There are many ways to grab a viewer’s attention at the start of a film. A song might do the trick, or a sudden burst of action. Myself, I’m always drawn in by a good one-take. When Orson Welles decided to shoot the first scene of Touch of Evil, with the car and the ticking bomb, without a cut, he gave us not just one of the great single-takes of all time, but arguably the best opening sequence ever. One-takes may have become easier to pull off with digital cameras and CGI, but it still takes a fair amount of skill and sheer love of cinema to execute what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does right at the start: a long, unbroken take of baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, while the other Guardians battle a gigantic space monster in the background.
Second films in Hollywood franchises often explore the idea of the central unit developing cracks. But the Guardians were cracked to begin with, and, having spent the first film exploring these fissures, writer-director James Gunn wisely avoids this approach. Instead, the Guardians—Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (who’s growing again from a little sapling, but is nevertheless voiced by Vin Diesel)—find conflict brewing not within the group but within themselves. Quill has father issues, Gamora has sister issues (or, to be more accurate, Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), has issues), Drax still misses his dead wife and daughter, and Rocket is running out of ways to camouflage the rage and despair within.
Cornered by drones belonging to the Sovereigns—a gold-skinned race led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), who looks like the evil bot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—the Guardians are rescued at the last second by Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial (if all this is starting to sound like a battle of ’50s doo wop bands, I don’t blame you). Ego then reveals himself as Peter’s long-lost father. He hosts Gamora, Drax and Peter on his idyllic home planet, and encourages his son to embrace his own Celestial powers. I won’t reveal any more, suffice to say that the film ambles contentedly past the halfway mark without a worthy antagonist in sight.
You could argue that Guardians 2 ignores narrative highways for byways and its A-plot for B-, C- and D-plots. This isn’t incorrect, but it’s also much easier to sit back and watch Drax and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) trash-talk each other than be subjected to the insufferable banter of the Avengers. In the often self-serious world of comic book movies, the Guardians are an easy hang. Perhaps this is why, when Gunn introduces unexpected beats—like filial abuse or child trafficking—the impact is that much keener.
Having emerged as a surprise MVP in part one, the compulsively literal Drax is the prime comic anchor here. Bautista does very well, even if the device wears thin. The most striking performances, though, come from Gillan and Rooker, who find surprising pathos in their one-dimensional villains from the first film. It might be overstuffed, it may meander and stall at times, but Guardians 2 should delight returning audiences, Michael Rooker fans, and anyone savvy enough to appreciate Cheap Trick, Sam Cooke and Jay and the Americans.