Chuck Koplinski: 'Guardians' is 'Star Wars' for a new generation
It's been a dismal summer at the movies, not only where the quality of films is concerned but also in regard to how much fun viewers have been having. Sure, "22 Jump Street" was funny, and "X-Men: Days of Futures Past" and "Godzilla" were satisfying spectacles, but neither was lighthearted enough to leave a smile on my face.
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Fortunately, there's an antidote to this in the form of Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," a film that shouldn't work yet, somehow does as it finds the proper balance between well-done sci-fi mayhem and self-effacing comedy to produce a crowd-pleasing entertainment that's the very definition of what a summertime, popcorn movie should be.
While this is a Marvel Studios production, the superheroes at its center are not what you would call first-string characters on the order of Iron Man or Captain America. No, these are more like tier-four oddballs, the sorts you focus on after the mainstays and their substitutes and then THEIR substitutes have been exhausted, living in throwaway stories dropped in the back of a more famous character's comic or given an occasional, short-lived mini-series of their own.
This works to the film's advantage as these reluctant heroes carry little baggage or general awareness, so they'll seem fresh to the uninitiated. And while this movie is a part of the Marvel Studios film universe with its already planned sequels set on a collision course with Avengers 3, much of what happens here is self-contained and serves as the perfect jumping-on point for any of the uninitiated.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the film is that each of the five characters who make up this group are extremely likable.
Peter Quill (Chris Pratt in a star-making turn), an overgrown adolescent who was kidnapped from Earth as a child and refers to himself by the self-aggrandizing title of "Star Lord," is an intergalactic scavenger who looks for artifacts of interest to sell to the highest bidder. Think of him as the outer space version of Indiana Jones — and it's hard not to as the scene where he makes his first acquisition is a loving homage to the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." His latest find — a metal orb that unknown to him contains an object of great power — brings him nothing but trouble as nefarious bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it and sends one of his cohorts, the green-skinned living weapon Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to fetch it. However, she's tripped up by bounty hunters Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), a cynical gun-tooting, cigar-chomping genetically modified raccoon, and Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), a kindhearted, walking tree who has uncanny, well, tree powers. They're out for the bounty that has been put on Quill's head by his double-crossed mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker), and when all four create chaos in the center of an idyllic city on the planet of Nova Prime, they end up in jail where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a fierce, literal-minded warrior who is out to avenge the death of his wife and child who died at the hands of, you guessed it, Ronan.
These five realize they have a common interest — namely saving the universe and taking out Ronan — and embark on a mad mission to do just that. At its core, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a big, sprawling action movie, and just when it threatens to spin wildly out of control, director James Gunn effectively reins things in with a dose of humor or humanity, which is the key to its success. On paper, it all sounds patently ridiculous, and it is. But there's a sense of unbridled fun and enthusiasm at play here that's been absent from the screen since "The Avengers," and it's no exaggeration to call this the "Star Wars" of the 21st century, it's that much fun.
To be sure, "Guardians" contains the sort of special-effects-saturated action scenes that are part and parcel of films of this sort, yet they are done exceedingly well as Gunn keeps these sequences fluid, easy to follow and exciting.
However, what makes the movie work are the characters, each of them likable, well-drawn and sympathetic, the antagonistic chemistry between them generating one belly laugh after another while each of their tragic backgrounds makes them easy to sympathize with. Across the board, the cast have their tongues firmly planted in cheek, playing up the irreverent tone Gunn fosters throughout.
Though Ronan is rather opaque and the movie threatens to overstay its welcome, there's no question that "Guardians" is a remarkably fun time, and the wait to see this gang share the screen with the Avengers will be for too long.
Seeing what the Hulk might make of Groot is a moment that can't get here soon enough.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ ★★★1/2 (out of 4) Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, David Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Directed by James Gunn; produced by Kevin Feige; screenplay by Nicole Perlman and Gunn. A Marvel Studios release. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and some language). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16 IMAX.
"Hercules" a compelling new look at weathered demigod. (★★★½)
Color me surprised in regard to Brett Ratner's "Hercules," an unexpectedly thrilling, smart and at times moving new take on everyone's favorite demigod.
It goes without saying that they got off on the right foot by casting Dwayne Johnson in the title role, but what's most surprising is the intelligence found in the adaptation of Steve Moore's Radical Comics mini-series by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Far more than just a sword-and-sandal saga, the film casts its hero not as the son of Zeus, but rather as a mortal whose feats of derring-do have been so exaggerated that the only explanation for these exploits is that Hercules must be part deity to accomplish them, a reputation he struggles to uphold.
After a brief recap of Hercules' 12 labors, which regrettably did not include the sight of the he-man cleaning the Augean stables, Ratner quickly introduces us to the main players and drops us into the middle of the action. Seems that Hercules took to wandering after doing his penance and along the way, assembled about him a band of orphans and misfits. They include Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), a warrior prophet who provides comic relief when predictions of his own demise prove wrong; Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a loyal friend handy with flying daggers whose interest in money outweighs all; Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a mute warrior found as an infant whose loyalty to Hercules is unwavering; Atalanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) the fierce archer of Greek myth; and Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), a master storyteller who is most responsible for spreading the word concerning his uncle Hercules' feats and blowing them out of proportion as well.
Together, these six are a formidable group whose services are available to the highest bidder, and they are commissioned by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) who is having a problem with rogue invaders led by the sorcerer Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann). He has ravaged the good king's kingdom, leaving him an army of inexperienced farmers to protect the realm. Seems this despot is about to deliver the killing blow, so Hercules and his crew are hired to protect the kingdom as well as train what's left of the army in the fine art of killing.
The premise is taken directly from Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," and because it's so familiar, Ratner wastes little time setting it up or dispensing with the requisite training scenes, all of which is done with economy and humor. The director has never been given his due, primarily because most of his films are seen as throwaway vehicles. However, most of what he has done has been highly entertaining ("Rush Hour," "Tower Heist") and occasionally moving ("The Family Man"), qualities evident here that help elevate this among the usual action fare.
While the plot holds little in the way of surprises, the formidable cast give it their all, at times attacking it as if it were a piece of Shakespearean court intrigue. Johnson holds his own, especially when called upon to display the grief and guilt his character feels over the death of his family, while McShane and Sewell are of particular note, knowing just when to nudge a joke for a laugh or pull back to tug at our hearts.
Imaginative battle sequences, a good plot twist and a dynamic conclusion deliver more than enough thrills to satisfy even the most jaded action fan. However, it's the way the themes of loyalty, honor and heroism are played out that make "Hercules" more than a simple summer timewaster.
These lessons are rendered in the most sincere manner and lend a gravity to the film that suits it well, as this tale of a man who realizes heroic deeds can be godlike in nature will only nurture the legend of Hercules all the more.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.