James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the rarest sort of achievement, a spectacular summer entertainment that’s as exciting as “Stars Wars,” as subversive as “Heavy Metal,” and as goofy as countless Roger Corman space romps. It also happens to be smart, wickedly funny, sweet in a way that seems new to the Marvel movie universe, and just about the best example of family entertainment to come along in some time.
A prologue informs us that young Peter Quill was snatched unceremoniously from the jaws of earth by a giant spaceship in the year 1988, a time when cassette mix tapes could still be found playing in their Walkmen. 26 years later, Quill (now a full-grown Chris Pratt from “Parks and Recreation” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), is making his living as an intergalactic junk thief, and struggling to be accepted by his self-proclaimed moniker, Star-Lord. Quill is clever and street-smart, with just the right amount of arrogance in his bones for a guy who steals and sells other people’s space crap; but he’s decent at heart, despite his dubious profession. (Everything he steals, Quill reasons, is stuff other people were going to throw out anyway, so what’s the harm?)
One day, Quill steals a mysterious orb that sets into motion a chain of disastrous events. The orb being of some unknown value, Quill survives not one, but two, attempts on his life. The first results in a bounty placed on his head by Yondu (Michael Rooker), the louse who kidnapped him as a boy and raised him into a life of petty crime. The second involves the Zen Whoberi alien, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the intergalactic bounty hunters Rocket the Racoon and his sidekick, Groot, an enormous humanoid tree whose command of the English language is ostensibly limited.
I’ll go a little further, so bear with me: Gamora was sent to retrieve the orb by Ronan (a deliciously evil Lee Pace), who is working in secret with the monstrous deep-space titan and Gamora’s adopted father, Thanos, to use it for their own destructive means; but Gamora betrayed Ronan, and now Ronan is pissed. Finding unlikely allies in one another, Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and the powerful but sweet Drax the Destroyer band together to find the orb and save the universe before Ronan and Thanos can carry out their fiendish plan!
Let’s go ahead and let that marinate for a second. If it sounds like a lot of plot detail, that’s because it is. I haven’t even mentioned the space militia Nova Corps and their planet, Xandar, Gamora’s demented adopted sister, Nebula, or the interplanetary pawnbroker, Tivan, who looks like Liberace’s distant uncle and operates from Nowhere, the disembodied head of a celestial being.
I give you all of this information not to numb your brain, but to make a point: “Guardians of the Galaxy” is jam-packed, frame to frame, with characters, plot points, twists and turns, action, low comedy, sharp wit, pop-culture references and a soundtrack that sounds like an 80s greatest-hits compilation, and it’s to the great credit of Gunn and his co-writer, Nicole Perlman, that the entire thing succeeds beyond all reasonable expectations. The movie hurtles along giddily from one scene to the next, through time and space, not caring that there’s no room in between to breathe. It almost dares us to scoff at its audacity. After all, when was the last time you saw a movie featuring a cranky raccoon whose favorite hobby is blowing things up, or a hero who tries to get laid by name-dropping Kevin Bacon and “Footloose,” or a tree with a three-word vocabulary and a nasty temper? Or dialogue as smart, witty, and spontaneous as anything Quentin Tarantino has written? There’s something liberating about the movie’s care-free nature, in the colorful galaxies and the curious creatures that populate them; a heedless joy in the in-jokes and goofy humor. In many ways, it feels like a real director’s piece; you can almost sense the absence of tinkering from clueless producers.
Film adaptations of Marvel’s comics have successfully covered a wide range of themes, styles and demographics, from the dark and deeply personal (Spider-Man and Wolverine), to period pieces (Captain America) to all-encompassing commercialism (The Avengers), so it seems only fitting that they finally took a chance on something risky and a little bit dangerous. It’s this confidence in Gunn and his material, I think, that elevates “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the top of the heap.