Dir: James Gunn. US. 2014. 128mins

Guardians of the Galaxy

A fabulously freewheeling space adventure brimming with action, humour and spectacular special effects, Guardians Of The Galaxy could well be poised to become the saviour of the summer box-office. It is a lesser known (to the general public at least) brand from the Marvel library as compared to Iron Man, The Avengers or Captain America, so much will depend on the savvy Disney marketing bandwagon to help fire enthusiasm, but it looks set to please both fan boys and reviewers alike with its blend of old-fashioned space opera action and knowing humour.

As a pure bit of epic space opera it is a marvelous success.

Plus in director James Gunn – whose previous films include the brilliant horror/thriller Slither and superhero pastiche Super – Marvel has found just the right man with the perfect sensibility for the rather leftfield Guardians franchise (yes, a second film is in the works) and he puts his own savvy stamp onto the film. It may well lack the full-blown A-list casting that defines other Marvel films, but the performances here are all pretty much spot on with the film bristling with energy and entertainment.

Guardians Of The Galaxy arrives at screens desperate for some full-on summer fun. With the recent Transformers and Planet Of The Apes sequels having had a strong showing, Guardians hits cinemas with the holiday season at its mercy (though Hercules awaits as muscular opposition). It may be a title that wouldn’t hit the brand recognition button for some filmgoers, but strong word-of-mouth should make it a date night and return viewing must.

The film is likely to push Chris Pratt (a fine support in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball) into leading man status. He nicely balances the muscular action with the smart humour, and dovetails perfectly with the ever-excellent Zoe Saldana, whose lithe grace is perfect here. Add to the pot wonderful voice performances from Bradley Cooper (as cult hero Rocket Raccoon) and Vin Diesel (in a four-word repertoire as genial tree monster Groot), and a series of splendid support-performances and the film pretty much nails it when it comes to casting.

The film opens on Earth in the 1980s (with a little 10cc music and their track I’m Not In Love…which indicates early how important music is in the film) as nine year-old Peter Quill runs from the bedside of his dying mother and is sucked up into a spacecraft. Years later and that same Peter (Pratt) is on an Indiana Jones style mission on the abandoned planet of Morag searching for a mysterious orb.

But his purloining of the orb – from out of the grasp of hunter Korath (Djimon Hounsou), who works for Kree leader Ronan (Lee Pace) – simply sees Quill caught up in an intergalactic bounty hunt for the object. Arrested on the planet of Xandar, he eventually finds himself forced to team up with assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who happens to be aligned with Ronan; brutish killer Drax (Dave Bautista), as well as bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his personal muscle, walking tree monster Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). The mismatched fivesome have to try and escape from space prison The Kyln before they can try and make some real money by selling the orb.

Admittedly things do get a little complex in the film’s early section – the whole Kree vs Xandar war is never really explained; warlord Ronan gets powerful support from Thanos (who has featured as a mysterious arch villain in several other films in the interlinked Marvel world), and it seems Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos, along with blue-skinned killer Nebula (the impressive Karen Gillan, from the UK’s Doctor Who series, who shaved off her trademark long red hair for the all-action role) – but once you go with the flow the plotting makes sense and the action moves swiftly from one set-piece scene to the next.

After a brief stop off at industrial mining facility Knowhere where the band are supposed to try and sell the orb to The Collector (a fruity cameo from a white haired Benicio Del Toro) things get racked up a level – there is much fighting inbetween the five before an eventual (and expected) bonding – as they find themselves unlikely heroes, assuming the mantle of ‘guardians of the galaxy’ as they stand in the way of Ronan’s planned decimation of the planet of Xandar.

The production design and costumes are impeccable. There is a vague 1980s theme running through the film, reflected in design and costumes as well as the music choices. The 1970s and ‘80s songs that often play an important part in the story are from the ‘awesome mix’ on the walkman Peter had on him as a kid, with his adult spaceship rigged up with a cassette player and peppered with iconic items from the backpack he had with him, such as Alf stickers, baseball cards and Troll dolls.

Chris Pratt is truly impressive as Peter Quill, balancing the comedy skills he shows in Parks And Recreation (as well as the voice of Emmett in The Lego Movie) with the pumped up muscles he developed for Zero Dark Thirty. His character’s back-story is nicely developed – plus there is room for his abrasive relationship with Yondu (Michael Rooker, a regular in James Gunn films), the alien commander who took Peter from Earth – and his character’s Han Solo/Indiana Jones persona is perfect space hero material. Zoe Saldana is cornering the market in alien heroines, though her green-skinned Zamora is more fight-orientated that her Uhura in the Star Trek films. But she has charisma to spare, the camera loves her, and her character is nicely developed.

The little-and-large pairing of Rocket Raccoon and Groot could well be the film’s secret weapon. Rocket, with his feisty sarcasm and very large gun is a real cult hero, while the lumbering tree creature Groot is sweet but deadly, and often offers the film’s funniest moments. The fact that Diesel’s line deliveries of Groot are largely variations on the words ‘I am Groot’ works rather well, with Diesel subtly amending each delivery. The chemistry between Groot and Rocket is a delight, with Rocket subliminally reading more into each ‘I am Groot’ line as the pair have a series of surreal conversations. Mixed martial arts star Dave Bautista’s muscular performance as Drax the Destroyer is suitably larger-than-life, though he also has a lot of fun with his genial but violent character, particularly when it comes to Drax’s lack of understanding of language and subtext.

Guardians Of The Galaxy may well be based on a comic book series that never quite hit the heights of other Marvel characters (it began as a team of heroes in the 31st century who were all the last of their kind) and given it has no direct links (or overt cross-over potential) to other Marvel superheroes it is a harder sell, but as a pure bit of epic space opera it is a marvelous success. The characters are terrific, the effects spectacular (screening in 3-D and IMAX as well as 2-D), and the story constantly entertaining…and in the safe hands of James Gunn it would appear that Marvel has yet another success on its hands.

Production company: Marvel Studios

Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Producer: Kevin Feige

Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Jeremy Latcham, Nik Korda, Stan Lee

Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman

Cinematography: Ben Davis

Editor: Fred Raskin

Production designer: Charles Wood

Music: Tyler Bates

Main cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro. (Voices) Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper