If the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys were packing heat, you might get the Guardians of the Galaxy, the heroes of the latest Marvel comic-book-to-screen extravaganza. As shepherded by director James Gunn (Super), Guardians of the Galaxy lurches along a bit awkwardly, but always with utterly dazzling visuals and a goofy gag at the ready.
Gunn and Nicole Perlman scripted this adaptation of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's comics, launched in 2008 (a different, original set of Guardians debuted in 1969). The film opens by swiftly establishing the anguish and trauma underpinning Peter Quill, a boy (Wyatt Oleff) who, in 1988, loses his mother to cancer just before alien Ravagers kidnap him. In short order, that boy is a man (Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie) of mercenary tendencies and thieving instincts, kicking around the galaxy with an emotional detachment that's compatible with danger and one-night stands. And he now fancies himself "Star-Lord," though he's having a hard time making the name stick.
Hired to steal and deliver a powerful orb, Quill winds up with a bounty on his head, and when those looking for him or the orb converge in a sunny mall on planet Xandar, all heck breaks loose, and Quill gets locked up with his new frenemies: green-skinned tough cookie Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has a history with big, bad, power-hungry Thanos (Josh Brolin); hulking warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista, in a surprisingly subtle and dry-witted turn), bent on vengeance against Thanos' agent Ronan (Lee Pace); the amiable but powerful walking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), who only ever says, "I am Groot"; and the genetically engineered talking rodent Rocky Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), who's as gun-happy as he is wise-ass.
And they only scratch the surface of the cast of characters, which makes room for actors like fan fave Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Oscar winner Benicio del Toro, and Oscar nominees Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close, and John C. Reilly. The plot hurtles forward too quickly ever to coalesce into decisive coherence or clean, clear motivations, which will leave some audiences disinterested, uninvolved and numbed by the relentless 3D spectacle. On the other hand, Gunn keeps the tone light and the design eye-popping, compensations that shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to this kind of multiplex product: the $170 million picture looks like it cost easily twice as much.
It's fitting that Guardians of the Galaxy debuts just after Comic-Con, as it's catnip for the comic-geek crowd. But perhaps the real target audience is kids, who will get the most guiltless value out of the movie. After two acts that play like a meeting of Douglas Adams and Quentin Tarantino (especially in the emphasis on "Awesome Mix" source music on Quill's precious Walkman), the third act repeatedly hammers home an "all for one and one for all" message that "losers" and orphans can find a support system in their own new "family" of friends. Though the picture leaves you with little more to hang onto than a roller coaster, it's still a pretty good ride.