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Chris Pratt, a talking tree, a wisecracking raccoon, Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana star in "Guardians of the Galaxy," now playing.

"Guardians of the Galaxy": Marvel's big risk is the audience's big reward

The existence of "Guardians of the Galaxy" seems like something born from a bad drunken bet.

After all, what sober-minded company would put down $170 million on a comic book adaptation of a C-list band of weird heroes, including a wisecracking raccoon bounty hunter and an anthropomorphic tree.

And then who would hire James Gunn, a graduate of Troma's gleefully twisted school of gory kitsch whose biggest film – the horror comedy "Slither" – starred bloody, disgusting slug-filled zombies and whose latest effort, "Super," featured Rainn Wilson dementedly running around a city violently cracking petty criminals over the head with a pipe wrench, to man the helm. Pardon me; Gunn's latest work was a short – arguably the worst one – in "Movie 43," as though that's reassuring anyone.

At first glance, it all looks like the plot of "The Producers" has come to life. Second, third and fourth glances don't make it seem any less crazy. Yet Marvel – Hollywood's most consistent studio since Pixar – went with it. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is easily the company's greatest risk – and it's turned out to be one of the company's greatest successes, hitting highs not reached since "The Avengers."

The endlessly affable Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill – self-nicknamed Star Lord, a moniker that hasn't caught on – an Earthling abducted by aliens as a child who now works as a space pirate under his blue abductor/protector Yondu (Gunn regular Michael Rooker). Their latest mission – retrieving a mysterious metallic orb – however, finds Quill betraying his pirate brethren and going alone to collect the whole bounty for himself.

The orb winds up bringing Quill more trouble than treasure. He soon finds himself in space prison alongside two bounty hunters – a genetically modified wisecracking raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), his loyal tree partner – sent by Yondu and company; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin sent to retrieve the orb for a fanatical space terrorist named Ronan (Lee Pace, buried under purple and black paint), though she has other plans; and Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), a hulking fellow inmate who wants to kill Ronan and avenge his murdered family.

Brought together under not particularly friendly circumstances, the motley crew of intergalactic misfits reluctantly decides to work together to keep the orb – and more importantly, the incredibly powerful, world-destroying Infinity Stone it holds – out of the hands of Ronan and his own employer, Thanos (Josh Brolin). He was the gold armored, purple puma-looking beast last seen smirking in the end credits of "The Avengers," and since he's lined up to be the villain in "The Avengers 3," expect to see much more of him around.

Anyways, in short: There's a powerful orb. Bad guys want it. Good guys would prefer if they didn't get it. They'd prefer it even more if they can achieve their own personal goals – mainly get paid handsomely – along the way.

In case you've been living under a rock – which, considering the amount of gossip and non-news billowing from movie blogs like an oil spill, any room under there for me? – a new "Star Wars" film is set for December of next year. After watching "Guardians of the Galaxy," though, you have to almost wonder what's the point.

Gunn (along with co-writer Nicole Perlman) almost perfectly recaptures the original films' sense of B-movie spirit and adventure, creating a full universe of fun, colorful characters – quite literally, as almost every part of the rainbow is represented – unique worlds and nifty gadgets.

A big part of that classic vibe is the team of outcasts, all memorable characters and performances in their own fun ways. Quill is an entertaining leader, made even more so by Pratt's funny and ridiculously personable performance. Bautista doesn't have much range as an actor (for more evidence, see "The Man With the Iron Fists." Better yet, don't), but the script smartly writes Drax as extremely dry and literal, turning what could've been dead weight into very funny comedic deadpan.

Meanwhile, Gamora is unfortunately the least fun and the most underwritten – that's saying something since Groot only has one sentence of dialogue – but Saldana makes the most of the role. Plus, she gets to use the line "pelvic sorcery."

Then there's Rocket and Groot, the film's own version of Han and Chewy. Rocket is a lot of snarky fun, but Groot winds up stealing the show. He only has three words of dialogue, but the lumbering giant's big expressive face communicates humor and surprising sweetness ­– even after decimating a hallway full of bad guys. Plus, his cutely humorous little scene immediately after the credits roll is basket-of-puppies adorable.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is not merely a flashy "Star Wars" knock-off, though, as Gunn infects the project with its own delightfully off-kilter tone, creativity and sensibility. Even with Marvel as overseer, it feels like Gunn's movie (Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman even gets a brief cameo). The film is filled with unrepentantly weird details, such as Benicio Del Toro's oddly drugged performance as The Collector and a whole mining colony inside of a skull, and a joyfully jokey vibe that never takes much too seriously – especially itself.

The opening titles come not with a dramatic theme, but with Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" bursting out (the whole soundtrack, filled with '70s hits, is golden) and Quill dancing through a dark rainy hellscape, punting little alien rodents and using one as a microphone. The orb's big delivery is botched when Quill drops the precious item. The big action movie hero walk comes complete with yawns and face scratching.

In a world where seemingly everything gets a gritty, realistic reboot, it's a refreshing and gleeful pleasure to watch a film where the goal is exclusively a goofy good time, cleverly poking fun at itself and letting the imagination run wild.

Under Gunn's control, it all comes together quite nicely. The script is clever and swift, and the action is exciting. Gunn even throws in a few moments of unexpected beauty, like a sequence where Groot lightly releases little glowing embers into a dark room or a daring rescue in the gorgeously composed deadly vacuum of space.

It's all great entertainment, but what's most shocking – and most rewarding – is the movie's heart. Even with all of its joking around and goofiness, "Guardians" tells a surprisingly emotional and warm story about a bunch of wounded outcasts uniting and giving themselves to a greater cause.

They're "losers" as Quill calls them, but by the literal definition, they've all suffered deep loss. Quill is still coping and holding onto the memory of his mother, who died right before he was abducted. Gamora and Drax both lost their families because of Ronan and Thanos. Rocket still hurts emotionally from the genetic tinkering that turned him into a freak. Even Groot has a final, tear-worthy emotional note.

It's rather touching watching these lost souls come together and create their makeshift family. In the end, even with all of the aliens, explosions and zingers flying around – all great, very fun and entertaining – its loudly beating heart, the kind that manages to find beautiful new depth to the classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," is what really makes "Guardians" soar up to – and sometimes even past – the heights of "The Avengers."

Sure, you can still see a little bit of the familiar Marvel template in "Guardians of the Galaxy" even underneath all of its weird color and character. The plot revolves around yet another glowing trinket that must be retrieved or protected, and it ends with yet another big aerial battle over a city (and you just know that a giant ship is destined to crash into it). It's a well-executed battle, mind you, one that's visually impressive, entertaining and maintains its sense of goofy humor (with seemingly a dash of Space Invaders for inspiration). It's just a little typical as well.

And, in one Marvel's weirdest quirks, the villain is yet again weak. Ronan looks great, but his looks are his only memorable element. His sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan), the quietly fuming half-alien/half-machine daughter of Thanos, is far more interesting but isn't given much actual depth or time. Maybe in the next film perhaps, which is already slated for 2017.

No, "Guardians of the Galaxy" isn't a game changer, but it is playing the game on a higher level than almost everyone around. They were a massively risky bet, but as it turns out, these losers are some pretty big winners.

Theaters and showtimes for Guardians of the Galaxy Rating:


Photodavie | Aug. 4, 2014 at 7:43 a.m. (report)

If this exact same movie were made prior to 9 successful Marvel films, it would flop. People have grown to trust that Marvel only releases quality films. Guardians doing so well at the box office will only help the Paul Rudd led Antman coming next year. It too is obscure and more comical that typical Marvel fair.

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