness, the Guardians can put a lump in your throat when someone suffers a serious setback, or someone does a solid and risks everything to save someone else. We look forward to the next adventure, with the hopes the Awesome Mix Tape will be the soundtrack for something just a little smarter, a little less bloated, a little more focused.
Marvel Studios presents a film written and directed by James Gunn. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content). Running time: 136 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.