Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I had little enthusiasm for seeing this movie. I found the first Guardians of the Galaxy fun enough, but so forgettable, literally, that whenever this sequel made references to its story, they flew over my head. So why did I bother with Vol. 2? Because I had a voucher for free popcorn at my local movie theater, and I had to use it before it expired, and Vol. 2 was the only movie there that I was willing to see.

Now that I've gotten that confession out of the way, I can say that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is better than its predecessor, mainly because its third act eschews the endless CG space battles that made the first film's finale so tiresome, the narrative takes a break from Marvel's overarching "Infinity Stones" nonsense, and it has some amusing twists and ideas. The soundtrack of cheesy '70s songs also outclasses that of the first film's.

It's far from perfect, though.

Writer/director Gunn constantly ping-pongs the tone between high drama and low comedy. When it works, it's quite effective. When it doesn't, it's cringeworthy. (For better or worse, the most artfully staged scene concerns a mass murder.) His cast is similarly a mixed bag. Kurt Russell is a solid improvement over the generic baddie played by Lee Pace in Vol. 1. He brings the right blend of gravitas and good humor to his character, a godlike entity who happens to be the father of Guardians protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as well as, um, a planet. Pratt himself is surprisingly dull: his jokes land flat and he has no chemistry with Zoe Saldana, returning as Quill's green-skinned love interest Gamora. More welcome are little-known (to me) actors Pom Klementieff and Elizabeth Debicki in supporting roles. Less welcome is the irritating Rocket Raccoon, stridently voiced by Bradley Cooper.

The show is stolen, again and again, by wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista, as the subtlety-averse strongman Drax, and by the all-CG Baby Groot, a master class in character animation. They're the best things in the movie. And that I cared more for a computerized twig than I did for the charismatic Pratt and Saldana says everything about what works, and what doesn't, in Vol. 2.