I thought when I first saw ads for this film that Marvel Studios was really scraping the bottom of the barrel and trying to pluck anything out of their catalog to sell to kids so that they could rake in money and dominate another summer. Then I saw that James Gunn’s name was attached and I started to change my mind a bit. I had never heard of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before learning of the film’s release; after reading up a little bit on it, it actually looked like it could be a fun vehicle. Another thing I was hesitant to be excited about was the casting of Dave Bautista. He doesn’t ever come across as charismatic or endearing. Finally I stopped my preconceived notions like a nosebleed and decided to just go see the film and draw an opinion on what I saw on the screen.
What I saw was pure, absolute, 100% entertainment. This is what summer action movies are supposed to be like. While the first twenty minutes or so are quite a lot to take in–lot of backstory–once it settles in and our feet are firmly planted, it is a real treat. Gunn’s flair for humor permeates the whole film, which is a good thing. It’s funny to think a former Troma filmmaker could pull this off. But he does. And he even includes his old pal Lloyd Kaufman (former founder of Troma Films and director of “The Toxic Avenger” among other films) as a prison inmate in one scene.
The story involves a group of criminals in their own way thrust together by a nice MacGuffin (a little metal orb) that is worth a lot; but what it is, nobody really knows. We begin with the backstory of the main character, Peter Quill (very nicely played by Chris Pratt), as he’s a child tragically watching his mother die before him in a hospital. The only thing that seems to comfort him is his walkman (this is 1988), with an “Awesome Mix” playing. He is told he is going to be taken care of by his grandfather; but once he runs outside, tears streaming down his face, he is picked up by a large spacecraft. Decades later, he is a grown man and a thief working for the alien that abducted (and ultimately raised) him, Yondu (Michael Rooker, always a pleasure to see) and steals an orb that is meant for Yondu so he can sell it. Only Quill is attacked by a group led by someone named Korath (Djimon Hounsou), and escapes with the orb, enraging Yondu. It turns out Korath wanted the orb for a Kree alien named Ronan, whose assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hired to track down Quill and take the orb from him. Meanwhile, there’s a price of Quill’s head that draws the attention of a scruffy raccoon-like being, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his companion, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and all parties converge on the planet Xandar, and are thrown in prison after some shenanigans take place.
There is a lot going on here, so I’ll just summarize: Rocket, Groot, Gamora, and Quill, all pretty much team up to escape prison. They are helped by another inmate, Drax (who has a back story involving Gamora that’s too complicated to get into in this review), played by Bautista. They escape, and are wanted by just about everybody–but they discover that the orb is actually a casing for something called the Infinity Stone that–wait for it–can give you ultimate power. Ronan wants it, but he has someone to answer to as well–Thanos. Ronan turns out to be a rogue and wants it for himself, and Gamora’s half sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), fights for Ronan. The team basically has to save the planet Xandar from Ronan and his quest for the Infinity Stone.
So try to follow all that. Actually, even if you’re extremely confused, the film never gets bogged down too much with plot that it takes away from the action and adventure of the story. The film’s two hour length is perfect and timed and paced well so that it’s rarely a dull moment.
But it’s really the characters of the Guardians that shine. Quill is your everyman, someone we all can relate to, and his sense of humor is charming. Rocket is a loudmouth but also amusing; Gamora is stunning and of course her chemistry with Quill is palpable. The surprise to me is Bautista’s performance as Drax. While Drax is hardly charismatic by design, it is his droll demeanor that actually winds up being what’s appealing about him. He has no reflection, no identity for irony (he once is told something “went over his head” and he retorts: “Nothing goes over my head. I would catch it immediately.”) and he speaks with a ridiculous vernacular for someone of his brawny size. Bautista plays it totally straight, no winking at the camera, and that makes Drax one of the strongest presences on screen, regardless of his physical prowess.
There are also some very tender moments, and one of the most touching actually involves Drax and Rocket. I won’t give away what it is, because it’s a major plot point, but I will note that it tugged at the heart strings. Of course Quill’s tragic back story with his mother resonates, and he is always seen carrying his walkman, trying to impress anyone he can with his awesome music (which for me was hit or miss).
The film reminded me of “The Avengers” in its spirit and emphasis on character and humor. The camaraderie between the gang is fun, and even when they’re at odds (which happens occasionally), it’s still a hoot.
Even though it seems like Marvel reached for this one, it proves there are some gems even at the bottom of whatever barrel they are scraping at. And because Marvel believes religiously in sequels, I know we will see these characters again.
And I look very much forward to seeing them.
“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
That’s the famous line from George Romero’s classic horror satire “Dawn of the Dead”. I’m guessing hell isn’t full–or, that guy was totally wrong. There’s no such thing as zombies. Right?
Well, in the last few years, we’ve been introduced to a new kind of zombie. Richard Roeper, God’s gift to film criticism and wonderful hair, once stated that he likes this new angle of zombies–basically, the “this ain’t your daddy’s zombie!” attitude. Let’s make them fast and furious! But wait–were these zombies, that were “created” in “28 Days Later”–really zombies? I’ve had this debate so many times it makes *me* brain dead. No, they’re not zombies! At least, they’re not zombies in the Romero sense. They’re functioning people, they’re just “infected.” This worked in “28 Days Later” because like “Dawn of the Dead” and most of the “Dead” series, this was a social commentary rather than a straight up zombie movie.
The remake of “Dawn of the Dead” was a straight up zombie movie–and it got the idea all wrong, as fun as the movie was.
But here, in “Zombieland”, it kind of crosses the themes. We have people that are “infected” with some kind of virus that began with someone eating a rotten hamburger somewhere (I guess they had to come up with something…) and so they are somehow blood thirsty and want to eat people–you’d think they’d just have a hunger for lousy hamburgers, and just raid McDonald’s–but they’re also…zombies. They look dead, they have rings around their eyes, their mouths are full of disgusting ooze, and when they’re not rampaging, they’re making strange jerky motions that’s somewhere in between the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”. In fact, in a way, you could say they look more like they’re possessed than “infected”.
But “Zombieland” is not really about plot. The movie is only about 81 minutes, so it gives you as thin a narrative as possible: a kid with many phobias is teamed up with an alpha male who loves Dale Earnhardt, and twinkies (inside joke about male sexuality/security? you decide), go on the road and wind up with two attractive and manipulative females and all of them end up being chased by zombies, and killing a lot of them.
There is also a very funny cameo by a great actor of our time–probably one of the greatest. And there’s a tie-in with the twinkie, for a moment.
So, the question is–does “Zombieland” work? Well, you have to look at it from this stand point to really understand what it’s getting at–do you find zombie killing funny? I don’t know that anyone’s really broached that before, not in a clear and crisp way. There always seems to be some kind of social satire muddled in the mix, and we have to wonder if we’re laughing at zombies, or ourselves.
Well, rest assured–there is no question here. The zombie killing is pretty hilarious. And Woody Harrelson as Talahassee (everyone’s name in the film represents where they’re from; i.e., Columbus, who is the kid with phobias) provides a lot of laughs because of his comic ability as an actor. Not every joke works, and some seem forced. There’s also a twist in something we learn about Talahassee’s past that seemed a bit morbid, especially when the scenes surrounding it are comparatively more comical. The pace of the film is a bit off, as well–sometimes it seems like we’re learning too much about people that are essentially placed in an arcade game like “House of the Dead”, just knocking off zombie after zombie, trying to come up with the Kill of the Week (but an old lady and a piano make the top of that list). You’d think for a film so short that clunkiness wouldn’t be an issue; but at times, some of the scenes do actually seem as though they drag.
As for the rest of the performances, Emma Stone (Wichita) is emerging as a fine young actress, and pulls of manipulative sexy just as well as she can pull of sweet and sensitive. Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus) proves you can out-Michael Cera Michael Cera, and Abigail Breslin (Little Rock) is good as well but I still couldn’t take her seriously as a schemer. Mike White (“The Good Girl”, “Chuck and Buck”, “School of Rock”) also makes an amusing appearance as a gas station attendant.
Probably the funniest element of the film comes from Columbus’ rules of survival: Cardio (rule #1), Beware of Bathrooms (rule#2), Seatbelts (rule #3), and Double tap (rule#4) among others. Each rule is given an example, and each time he performs a rule, a caption for said rule appears somewhere on the screen. It’s charming in its own way (and somewhat of an homage to Max Brooks’ “The Zombie Survival Guide”) and eventually, as always, some rules are meant to be broken.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable movie. It’s almost like a cute, dolled up Troma film. There’s just enough heart and just not enough gore, but it’s a good way to…ahem…kill…an hour and a half of your time.
And it really gives you a craving for a Hostess Twinkie.