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Film Review: John Wick

John Wick (2014; Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)

In pure action movie terms, John Wick is an artful, stylish masterwork. Starring Keanu Reeves (an underrated but long-tenured movieland action hero) as a former skilled hitman pushed out of retirement by a painful personal loss, its copious shootouts, fights, and slayings are choereographed and shot with balletic grace and visceral impact by directorial neophytes Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, whom Reeves worked with as stuntmen and action coordinators on The Matrix and brought into the project. Stahelski and Leitch (the latter co-directed but went uncredited) utilize spaghetti western tropes of the solitary, plain-spoken gunslinger (fine fodder for the famously po-faced monotonic delivery of Reeves) while blending in the dancer’s grace of John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks and the stylistic lighting and cinematography of modern South Korean noirs. The result is a memorable, slick potboiler with practical artistic chops.

But John Wick is also a curious case study in the cinematic valences of compelling audience empathy. Before we ever learn that John Wick is a (retired) badass master assassin who can wipe out an entire room of baddies with elegant confidence, we are primed with the revenge-driven action-movie equivalent of the affecting opening sequence of Pixar’s Up! John Wick is shown loving, burying, and wordlessly grieving his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who expired after a protracted illness. Wick’s mournful solitude is touchingly solaced by a posthumously delivered gift to him from Helen: a mega-adorable puppy named Daisy.

Unfortunately, his fast bonding process with his new companion is brutally snapped by a trio of Russian gangland thugs, led by the callous young Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). Covetous of his vintage car, they invade his home, beat him up, take his car keys, and kill his dog. The silent scenes of Reeves cradling the tiny creature’s body and burying it in a box are heartbreaking, for animal-lovers and general emotional beings alike.

With this comforting animal outlet for his grief cruelly torn from him, John Wick replies quite reasonably, under the circumstances: he proceeds to kill dozens upon dozens of people, with Iosef and eventually the youth’s crimelord father, Wick’s admiring former contract employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the central focal points of his vengeful wrath. Along the way, Wick must contend with not only wave after wave of Viggo’s thugs, but also fellow professional underworld assassins (Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe play two such figures) who are after the Russian gangster’s $2 million bounty on his head.

John Wick deftly uses the manipulative language of cinema to make this response seem proportionate, but even someone who loves dogs and deplores wanton cruelty to animals has to admit that the suggestion of just equivalence is absurd. One hesitates to dwell on the ridiculous relativism of the movie’s conceit, seeing as comedy team Key & Peele have already made an entire film semi-parodying it (2016’s Keanu). But it remains more than a little troubling, in general decontextualized moral terms, that we as viewers are asked (and mostly oblige) to feel more deeply for the lost life of a puppy than for the lost lives of 84 people (an exhaustive kill count posted to YouTube tallied up 76 victims, but Stahelski points out 8 more were snuffed out in destroyed SUVs, so that settles that debate).

There isn’t much beneath the surface of John Wick beyond this odd question of empathetic persuasion. It’s a masterfully-crafted slice of frothy Hollywood action cinema, composed and choreographed with enough precision, rough beauty, and bravado to qualify as a borderline work of art (if it were directed by a Frenchman rather than Yank stuntmen, it might get a Cannes screening). There’s a hefty hint of world-building ambition here, in the form of a secret hotel for a gold-coin-earning secret society of contract killers of which Wick was once a part (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both show up as minders of this assassins’ safe space, known as the Continental). Perhaps that underworld will be delved into more deeply in John Wick‘s two sequels, one of which was released this year and the other now in production.

Or perhaps Keanu Reeves’ Wick will simply kill many, many more people (fictional people pre-constructed as essentially bad, but still), awesomely. There’s some entertainment value to both options, but whether either movie leads us to fundamentally question the inherent moral and emotional assumptions of blockbuster cinema as John Wick (inadvertently) does remains to be seen.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (2017; Directed by James Gray)

An example of resolutely old-fashioned cinematic storytelling with clearly-drawn characters and straightforward themes, The Lost City of Z may not be interested enough in anything other than its absorbing story to accurately be described as “important” or “compelling” or “powerful”. But James Gray’s handsome, thoughtful, expertly-crafted screen adaptation of David Grann’s acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about an English explorer determined to locate the remains of a lost civilization in the Amazonian jungle draws you in with sturdy seductiveness. Gray pinpoints an unlikely and previously-ungrasped artistic kinship between the measured historical epics of David Lean and Werner Herzog’s wild and woolly arthouse meditations on obsessive colonialist madness in the lethal subtropical wilderness. His movie settles into this particular space with slow confidence and narrative ease, rarely summoning either overt imperial critiques or metaphorical political conclusions. Despite that (because of it?), The Lost City of Z tells us more about what white European explorers were really looking for in what were, for them, the remote corners of the known world.

This particular explorer is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). An Edwardian-era British Army officer on the make, Fawcett hopes to parlay dedicated military service across the Empire into career and status advancement. The film opens with his (and director Gray’s) bravura display in a baronial elk hunt in Ireland, a success that he hopes will translate into the name-making notice of honoured dignitaries but is stymied by a family name tainted by his India-born cricketer father’s undetailed public shames. It’s a case study in Fawcett’s frustration, and it motivates him to accept a commission from the Royal Geographical Society (of which his father was a member) to survey the jungle river boundary between Bolivia and Brazil, the potential flashpoint of a border war between the South American nations.

Leaving behind his intelligent and progressive-minded wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their young son Jack in England, Fawcett is joined by right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, hiding his faded matinee-idol light in a bushel of a beard) and a small crew, who brave the dangers and hardships of the Amazonian rainforest to find the river-border’s source and settle the percolating boundary dispute. They are guided by the inscrutable Amazonian Indian guide Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who along the way tells a rapt Fawcett about a populous city of gold hidden in the unforgiving jungle, a tale backed up by ancient pottery fragments and carven symbols that he finds deep in the jungle.

The tantalizing promise of this El Dorado-like discovery, dubbed Z by Fawcett upon his successful return to England, drives forward an obsessive quest to return to the region and obtain proof of its existence. In addition to the fame, glory, and distinction that such a discovery would grant him, the liberal Fawcett seeks to dispel the arrogant racism of British Imperium by showing the Amazonian “primitives” to have been more advanced than Europeans at some point in the documentable past. Although Fawcett’s second expedition wins RGS support and patronage, both its progress and its aftermath are seriously hampered by the involvement of the prominent biologist and polar explorer James Murray (Angus Macfayden), and a rematch with the jungle is prevented by the outbreak of the First World War (in which Fawcett and his exploring team serve together) and only becomes possible when his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) displays a passion for Amazonian exploration that rekindles his own.

Shot in Northern Ireland and Colombia, The Lost City of Z is a frequently gorgeous film. Gray cribs from the David Lean playbook of visual majesty, and captures many shots of magnificently beautiful skies against which his characters are semi-symbolically silhouetted. Such imagery aside, The Lost City of Z is notable for its conspicuous, classic-film-type lack of subtext. Gray establishes the shifting motivations for Fawcett’s expeditions very clearly, often through direct dialogue: initially interested in mapping Amazonia only as a way of climbing the social ladder in Britain, Fawcett then becomes convinced of Z’s existence and achieving the shift in domestic perception that existence would entail, before simultaneously being enervated by his son’s energy for the quest and his own quiet hopes of building a lasting legacy and thus launching his precarious third expedition. There’s never much doubt as to what Fawcett is thinking at any given moment, because he’ll usually tell anyone within earshot, or else someone who knows him well (generally Nina, but sometimes Costin or even Jack) will read him exactly right. The casting of Hunnam, who specializes as a sort-of film lead in men of robust physical exertion with quasi-soulful inner lives lurking barely beneath the surface (and absolutely no deeper), is highly appropriate and communicative of these tendencies to directness.

Gray is able to more subtly complicate Fawcett’s personal views and the political dimension of his search for Z. Fawcett and Nina talk about how they consider each other equals in a society that firmly does not, and she offers him such vital aid him in researching for supporting evidence of a lost Amazonian settlement that she feels she should be next to him as he delivers his triumphal RGS speech (women, of course, are not allowed anywhere but in the gallery). But when Nina expresses a wish to join him on his second expedition, Fawcett rejects the idea absolutely and retreats to the patriarchal conceptions of the division of the sexes, contrary to his support of her feminism. Likewise, Fawcett poses as an enlightened figure as concerns the South American native peoples, decrying their practical slavery on European-run rubber plantations as well as smug dismissals of their savagery among his learned RGS fellows. But his views of the Indians run towards noble savage archetypes, and his vaunted friendly, cooperative approach to them on his second expedition doesn’t work so well on his third, with dire consequences.

Gray, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, also seeds his predominantly classical cinematic canvas with what might be called Herzogian touches, doodles of surrealism, instability, and modern disquiet. When Fawcett and Costin come upon one of the rubber plantations, they wander into an incongruous opera “theatre”, a semi-grotesque Gilded Age vanity carved out of the hostile jungle. A crew member who goes overboard of their river-raft during a native attack is rapidly reduced to a crimson mist by ravenous piranhas. A reading of Fawcett’s future destiny given by a Russian fortune teller in the WWI trenches magic-realistically transports the explorer and the fortune teller into the Amazonian boughs, a juxtaposition semi-repeated at the film’s end, as Nina walks out of the ornate Victorian RGS HQ into the verdant rainforest that consumed her husband and son.

That consumption by the jungle and its native cultures is visualized in the Fawcett men’s final scene, a milder callback to Apocalypse Now, a jungle-bound anti-imperialist commentary of another age and a more extreme bent: they are carried by torchlight in an Indian ritual into the maw of the deep dark that they sought to penetrate with the enlightened beams of Empire. Does Percy Fawcett understand more about the people of this world and their harsh but rich environment for having “explored” (and mapped, an act redolent of possession via regulated documentation) that environment? His fate suggests otherwise, but like all romantic adventurers, what he sought in the far reaches of the known globe was, above all, greater knowledge of his own uncharted depths.

A confidence spilling into arrogance is a necessary prerequisite of the imperial explorer, for how else could unveiling the basic reality of people of an unfamiliar culture be construed as a path to self-realization for a single man?  That Percy Fawcett’s perspective represents the progressive bleeding edge of the imperial project, the kind outstretched palm of its invasive tendrils, does not reduce its colonial scope and intent. Critics of Fawcett’s Z-related fancies contemporary and modern found his quest to be ridiculous and self-serving, his mysterious disappearance an apt fate, regardless of the subsequent limited vindication provided to his theorizing by the unearthing of the archaeological site of Kuhikugu. But all men search for themselves, one supposes. Some just have to go much further to find what they seek.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Children of Men

Children of Men (2006; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Woe betide the work of art that is referred to as “prophetic”. The application of the term may be intended as an indicator of praise, an appreciation of a creator’s imaginative prescience in galvanizing in an aesthetic text certain social, political, or technological conditions that were either not present or present in less-developed or even embryonic form when the text was created. But there’s also a taint to prophecy, a Nostradamusian sense of interpretive vagueness and conspiratorial fervour that swamps rational evaluation. The term is also inherently theistic, a sop to faith and fate yoked to the runaway cart of predestination. To label art “prophetic” is to cage its meaning and implications in the merely predictive, in ephemeral daydreams (or daynightmares). Great art is not a crystal ball but a mirror; perhaps a murky one presenting the convincing illusion of half-glimpsed, magical depths, but always ultimately reflective. Art does not predict the future, it imagines it by extrapolating the present. Sometimes, it even creates it.

This is all being laid down as a preface to the unnerving, discomfiting realization that, a decade after its release, Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak, draining masterpiece Children of Men more closely resembles our current sociopolitical reality than even the film itself imagined. Chronologically halfway to its envisioned situation in 2027, our world’s apparent sliding conditions seem more than halfway to the ones Cuarón indelibly depicts in his film about a dystopian near-future of a sterile human race unable to produce offspring. This biological and psychological death sentence results in mass anxiety and despair, and leads to social and governmental collapse, destructive conflict, desperate rebellion, knee-jerk authoritarianism, and rampantly cruel xenophobic oppression.

Amidst the worldwide chaos, a greyscale Fortress Britain alone retains a functioning government, but only by becoming a police state that has banned all immigration and detains thousands of foreign refugees in nightmarish ghetto-camps marked by brutal reprisals and extreme deprivation. One can well imagine the onerous former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a far-right bootlick of Donald Trump whose scrubbed-up anti-immigrant sentiment was the petrol for the rusty runaway jalopy that is Brexit, taking in a late showing of the film and masturbating furiously to these scenes, perspiration and semen and a spilt Diet Coke pooling together around his feet. He would likely imagine himself to be one of the privileged wealthy few dwelling in London’s royal West End, which fences off the desperate rabble and allows the rich to maintain their charmed lifestyles while preserving exotic wildlife in Hyde Park and the world’s surviving cultural patrimony in Battersea Power Station, dubbed the Ark of the Arts.

Children of Men clings to a kernel of hope among the grimness and extreme inequality, a kernel that also drives its nearly relentless escape plot. Scruffy, cynical civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen at the fleeting peak of his brief leading-man window) is snatched up by the Fishes, the radical pro-immigrant activist cronies of his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who task him with obtaining transit papers for a young refugee woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). They intend to use these papers to smuggle her out of the country to a half-mythical international research group called the Human Project, because, miraculously, Kee is pregnant. Such a momentous development in a world where no child has been born for nearly two decades (the youngest human living, a media celebrity called Baby Diego, is reported dead in the film’s opening scenes, sparking mass mourning) becomes the target for competing agendas, and Theo must evade the fascistic authorities, the menacing terrorist Fishes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and a dreadlocked Charlie Hunnam play the primary figures in this group), and all manner of collateral dangers to safeguard this fragile ray of hope for humanity.

Owen, Moore, and the others give earnest and committed performances, with occasional tension-releasing humour provided by Michael Caine as a long-haired, pot-smoking, flatulent former political cartoonist with whom Theo and Kee hide out, as well as Scottish actor Peter Mullan as a sarcastic, self-serving refugee camp guard who aids them until he discovers Kee’s explosive secret. But Children of Men is auteur cinema par excellence, with Cuarón’s masterly control of the images before his camera directing a compelling motion tapestry of mood, emotion, and meaning. The astounding production design, by Jim Clay, Geoffrey Kirkland, and Jennifer Williams, is the fabric of this tapestry and takes much of the weight of imparting key information and feelings, but Cuarón’s use of his camera dominates the picture.

Analyses of Cuarón’s technical prowess often note how its display heightens and deepens the hermeneutics of the film. Its absorbing long takes, from the stunning, axis-shifting car attack sequence to Theo’s harrowing movements through the refugee prison camp at Bexhill, are not simple showboating but essential to the construction of Children of Men‘s hybrid tone of dystopian summonings and photojournalistic invocations of current-affairs traumas, with resonant reference points in art and cultural history (Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s La Pieta, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Banksy, George Orwell, and Pink Floyd are all visually referenced, overtly or otherwise). Meanwhile, the contrast of foreground and background images, animated by Cuarón’s roving, curious camera pulling away from the central protagonist-focused action to register side tableaux of indelible suffering, distills some fundamental truth about our tenuous post-capitalist social order, poised between self-involved consumerism and the tragic widespread oppression and engineered deprivation that puts the lie to that order’s airbrushed dreams (and, viewed from a more radical political point of view, provides the raw fuel for them).

Children of Men‘s sophisticated and memorable dialogue with this mixed inheritance of images and their ambivalent associations has only gained relevance and shades of meaning in our contemporary reality. Indeed, the scenes of turmoil from across a Europe whose economically-driven open-border policies have been challenged by the surging influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war can sometimes seem patterned after the immigrant concentration cages and ghettos in Children of Men. Xenophobic angst against the perceived foreign invader motivated the victorious Leave faction of the momentous Brexit referendum, inching the UK worryingly closer to the state of Cuarón dystopian imagination.

This is not to say, however, that Alfonso Cuarón “predicted” elements of our current sociopolitical reality in Children of Men. In 2006, this was a film documenting current conditions as much as it was a warning about potential future problems stemming from them, and it remains so in 2016. In this, Children of Men conforms to the tradition of dystopian science fiction, like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before it. But where those seminal examples of the genre located the genesis of the dystopian condition in the imposition of oppressive top-down controls by a powerful elite, in Children of Men such authoritarian strokes are reactions to a momentous shift in human reality that reorders the psychological basis of the existing sociopolitical order.

The mass impotence and infertility of the human race in Children of Men is a literal condition that allows access to any numbers of powerful metaphorical conclusions about the world that we have built for ourselves. But that mass impotence and infertility is also a metaphor for the impotence that normal citizens, especially the most deprived among them, feel in the face of post-capitalism’s dread inevitability and tantalizing built-in scarcity. The core anxiety in the future summoned by Cuarón in Children of Men is no less than the end of the future; its formless fear is not directed at the expected end of the human race and its rich civilizations, but at the dispelling of the comforting myth of progress, the extinguishing of that warm glow that rises inside of us when we tell ourselves that no matter the hardships before us, things will be better, one day. Like many of its images, burned into the viewer’s memory like rich graffiti on a bare wall, it is this resonant feeling that lingers on after Children of Men is over. But is a memorable film like this ever over? Or is it instead carried with us at all times, in any age, a mirror on ourselves that reminds us of the dangers of despair as well as the ambivalent value of the heady elixir of hope? Don’t call Children of Men prophetic. It’s far too great for that.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #5

Blood on the Mountain (2016; Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans & Jordan Freeman)

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Republican candidate Donald Trump (now the 45th President of the United States, which will never feel right to say, write, or read) won West Virginia by the largest margin in the state’s history. There could arguably be any number of reasons for this lopsided result, beginning (and, if we’re being frank, likely ending) with the fact that the state’s population is 93% white and Trump’s campaign modulated its harsh, cynical messaging firmly in the direction of what is referred to with euphemistic generalization as “white nationalism” (which means that whites get a nation and non-whites do not). Perhaps even more regionally vital, however, was Trump’s frequent (and disingenuous) promises to reverse the slow death spiral of West Virginia’s coal mining industry. Coal is the defining factor of life in much of West Virginia, and for its people, “Make American Great Again” translated as “Make Coal Mining Great Again”.

Blood on the Mountain documents the history of coal mining in West Virginia, and stops just chronologically short of Trump’s huckster pitch to undo an inevitable decline (coal is a highly finite resource, after all). Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman’s dark record strongly asserts that despite the pride it inspires and the decent living it granted to many working-class West Virginians, coal mining has always been a grim, destructively exploitative business that pitilessly shreds both human labourers and the environment on its way to profit. It’s also been central to West Virginia’s economy, politics, society, and history. But “bringing it back” would carry as many negative consequences as positive outcomes.

Blood on the Mountain begins its chronicle with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history and one that has been mostly scrubbed from West Virginian history (including its Wikipedia page). From there, the film takes in the full terrible scope of coal mining in the state, from environmental degradation to malignant corporate control, taking in large-scale mining disasters and health epidemics (black lung and silicosis being the most common). Crooked on-the-take politicians, belligerent labor leaders, and self-dealing capitalists alike have either been unable to break the meat-grinder cycle of coal extraction, or have elected not to in order to personally profit from it.

As coal reserves have been depleted, large mining companies have largely cut out unionized miners and taken to simply levelling the tops of mountains and scooping out all the coal, leaving blasted landscapes behind them. But Blood on the Mountain demonstrates that West Virginia’s social and human landscape is left no less blasted by the coal industry that promotes itself as the state’s guardian and provider of economic succour (like many such documentaries, Big Coal’s vagaries are microcosms of the larger vagaries of American capitalism).

Moreover, it considers the ongoing plight of the state’s coal miners and their dependents to be an invisible tragedy that has attracted little attention from media or policymakers beyond Appalachia, a tendency that the film looks to remedy. Little wonder that a racial demagogue’s cynical recognition of their struggles and dishonest pledges to address them resonated so clearly with West Virginians. Finally, someone in a position of power spoke to their concerns. Unfortunately, that someone is Donald Trump, who cannot want anything more from West Virginians than the renewed exploitation of their prime mineral resource, and their nearly-spent human resources as well.

Casting JonBenet (2017; Directed by Kitty Green)

If the coal industry’s denuding of West Virginia is a story that has received too little attention from the American media, then the sordid, tabloid-ready, persistently unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year-old child-beauty-pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in her family home in Boulder, Colorado received far too much. This was the convoluted, troubling case that launched a thousand hours of speculative exposés, “exclusive” interviews with anyone even tenuously connected to the Ramseys, and prepared the cable news ground for the predatory tread of frothing sensationalist judgemental ghouls like Nancy Grace.

It may not have been more important or had an impact more lasting than any other such true-crime mass obsession driven by similar broadcasting forces, but the death of JonBenet Ramsey was weirdly compelling and unsettling in ways that rival tabloid crime stories were not. It suggested darkness and twisted madness in the cocoon of privilege: JonBenet’s father was a successful CEO, her (now deceased) mother a former beauty queen who was, from all appearances, maniacally seeking to vicarious fulfill her pageant ambitions by exhibiting her very young daughter in a manner that many observers found disturbing or even abusive. Wild home intruder theories of her death imagined child rapists, a former housekeeper, and even a local Santa Claus invading the family home to take the girl’s life. JonBenet’s brother Burke has been suspected of accidentally killing his sister, although police investigations have dismissed that possibility. A thoroughly bizarre, likely fake ransom note has sparked extensive theorizing and analysis from armchair detective and purported experts alike. Above all, the lack of closure, the absence of a solution to this enigma even two decades later, has left the public fascinated, like an unfinished mystery novel whose author expired before naming the murderer. A permanent whodunit.

Kitty Green’s innovative and frequently striking meta-documentary Casting JonBenet takes the JonBenet Ramsey case as a Rorschach test for its multiple subjects’ perspectives on her death, but also on their lives and on the wider world. Ostensibly interviewing and screen-testing local Boulder-area actors for filmed re-enactments of the events surrounding the girl’s mysterious death, Green’s film takes on the absorbing weirdness of a Werner Herzog documentary as the idiosyncratic details of the actors’ lives trespass on and meld with their connections to and conceptions about the Ramsey saga. The actors can be hilariously eccentric (like a bondsman who moonlights as a sex educator with a S&M speciality, or various local Santas, who share snatches of detail of their singular profession that tease a potential documentary on the subject), but they can also be weirdly moving, opening up about their own struggles and traumas as windows to their understanding of the Ramsey saga.

Green concludes her film with a flourish of near-avant-garde artistry. Ostensibly, the screen tests and chats with the actors are supposed to fill roles in filmed re-enactments of the events are JonBenet Ramsey’s death. Some of these are peppered through the film (the erotic-educating bond officer gets his coveted role as Boulder’s police chief), true. But by the end of the film, in place of conventional true-crime documentary re-enactment sequences Green combines all of the actors in a rambling series of room sets, re-creating every theory of JonBenet’s end from the plausible to the outlandish, all at once. These fantasy vignettes bleed into each other, just as the actors’ lived experience bleeds into their performances, just as their perspectives based on that experience bleed into their view of the Ramsey saga. It’s an excellent symbolic summation of the popular discourse around JonBenet Ramsey and all media crime sagas of its type, and how what observers bring to that discourse inescapably shapes it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017; Directed by James Gunn)

Moviegoers have been led to expect irreverence and even mild transgression from Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, and writer-director James Gunn teasingly provides it over the opening credits of his second film featuring the ragtag band of intergalactic misfits. The Guardians defend a platform depository of valuable and powerful batteries on behalf of a haughty, golden-skinned race known as the Sovereigns. As they blast and slash at a bulbous, tumbling, razor-toothed inter-dimensional beastie, Gunn leaves these action-hero exertions in the out-of-focus background. He homes in instead on adorable, tiny humanoid tree Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing merrily to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. Gunn eventually gives the battle his full attention (and many other battles besides), but it’s precisely this kind of insouciant touch, in combination with dynamite AM radio hits on the soundtrack and a healthy helping of heartfelt vulnerability, that endeared Gunn’s prior Guardians of the Galaxy to audiences and critics alike in 2014.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a film that reveled in contradictions and was all the more enjoyable for it. But there was a very definite irony to its success as well. Certainly, it was a film that thumbed its nose at many of the genre conventions and in-world assumptions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and elevated lesser-known, rogue-ish comics characters to Avengers-level blockbuster prominence. But Guardians‘ knock-out triumph was also the clearest declaration of Marvel Studios’ ascension to Hollywood hegemony. If Marvel could craft the adventures of these ragged space punks into a global smash, what couldn’t it do?

Volume 1 of Guardians of the Galaxy came as close to being a feel-good surprise as a $200-million-dollar summer tentpole release possibly could, and Vol. 2 can’t reasonably be expected to pull the same trick. It doesn’t, and doesn’t manage to be quite as sharp or cheeky, nor quite as fun (though one can’t say it isn’t still a nearly-complete ball). Its emotional core, such a vaunted feature of the first installment, trespasses into maudlin manipulation even as it deepens the personal backstories and psychological profiles of its damaged quasi-family of pained anti-heroes. One wonders (and one might not originally have been me) if these slight dips are all down to heightened expectations and sequel malaise, or if Gunn’s solo credit on the screenplay minus the first Guardians‘ co-writer, Nicole Perlman, narrowed his perspective or bottled the film’s quality.

As mentioned, Vol. 2 goes in further in regards to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s incongruous exploration of how broken pasts complicate the formation of surrogate family bonds. After triumphing over the battery-hungry monster and accepting the stiff plaudits of the Sovereigns’ leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the Guardians are thrust into fresh adventures when that irrepressible jerk of a gun-toting talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by a particularly onerous-sounding Bradley Cooper) snatches a few of the very super-batteries they were hired to protect. Barely escaping the wrathful Sovereigns’ swarming, remote-controlled battle fleet (the gold-clad pilots, safe from harm on their planet, amusingly treat the attack as a species of arcade game, pushing aside control-sticks in disgust and rooting each other on), the Guardians crash-land on a forest planet.

They are accompanied by their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), the semi-cyborg sister of green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was their reward from the Sovereigns. Pitted against Gamora in quotidian combat by their cruel space-lord father Thanos (who looms still as a coming megavillain in the in-production Avengers: Infinity Wars films), Nebula always lost to her sister (whom she has now vowed to track down and kill), and endured the replacement of body parts by her father to “improve” her enough to earn victory. Needless to say, there’s a bit of dysfunction in this family dynamic. These issues are set against the longing of Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who lost his mother to cancer in the opening scene of the first Guardians film and obsessively listens to her favourite 1970s-vintage pop and rock music to remember her. He’s also curious about who his father is, although he spent his childhood claiming that it was David Hasselhoff, whom he would see when the wasn’t filming Night Rider (and who has a cleverly-timed cameo as well as sings a late-credits “theme” song).

Peter is soon confronted with the revelation that dear ol’ dad is actually a powerful, life-creating Celestial known as Ego (there’s a dime-store Freudian psychoanalysis nod that even an undergraduate could pick out). Ego is really a core of glowing force at the centre of a planet, but for ease of interaction he manifests as a middle-aged, bearded man (played by 1980s icon Kurt Russell, another track in Gunn’s retro mixtape). This veritable god brings Peter, Gamora, and shirtless, ironyless, hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) to his magnificent planet and offers his son the same unlimited powers of creation (and destruction) that he wields. He also offers Peter a hard choice between this patrilinear heritage of nigh-omnipotence and the messier, harder-won joys of life with his surrogate family, the Guardians.

There’s another angle to this family question, namely the role of Peter’s tough-love surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker). Tasked by Ego to bring his son to him after the death of the boy’s mother, Yondu reared the boy himself, and retains a fondness and protective instinct for Peter (and an incisive understanding of the psychology of rodent asshole Rocket as well) that has earned the blue-skinned veteran rogue a painful exile from his proud if scattered order of space pirates called Ravagers, represented by fellow high-up captain Stakar (played by another 1970s-80s action-movie icon, Sylvester Stallone). Still, Yondu and his crew pursue the Guardians at the behest of the Sovereigns, and with Nebula free and after her sister and Ego’s empathic servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) foreboding darker designs on the part of the Celestial, the Guardians will be tasked to the fullest to save the galaxy this time.

Given all of this plot and thematic character work and the usual high-wire thrills and spills of the blockbuster form, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a little less time for the iconoclastic fun that characterized its first installment, and is generally a more conventional and predictable MCU popcorn flick as a result. It’s still plenty entertaining, so the difference is really only incremental, but it’s also a net negative. With Bautista, Rooker, and Baby Groot still stealing scenes, Saldana’s Gamora essentially a foil, and Rocket still an irritant, this reduction in goofy appeal is largely down to Pratt, whose goofball bro act is largely subsumed by his father-figure dilemma and his unrequited feelings for Gamora, the duller trappings of the standard leading man that Pratt has become at the expense of his sillier comic actor side. That side bursts forth on occasion, as when Ego promises to teach him how to make objects with his powers and Quill states his intention to “build some weird shit” (this line is later paid off with one of the truly great visual gags in the film), but such irruptions are all too brief.

What Gunn does pour more dedicated focus into is the visual side of the work, building from the brief interlude of swelling-strings beauty in the first Guardians film, when then-full-sized Groot released sparkling golden spores that lingered almost poetically around the team on the way to the final confrontation. Gunn amps up the striking imagery: the shades-of-gold opulence of the Sovereigns; the bodies of mutinous Ravagers falling in slow-motion around Yondu’s red-tracered whistle-arrow rampage; a multichromatic space fireworks display; and Ego’s planet, a melding of green foliage and grand structures highlighted by his sprawling, cathedralesque palace, a spectacular Neo-Gothic/Mudejar/Art Nouveau/Steampunk glory of virtuosic grandeur and dense ornamentation that makes Gaudi look like an ascetic minimalist in comparison. Marvel films have always been visually impressive, but rarely has the design of their visuals drawn favourable attention to itself like it does here.

Such wonders aside, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers from a “more of the same” vibe. That “same” was endearing and entertaining in 2014 and it would take a truly self-serious clod to maintain the claim that it does not remain so in 2017. But the aesthetic, thematic, and intertextual contradictions that animated Guardians of the Galaxy begin to shed their dialectical heft in Vol. 2. Aside from Baby Groot’s dance party over the opening credits and a defusing of the iconic 360-degree panning hero shot of the team during the closing battle, however, there is little balloon-puncturing by James Gunn this time around. Guardians of the Galaxy is still the most freewheeling and delightful corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Vol. 2 proves that it will not meaningfully transcend or transgress the canonical assumptions of that Universe, as its predecessor hinted it might. It’s just happy to dance for us, and coax us to join in.

Categories: Comics, Film