‘Guardians’ returns and it’s better than the first

IN JAMES Gunn’s sequel to his swashbuckling space Western, the Guardians of the Galaxy do their version of “The Empire Strikes Back,” complete with daddy issues but with a considerably more anarchic spirit and enough acerbic interplay among its interstellar gang to make Obi-Wan blush.

The wild whiz-bang of the first “Guardians” and its gleeful upending of superhero conventions was, I thought, not the second-coming others felt it was. Having sat through a meteor shower of imposingly well-made Marvel products, the too-pleased-with-itself “Guardians” felt to me like an intensely scripted politician trying to smugly crack wise.

When the motley crew of scavengers reunites in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” many of its tricks — the anachronistic ‘70s hits, the exotically foul-mouthed creatures — are not the sneak attack they were in 2014. But that turns out to be a good thing. No longer so busy advertising his movie’s genre transgressions, Gunn, who wrote and directed the sequel, is free to swim backstrokes through his cosmic, CGI-spiced gumbo.

Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel

It’s a soupy, silly spectacle that recalls, if nothing else, the weird, kaleidoscopic design of a Parliament-Funkadelic album cover. Gunn’s film also shares George Clinton’s goofy extravagance (and includes his song “Flashlight”), and a neon-colored cast with its own Mothership.

There are two types in the universe, Dave Bautista’s muscle-mound Drax declares early on. “Those who dance and those who do not.” In the “Guardians” universe, which blithely mocks just about everything, this is close to a mission statement. Whereas the first film featured Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill on a faraway planet bopping to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” the early scenes of “Vol. 2” find the Guardians battling some giant monster while Baby Groot — the extraterrestrial tree turned sapling (voiced by Vin Diesel) — grooves to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

The “Guardians” universe, made up of such ironies and oddities, worships at the altar of incongruity. Referenced within are “Cheers,” Mary Poppins, Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” David Hasselhoff and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” It’s the kind of wacked-out tapestry that even Lindsey Buckingham would find head-spinning.

While Quill resembles a classic Han Solo-like hero, his fellow Guardians — Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned Gamora, the caustic, Bradley Cooper-voiced raccoon Rocket, Drax and Groot — are a multi-species band of outsiders. No two are alike in temperament or genetics.

Though they bicker endlessly, they’re a cobbled-together, multi-species family, just one more likely to trade insults than hugs. And the nature of family is at the center of “Vol. 2.” Quill, having lost his mother as a young child in the first film, learns that his father is a “celestial,” or deity, named Ego (Kurt Russell), with a planet of his own creation. The Guardians meet him after fleeing the remote-controlled pods that pursue them when Rocket steals batteries from Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the High Priestess of the golden-hued Sovereign race.

Returning is Michael Rooker’s excellent Yondu Udonta, who resembles a rejected audition to the Blue Man Group and controls a lethal arrow with a whistle. He’s hired to capture the Guardians, but his character — who raised the orphaned Quill — plays an unexpectedly emotional role in Quill’s journey into his past. The effect is similar for Gamora’s sister Nebula, the Guardians’ furious prisoner. Others are in the mix, too, including a brief cameo by Sylvester Stallone and, more impressively, Chris Sullivan’s mutinying, unfortunately named pirate Taserface.

All of the names, though, are kind of joke, as is much of the plot (batteries?), the planets and, well, the whole operation. In one scene, an escaping ship shoots through so many hyper-speed portals that their faces go bug-eyed like Looney Tunes characters, maybe revealing the films’ underlying DNA.

But while this “Guardians of the Galaxy” has no earnest belief in its sci-fi theatrics (the credits action scene is largely just blurry background to Baby Groot’s dancing), it believes surprisingly sincerely in its characters’ inner lives, the ones buried beneath their sarcastic exteriors. “Guardians” takes place further in the reaches of the galaxy than any other Marvel movie, yet it’s the most earthbound. In the words of David Bowie, another space oddity, let’s dance. (AP)

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