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‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ – you’re a fine film

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Marvel sequel strong, though not quite at the level of the first

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was one of the most delightful surprises of 2014, the first real risk that Marvel had taken with its cinematic universe and one that paid off handsomely to the tune of a $95 million opening and massive global success.

It was also heartfelt and funny in a way that no other MCU offering had really managed at that point, possessed of a scruffy charm (well, as scruffy as you can with on a $170 million budget) that both tied it to and set it apart from the rest.

Suffice it to say, writer/director James Gunn and company didn’t try to reinvent the wheel with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s largely more of the same, possessing many of the same qualities as its predecessor – in a good way – but perhaps suffering a bit without the aforementioned surprise. We knew what was coming this time – not that it should impact your enjoyment in any significant way.

The still-struggling-to-be-called-Star-Lord Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, “Passengers”) and his crew – the menacing Gamora (Zoe Saldana, “Live By Night”), the brutish, boorish Drax (Dave Bautista, “Enter the Warriors Gate”), the abrasive Rocket (Bradley Cooper, “War Dogs”) and the adorable Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, “The Fate of the Furious”) – are still doing their thing, working as mercenaries to pay the bills.

This time, they’ve made a deal with a race known as the Sovereign to get their hands on Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, “The Circle”). But due to some shenanigans, the Guardians find themselves on the wrong end of a Sovereign armada.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker, “The Belko Experiment”) is hired by the Sovereign to help procure the Guardians even as he continues dealing with the fallout from his last encounter with that crew – fallout that ultimately leads to mutinous mutterings among his crew of disgraced Ravagers.

And then a guy calling himself Ego (Kurt Russell, “The Fate of the Furious”) shows up with his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff, “Newness”). He’s a Celestial, a being of enormous power – oh, and he just happens to be Peter’s long-lost father.

All seems well, but Peter’s friends are suspicious about Ego’s motives. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye, and when all the secrets start coming out, well … that’s when the maelstrom of chaos that follows the Guardians really starts to spin.

I’m on the record as believing at the time that “Guardians of the Galaxy” had a chance to be the first outright flop in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Guardians were strictly C-list stuff as far as casual comics fans were concerned; a movie seemed like a big risk.

In hindsight, I was clearly an idiot.

Look, “Vol. 2” doesn’t quite reach the madcap heights of the first film. But so what? It still captures that wonderful comic book goofiness better than any other MCU offering. The set pieces are big and colorful and fun. The dialogue is riddled with jokes. The cast dynamic is phenomenal; this is the best ensemble of the Marvel bunch.

Pratt leads the way – his Peter Quill is this wonderful mélange of misplaced bravado and odd insecurity and quick wit and generous spirit. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone capable of pulling the role off like Pratt does. Saldana does a wonderful job of allowing glimpses through the assassin’s veneer at the genuine emotion beneath. Bautista has turned Drax into a surprisingly consistent source of humor; his oddly tilted affect is remarkably apt for the character. Bradley Cooper as Rocket is as course as ever, while Diesel’s Baby Groot somehow manages to become the emotional center of the film.

The supporting cast delights as well. Russell gleefully gnaws his way through every scene he’s in; his presence in the MCU was long overdue. Rooker, Klementieff, Gillan – they’re all good. Again, while you could make the case for groups that might be more talented, in terms of sheer ensemble cohesion, this crew is tough to beat.

Of all the Marvel directors, James Gunn might have done the best job of putting his own stamp on his films. The “Guardians” movies are kind of their own thing; their separation from the rest of the MCU allows for a lot more flexibility, in terms of style, of narrative and of tone. Gunn gets that, leaning into the humor and devoting attention to aspects of the film that prove unexpectedly key, like the well-curated soundtracks (from which this sequel derived its name).

Yes, in many ways “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is more of the same. And one could argue that we’re dealing with some diminishing returns. That’s OK; it’s still fun. And really – how can you not love a comic book space movie that invests the Looking Glass song “Brandy” with legitimate narrative impact? “Vol. 2” might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, it still flies pretty darned high.

[4.5 out of 5]

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