A Throwback Summer Blockbuster

We don’t expect much from summer’s popcorn movies, but we do expect escapist fare to be fun. Unfortunately, more and more often wannabe blockbusters are recycled, brain dead stories of meatball superheroes and an earth in peril, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

What a relief, therefore, to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” come along. And obviously I am not alone in this opinion since “Guardians” jumped out of the gate to the biggest August box office opening ever. It’s not that “Guardians” signifies anything, but it is full of fun and amused pop culture allusions.

To begin with we have the usual motley crew of human and other lifeforms on a quest, a gimmick that dates back at least to Oz and the Yellow Brick Road and continues on through Middle Earth, Star Trek and Star Wars.

Zoe Saldana has played her share of implacable killing machines and fantasy objects for teenage boys including a blue alien in Avatar. Here’s she’s green. Two other peculiar creatures are a large botanical object, Groot, who is about as articulate as Chewbacca, and the hyper-chatty Rocket, a bio-engineered Raccoon. They are voiced by Von Diesel and Bradley Cooper, but you wouldn’t know it. One supposes they were hired more for their marquee names than for their vocal distinction, especially since Groot’s vocabulary consists of three words.

Not that the dialogue matters much. All of them, along with a large, bald, angry lump of meat are merely sidekicks for our hero Peter Quill played by Chris Pratt. It is his show all the way and he makes the most of it. Up until now Pratt has been sitcom and sidekick material, but he will be bankable after this winning performance.

He plays a familiar character with panache. His mother died when he was a boy. His only legacy is an “Awesome Mix Tape” of 80‘s hits that provides the soundtrack for the film. We are given hints that his father is not of his earth. Stay tuned. Shortly after mom’s demise, young Quill is kidnapped by space pirates who teach him a trade.

Cut to the all-grown-up Quill, engaged in an attempt to recover a mysterious orb that others also covet, and we are in the presence of the latest incarnation of one of the most beloved of pop culture stock characters — the all-American boy as amiable rogue. From Huck Finn onward this character has delighted audiences. Quill is a cousin to many of the scalawags played by Cagney, Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp.

Among the earliest movie versions of the type is the Bing Crosby of the Road pictures. As Gary Giddens, Crosby’s biographer notes, the Road pictures were beloved by the World War II generation because millions of young Americans were suddenly transported from their backyards to deserts and jungles and expected to survive by hook or crook among alien cultures.

This was scary, but Bing and Bob’s silliness suggested, as Giddens says, “You could leave the United States without leaving it behind.” No matter where the road took them — Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco — they brought with them “American outlooks, American morals, and most of all, American show business, primarily vaudeville.”

This is updated by Pratt, dancing to his awesome mix tape, but the notion is the same as is the script which is straight out of the Road picture playbook. As is the case here, for Bing and Bob “the natives are all straight men, the villains their stooges, the women their props.” Clearly Lucas and Spielberg had enjoyed the Road pictures and Martin Scorcese even says he based the De Niro and Harvey Keitel characters in “Means Streets” on the Road picture dynamic. (Strange are the ways of artistic inspiration). In particular he says of the Crosby character, “he’s charming, he sings all the time — and meanwhile he’s swindling everybody.”

Of course, it’s Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Jack Sparrow again, guys who pause occasionally in their treasure hunting and swindling long enough to outwit Nazis, save the universe from the Empire or the Caribbean from supernatural forces — and woo the girl.

This time around the mysterious orb turns out to have the power of a Death Star should it fall into the wrong hands. Clearly it is up to Quill and his merry band of lifeforms to safeguard the galaxy. As always in such farragos, the orb is a mere McGuffin to set the whirligig in motion and the plot merely an excuse to watch our hero and his troop do their stuff.

As usual, there’s more punching, shooting and exploding than necessary since the real fun comes from Quill and his crew’s bickering, backstabbing, wisecracking, blundering, turning the tables and saving the day. Given the obvious success of “Guardians,” one can only hope Marvel will have enough sense in “Guardians II, III etc. to devote an even higher percentage of the running time to the hijinks and dial back the sound and fury. Anybody can do that. But picaros as likable as Pratt come along only infrequently.

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