GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Nine years after entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the lovably flawed Guardians say goodbye with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, an eclectic and affectionate mixtape that’s funny, thrilling, shattering, and bittersweet.

While not as fresh as their 2014 debut—how could it be?—the capper to this quirky trilogy again explores friendship, family, and acceptance in a loopy yet sneakily affecting way. The Guardians have always had these themes at heart, their escapades more a backdrop for their interpersonal dynamics. That setup strikes an even deeper chord here, with the film a swan song for these characters as a unit, writer-director James Gunn (leaving Marvel to head DC Studios), and an exploration of one member’s harrowing backstory.

The film begins through the eyes of Rocket, the genetically modified raccoon turned technological whiz again voiced by Bradley Cooper (Nightmare Alley). We see Rocket first as a baby fuzzball shivering at an approaching hand, then grown, singing to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” one of several on-point needle drops including The Flaming Lips and Florence and the Machine. Rocket and his teammates now protect Knowhere, a space settlement inside a giant skull that welcomes assorted misfits and miscreants (and turned downright homey in the Guardians’ holiday special on Disney+).

Rocket often feels out of sorts and alone because of his past. (As he said in the original film, “Ain’t nobody like me ’cept me.”) He barely has time to mope, though. Within minutes, Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, Dopesick), a superpowered man-child, smashes through Knowhere, attacking him. Introduced late in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Warlock is from a genetically enhanced race whose creator, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, The Split), has been gunning for Rocket ever since he escaped from that character’s nightmare of a lab.

Although Rocket’s friends keep Warlock from snatching him, Rocket suffers what could be mortal wounds—and has a kill switch inside him preventing medical treatment.

Never mind saving the galaxy. Saving their friend is all that matters.

That involves a heist at a biotech facility that’s actually alive. Kudos to production designer Beth Mickle, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, and the art direction team for outfitting guards like microscopic critters, among other touches. It also entails an alliance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar: The Way of Water), an assassin turned pirate and the ex of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt, The Super Mario Bros. Movie), the Guardians’ leader.

Peter, a half-human with tween-age goofiness (he was abducted from Earth as a child), has been mooning over losing Gamora through the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. (He amusingly recaps their relationship—and skewers comic book logic—at one point, describing her death and return from a different timeline.)

While this Gamora is here for the money—and can’t believe she’d fall for this guy—the rest of the Guardians saddle up out of love for Rocket. They include Nebula (Karen Gillan, Late Bloomers), Gamora’s curt cyborg sister; Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Thor: Love and Thunder), an empath and Peter’s sister; Drax (Dave Bautista, Knock at the Cabin), a protective bruiser who often takes jokes literally; and Groot, an anthropomorphic tree voiced by Vin Diesel (Fast X) who conveys a lot through just three words: “I am Groot.”

Meanwhile, looking after Knowhere are Kraglin, an ex-outlaw with a whistle-controlled arrow (Sean Gunn, Thor: Love and Thunder), and Cosmo, a dog the Russians launched into space in the sixties who became telepathic (voiced adorably by Maria Bakalova, The Honeymoon).

Fans who love the breezy tone and pacing of the previous films will find this one largely consistent with those, save for the painful flashbacks to Rocket’s origin.

The High Evolutionary may be the most sadistic and unsettling villain the Guardians have faced, a being determined to create the perfect race. One shot shows him watching a test subject running tirelessly on a giant wheel, but he’s the one fixated. He readily kills any creation as soon as they prove flawed, which might upset younger viewers.

He also callously experiments on Rocket and other animals in some heart-wrenching scenes of animal cruelty. While these are necessary to Rocket’s character—and fire up his friends—they’re a rough watch. (I got teary over these creatures and wanted to hug them all.)

The story balances the ensemble well overall while giving the performers more range this time around. Pratt blends Peter’s casual charm and humor with the deeper emotional beats, conveying his sincere bond with his teammates, even when they drive him bananas. Klementieff as Mantis in particular is an MVP, going from meek and awkward in the previous film to standing up for herself, taking down opponents by altering their emotions, and observing what some need to be happy.

Gunn uses some clever camera angles, rotations, and even slow-motion in the action scenes to give each teammate moments to shine. He also peppers the film with callbacks to earlier moments that rewardingly show how much these characters have grown in each other’s company.

The special effects teams have fun with Groot, whose contortions prove invaluable and impressive, but they excel with Rocket. His eyes are expressively fearful and fierce, hiding long-held pain and regrets. His body language goes from scurrying for his life to having a world-weary roll to his shoulders to eventual defiance and strength.

The satisfying ending is a sendoff that lands just right, emphasizing how these unlikely heroes have been saving each other all along.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.