Dueling Critics is a Where Y’At feature where movie critics David Vicari and Fritz Esker engage in some Siskel & Ebert-style banter about a new film. For this installment, they discuss Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, a science fiction comic book adaptation about a band of misfits that come together to battle a power hungry warlord.
Fritz: In a way, James Gunn's new film Guardians of the Galaxy strikes me as what John Carpenter's 1986 cult classic Big Trouble in Little China might've been like if it had a $100-200 million budget (that sentence was supposed to be a compliment.) The mixture of action with utter goofiness, combined with an overmatched hero (Kurt Russell in BTILC, Chris Pratt in GOTG) who's sometimes competent, but often bailed out by his friends. It's a lot of fun, and I wish I could be seeing it for the first time at age 10-14. I'm guessing you liked the film as well?
David: Yes, I enjoyed it, and for the same reasons as you - its offbeat goofiness. The plot it standard - a group of misfits come together to acquire an all powerful orb before it gets into the hands of a mad villain - but it's the oddball characters and their interaction that gives the movie its charm. Carpenter's Big Troublewas adapted by W.D. Richter, who also directed the insanely loopy The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and I suspect the that filmmakers behind Guardians were inspired by those films.
Sometimes, however, going the comedy route with a big effects film can come off as laziness like, say, the limp Eddie Murphy vehicle from back in the day, The Golden Child. Guardians works because the comedy is smart and the characters are well written. We care about the good guys, wouldn't you agree?
Fritz: Agreed about The Golden Child (easily the worst film of Murphy's golden era - he was barely in Best Defense, so I don't count that) and the characters here. Chris Pratt's "losers" speech before the climax is pretty moving. The characters have all either lost something or, like Rocket & Groot, are such freaks that they're total outsiders even in a fantastical world. That makes them easy to care about and root for.
The thing co-writer/director James Gunn does here is really master the tone. Wry, goofy humor mixed with violence is tougher to pull off than people realize. In fact, Gunn's earlier films like Slither and Super showed potential but I felt suffered because they were tonally all over the place. Watching this, I felt a little like I did watching Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a classic, all readers should check it out), that a talented writer/director had finally figured out the tonal balancing act. Do you think it was Gunn finally clicking on all cylinders, or is he maybe a director who actually does better when reined in by a studio system?
David: I hate to say it, but sometimes certain filmmakers are better when they are reined in. While I did enjoy Slither, I thought that Super was complete garbage and it ended up on my 10 Worst list of that year. With Guardians, Gunn has definitely found his footing and I suspect he did have a little guidance. The tone here is pitch perfect. I mean,we see a digital raccoon crying over a dead comrade and another character comes to console him, and it is very moving. That shouldn't have worked.
I also enjoyed the use of vintage pop songs on the soundtrack. First, there was a logical reason why they were there, and their inclusion works well with the movie's off kilter approach. I remember how unintentionally funny it was when a song would play over serious scenes in Watchmen. Here it feels fresh and fun.
Fritz: Right, I think Gunn's good with music. One of the things I did like about Super (even though I didn't like the film overall, but it wasn't worst list material for me, either) was his soundtrack.
Overall, this is what a summer blockbuster should be - fast, fun, and enjoyable for most ages (it may be a bit much for small children, but kids around 10 and over should love it). The final, most important question of the day is this: how much did Vin Diesel get paid to say "I am Groot" over and over again (with one tiny but important variation at the end)?
David: I don't want to know how much Vin Diesel got paid, because it might make me like the film less.