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updated: 8/3/2014 9:50 PM

Comic cosmic 'Guardians' fun in fits and spurts

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  • In Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill, leader of a band of aliens.

      In Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill, leader of a band of aliens.

  • The five main heroes in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" perform the cliched "Wild Bunch" march while preparing to dole out payback.

      The five main heroes in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" perform the cliched "Wild Bunch" march while preparing to dole out payback.

  • Video: "Guardians of Galaxy" trailer

 
 

The exquisitely visual, effects-crammed Marvel space romp "Guardians of the Galaxy" isn't nearly as smart and cutting-edge as the filmmakers believe it to be.

Sure, the film, directed and cowritten by James Gunn, is funny in fits and starts, injecting bold silliness into scenes pleading for a comic payoff. But this is a movie with a confused purpose. Does Gunn want it to be a blistering genre parody or a lighthearted, yet sincere love letter to outer space action movies?

Furious space battles devolve into overlong, crashing, smashing, sensory-numbing video-game showcases.

The overwrought fight sequences seldom convince us that the main characters are truly in life-threatening jeopardy. That might be because every major character in this movie gets "killed," then magically resurrected like an intergalactic Tinkerbell. (I thought "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" would forever hold the title for the most killed characters resurrected. I was wrong.)

And "Guardians" hammers home once again that wisecracking white human males make the best intergalactic leaders to save the universe.

"Guardians" begins with little Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) watching his bedridden mother die of cancer, then rushing out of the house to cry right before a hovering space craft beams him up.

Twenty-six years later, the abducted Peter (now Chris Pratt, perfectly cast as a whimsically inept space buckaroo) works for Yondu (Chicago's own Michael Rooker), a blue alien who leads the Ravagers, space pirates out for all the booty they can grab.

The usual "save the universe" plot kicks in when Yondu dispatches Peter to steal a mysterious silver orb from a really dreary planet.

But Ronan (Lee Pace), a villainous, Darth Vaderish Kree alien, wants the orb for his emperor, uh, boss, a giant, projected image named Thanos, who promises he will destroy the hated planet Xandar for his loyal servant.

Ronan sends Thanos' green, trained-assassin daughter Gamora (a lithe Zoe Saldana in kick-butt form) to steal the orb from Peter, now on Xandar where they run into two CGI bounty hunters: an alien raccoon experiment named Rocket (armed with a superb animated voice by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, delivering a truly wooden performance as a tree version of a Wookiee).

A public melee puts them all behind bars where they meet the final member of their heroic quintet, a body-chisled Thing/Hulk/Hercules alien named Drax (Dave Bautista).

The true power of the orb isn't known until a strange businessalien called The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) tells them of its terrible potential to destroy the universe.

Can this ragtag group keep the orb out of Ronan's grasp long enough to give it to the leader (Glenn Close) of the just NOVA organization?

"Guardians of the Galaxy" began as a 1969 Marvel comic book adventure set in the 31st century. It's been adapted by Gunn and co-writer Nicole Pearlman as a loving homage to conventions and characters in earlier space movies, "Star Wars" being the most obvious.

Yet, this movie lacks the charm and genre affection that "Galaxy Quest" provided in buckets.

The screenplay throws in welcome comic relief, especially when characters say and do the most humanly unheroic things to puncture any lofty bubbles of pretension.

Still, the dialogue gets bogged down with exposition and constantly reminds us how threatened the heroes are. ("If Ronan finds the orb," Gamora says, "he'll kill us all!" as if we didn't know this.)

This is also quite a violent movie for a PG-13 Disney production, with stabbed bad guys spurting gold-colored blood, and Groot skewering a brigade of hench-aliens with retractable 100-foot branches. (Hey, why didn't he do that when their lives were threatened earlier in the movie?)

It's clear that Groot, Gamora, Drax and Rocket represent diversity on this team of reluctant heroes. But isn't the idea that the heroic leader must be a white male more of a 20th century concept than one from the 31st? And 21st?

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