Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

★★★★

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James Gunn is Marvel Studios’ most effective filmmaker. Sure, other writer-directors have delivered exciting, interesting, energetic films, action and/or character-driven in purpose. Joss Whedon gave us the former in The Avengers, just about finding enough room to squeeze so many overblown personalities in amongst the blast-and-ruin spectacle. Anthony and Joe Russo’s work on the Captain America arc has been a triumph as far as affording the seemingly ungroundable genre some grounding. But you get the feeling Gunn, more than anybody else, has an affinity for his characters. And in a cinematic bullpen dominated by flash and awe and all that jazz, these films need to provide adequate space for genuine character moments.

It helps that Gunn has a bunch of game, off-piste actors at his disposal. A bonafide A-lister in voice only. Another not just in voice only, but limited to three words. A former comedy sitcom goof. An underused performer whose mainstream exploits have placed her second or third fiddle to her male co-stars. A wrestler rarely heralded for his acting abilities (until he became a thoroughly entertaining bad guy). And Michael Rooker. It helps, too, that these are people who clearly get along in real life. They look cool in group promo shots, are funny in group promo interviews, and combine the two in group promo selfies. Whereas The Avengers are big-time charming, this lot are ragtag charming, and their performances reflect that — aloofness and competence in bundles.

There are three show-stealers, each of whom assume varying levels of prominence throughout the film. Dave Bautista is the comedic heartbeat of a generally funny picture, a primary player as Drax the Destroyer, whose battle to overcome tone-deafness invites instances of hilarity. Bautista, by the way, is one heck of a catch for Hollywood. Next to him, as Yondu, the aforementioned Rooker recounts the surprising emotional verve he once deployed as Merle in The Walking Dead. Both Merle and Yondu are unlikeable antagonists, but antagonists who discreetly command a sense of attachment from viewers. Perhaps the real heartbeat of the piece is Sean Gunn as Kraglin, second-in-command to Yondu, a miscreant with a conscience. Gunn, who also stop-motioned as Rocket during filming, makes the most of the screen time he receives, packing as much punch as those hogging the minutes.

The plot itself is straightforward. The Guardians — Drax, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) — hightail it across the Galaxy in an effort to hide from the Sovereign, a robotic alien race led by Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha. The story, though, is one that incorporates fatherhood and sisterhood, told without narrative complexity but still thoroughly engaging. As a director should, Gunn relies on his cast and crew to bring his vision together, and his vision is colourful. Henry Braham’s gloomy work on The Legend of Tarzan is nowhere to be seen: Given its infinite parameters, it makes sense that space would breed so many vibrant and distinctive civilisations and peoples. The wild accessorisation of The Hunger Games springs to mind, as does The Fifth Element’s aesthetic mania. And I have to point out a landscape shot fraught with tangerine beauty and instantaneous threat, the latter via a spacecraft that advances so rapidly you hardly have time to admire the Braham’s photography.

Of course, a significant chuck of the opening Volume’s charm was its vintage soundtrack. I don’t imagine screenwriting class 101 instructs students to concoct a screenplay partly built around which songs one wishes to include in their final project, but this format has now worked twice for Gunn. From the opening dance-battle number (“Mr. Blue Sky”), to Sam Cooke’s romantic serenading, to a beautifully judged Cat Stevens finale, the music hits each tonal beat. The soundtrack is as much a means to inject sensory pleasure into proceedings as it is a wink towards the audience. And this is a film that likes to wink, taking shots at excessively corny villain names such as Taserface (“It’s metaphorical!”), and freely admitting Baby Groot’s cuteness makes him indispensable: “Too adorable to kill.”

This willingness to just accept the absurdity is alluring. Gunn is not trying to sell us something false, therefore the oddities are easy to buy — a Kingsman-esque murder slalom made jovial via euphoric music — and subsequently digest. We even get some stoner comedy in the midst of too many inter-dimensional space warps, a throwback to the filmmaker’s work on the Scooby-Doo live-action series. And, though infrequent, the piece knows when to harden the mood, often at the behest of Quill’s father-finding arc opposite Kurt Russell, who seems to be having a great time hamming it up as a god. Karen Gillan also does solid work as Gamora’s intensely pained sibling Nebula, though her story could do with some more fleshing out.

Some of the conventional superhero traits do find their way into the piece: The general lack of true jeopardy; the special effects-fest towards the end. Although it isn’t a huge distance, this is as far from the Marvel formula as we are likely to get, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok pending. Put it this way: Whereas the iconic Avengers gladiatorial pose (that bit where they all assemble mid-battle and the camera gives us a 360° shot of their scarred triumphs) is a pristine effort, akin to a collection of futuristic Atlas sculptures, the same pose here ends with an amusing splat. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t after glamour. It is after fun, funny and feeling, and it nails all three.

Director: James Gunn

Rating: 12A

Runtime: 2hrs 16mins

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science fiction

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker

Images ©: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Creed (2016)

★★★★

Creed PosterDirector: Ryan Coogler

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); January 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Sport

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

“Adonis got into a fight today” are some of the first words we hear in Creed, Ryan Coogler’s Rocky revitaliser, and you expect them to be words the film will live by. After all, when we first meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, son of heavyweight boxing legend Apollo Creed, he is in a young offender’s institution and suffering from some serious anger issues. Plus it’s a boxing movie, right? Boxers are big brutes, right? Well, wrong on both counts. Creed isn’t a boxing movie, it is a movie about companionship and love and legacy, and Donnie certainly ain’t a big brute, but rather a fairly normal guy whose lineage and hard-working attitude have afforded him abnormal talent.

The next time we see him fighting is 17 years later in a seedy, smoky Mexican club and he wins, though a terrific edit cuts the celebrations short by sending us back over to the US and into a corporate meeting. Unlike Rocky, this is not a rags to riches story (eventual opponent “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) makes that clear at a press conference later on). Donnie is intellectually sound and he lives in a plush home having been adopted by his father’s widow, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). There is a non-boxing path paved out for him should he want to take it.

But Donnie has a problem coming to terms with Apollo’s legacy. He doesn’t want the plush house paid for — at least in part — by the father who he feels abandoned him, yet Donnie admires Apollo’s talent and he absolutely wants a shot at the sport that conquered his father. Unfortunately, nobody in Los Angeles will train him; Donnie won’t use his dad’s name therefore trainers simply see him as an erratic wannabe. So the bum does what any boxer worth their gloves would do: shut up shop, move to Philadelphia, and seek out the man who went 15 official rounds with Apollo Creed (twice) and won (twice, really).

“You are your father’s son,” says a defeated Mary Anne. And he is as far as determination goes. But Donnie doesn’t want to be; he is haunted by Apollo’s lingering shadow — quite literally too, as posters paint the walls of just about every gym he visits. There is an odd attempt to challenge the media’s obsession with legacy-tarnishing celebrities that feels too abrupt to have any impact, but otherwise Coogler and Aaron Covington’s screenplay is excellent, only briefly tapping into nostalgia when it is unavoidable.

This gives the cast a clear platform to carve their own creations, especially Michael B. Jordan who might as well work with Coogler for the rest of time if the duo are always going to be this good together. He has a ton of charisma, not the loud or arrogant type, but the natural sort that convinces audiences to invest their emotion. The relationship between Donnie and Rocky is central to the film’s triumph and it beats with such a genuine heart — a handful of their interactions bear so much nuance and truth that your lip might threaten to quiver.

Rocky thinks his understudy is a “better” man than he because the well-educated Donnie knows a bit about stuff, but the Italian Stallion knows a bit more about trouncing the odds. At one point the pair are offered a potentially tricky fight and Donnie instantly approves, his mind already focused on weight loss. But Rocky knows the offer might have come too soon for an inexperienced Donnie and, more importantly, he knows it isn’t about cutting weight. It is about the fight game and playing said game with a healthy balance of honour and smarts.

Stallone is Rocky, but Rocky is older. His irrepressible yammering has quietened in light of Adrian’s passing and his retirement, yet you get the sense there is a part of him still stuck in the 70s (an iCloud gag just about authenticates that). Likewise, Maryse Alberti captures Philly essentially as it was in the original Rocky. Wearing its best wintry coat, Eagles-town revs up for another bout of fight preparation: icy breath; long-distance jogging; chicken chases; grey tracksuits and woolly hats. It’s all there. Meanwhile Rocky, eyes still pointing out mistakes and mind still working out tactics, is a tired sight physically.

Another integral relationship is the romantic one between Donnie and fellow apartment dweller Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The nature of the franchise beast suggests comparison is an inevitability and while Donnie and Bianca’s companionship is not as charmingly spontaneous as Rocky and Adrian’s, it really is quite lovely. This time she is the outgoing one and he is more reserved, traits reflected in conversations between the two: whereas Donnie’s trepidation is based on a self-created manifestation of doubt, Bianca, living with progressive hearing loss, has something concrete to fear. So she sings for a living, and he should box without inhibition.

Southpaw, despite its creaky storytelling, got the in-ring sequences spot on and Creed is similarly successful. The casting of actual heavyweight fighters — Tony Bellew is a world title challenger and Andre Ward, playing another knockout artist, is a world champion — affords the fight scenes proper pedigree, especially when someone like Bellew is placed in a familiar HBO environment. The actual boxing isn’t gung ho which also funds the realistic aesthetic and the training montages are as good as any in recent memory; buoyed on by another exhilarating score, they have oomph and momentum.

You can practically see the weight on Stallone’s ageing shoulders as he juggles Rocky’s search for another shot at glory and his uncertainty over how to handle Donnie. It is an uncertainty born out of caring too much. And we buy it, unconditionally. Donnie is the boxing son Rocky never had, the son of his fiercest foe and fondest friend, the son who has re-awoken the fight in cinema’s greatest ever fighter.

Creed - Sylvester Stallone & Michael B. Jordan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. Pictures