It’s not always commented on, but success in Hollywood can be as much of a danger to creativity as failure. Latest case in point? “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
When the original “Guardians of the Galaxy” debuted in 2014 its anarchic B-picture soul made it such a scruffy, raffish interloper that a worried Marvel made sure to put “from the studio that brought you ‘The Avengers’ ” at the bottom of its advertising.
What a difference three years and $773 million at the international box office make. Yes, writer-director James Gunn and almost the entire cast have returned. But the magic, though not entirely gone, has taken a serious hit, done in by a combination of prosperity and anxiety.
Gunn and company wouldn’t be human if they didn’t feel pressure to repeat that bonanza, and to do that they have understandably attempted to double down on the attitudes and characters that made the first film a success.
As a result of trying too hard to maintain the original’s insouciant attitude, what was fresh now seems institutionalized, what was off the wall now feels carved in stone and the film’s trademark irreverence has become dogma. When the unruly Rocket asks wearily, “So, we’re saving the galaxy again,” the raccoon is being more truthful than he knows.
All this is frustrating because “Guardians Vol. 2" is not without its successful elements, including the return of star Chris Pratt as feckless adventurer Peter Quill, the Earth-born but galaxy-sired leader of this unruly mercenary bunch.
Just as good is one of the newcomers to the franchise, Kurt Russell, who hits exactly the right note of bemused assurance as Ego the Living Planet (his friends call him Ego), a powerful celestial being who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. More on that later.
And, as it was in the first film, the new “Guardians” soundtrack, known officially as “Awesome Mixtape #2,” is a treat. When splendid songs like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” are blended with the action, we forget how dispiriting and top-heavy the film’s music-less moments can be.
For the success of the first film has led to more money for special-effects-laden action sequences, which is not necessarily a good thing. These space opera battles are expertly done, but there are so many of them there’s a tale-wagging-the-dog quality to the way they dominate the film.
It doesn’t start out that way, however. “Guardians Vol. 2" begins with a genial 1980 prologue of Russell’s Ego and Quill’s future mother, Meredith (Laura Haddock), driving through the Missouri countryside in a Ford Cobra convertible as “Brandy You’re a Fine Girl” blasts on the car radio.
Cut to decades later, and the Quill-led Guardians are engaged in a battle with a generic space monster at the behest of a snooty gold-painted race called the Sovereign, ruled in she-who-must-be-obeyed fashion by the stuck-up Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki.)
Back from the first go-round are ace assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), all-around malcontent/talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the muscular but obtuse Drax (Dave Bautista) and, replacing the gone but not forgotten big tree Groot, a too-cute stripling called Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
The group puts the cuffs on Gamora’s even more dangerous sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), a woman with serious sibling issues, but their baser instincts prove hard to control and they irritate the Sovereign and end up fleeing for their lives.
Though individually and as a group the Guardians don’t do anything they didn’t do in the first film, “Vol. 2’s” insistence on hitting everything twice as hard soon becomes wearing.
If the gang argued with each other last time around, the constant bickering on display here is beyond tiresome, as is the wearing way Quill and Gamora refuse to speak about “the unspoken thing between us.” What was engaging in the first film quickly overstays its welcome here.
The emergence of Ego as a major player saves the day. Not only does he have his own planet, it comes complete with sidekick, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who feels other people’s feelings. When Ego tells Quill he wants to be the father he never was, it seems like the answer to a dream.
Still in the picture, however, is Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill’s earliest criminal mentor. He’s a leader of a band of interstellar recidivists called the Ravagers, who take up more space in this movie than they should, including an expendable Sylvester Stallone cameo as Ravagers poobah Stakar. Their extended antics are nowhere near as amusing as the film imagines.
Though there are enough reminders of the first “Guardians” to make the sequel an acceptable experience, it’s ended up less like itself and more like a standard Marvel production. A third film is already being promoted and going back to the roots would not be a bad idea.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive content.
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: In wide release
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