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Requiem for a dream: The trilogy comes to a satisfying close

by Piers Marchant | May 5, 2023 at 1:32 a.m.
Motley crew: Kraglin (Sean Gunn), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an alcohol-incapacitated Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) come together not to save the universe but a friend in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

As has become his trademark of sorts, James Gunn begins his final foray in the MCU with a pop song. But, where the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" opened with the bouncy bass funk of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," and the second film began with a battle royale alongside ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky," the last film, as Rocket (Bradley Cooper) sits contemplatively on the steps outside the Guardians' headquarters on Knowhere (a floating giant alien skull -- don't ask), we can hear the downcast, mournful vocals of Radiohead's "Creep" (and a plaintive acoustic version at that).

In as much as Gunn's song choices are a huge part of his productions -- and never more so than in the Guardians' series, whose narrative beats are almost entirely predicated on '70s-and-'80s era FM pop -- this choice of dirge sets a different, more sober tone for the "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," the last in the trilogy, and the last film Gunn will make for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now having jumped over to the DCU, as the would-be savior to rescue it from the Zack Snyder somberverse.

The choice of character to focus on also proves to be relevant: This final installment focuses in large part on the tragic backstory of Rocket, the gun-loving, chaos-driving sentient raccoon-like figure who has always been the series' most compelling character.

As Rocket sits, the rest of the guardians are going about their day-to-day business: Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Drax (Dave Bautista) bicker back and forth; Kraglin (Sean Gunn) attempts to master the whistle-arrow weapon bequeathed to him by his late former mentor, Yondu (Michael Rooker), as Cosmo (voice of Maria Bakalova) the space dog, chortles at him; Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), now fully grown and buffed out, chills, as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) drinks himself into a regular stupor, heartbroken as he is by the loss of his love, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who still exists, but as an earlier version of herself before she ever met the Guardians and fell in love with Quill.

Trouble comes quickly, of course, in the streaking form of Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the golden-hued progeny of affronted alien high-priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), who dispatches him to Knowhere in order to snatch Rocket and bring him back to The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), the power-mad genetic scientist who first created him in a lab.

Warlock fails the mission -- he's mostly played as a wildly powerful, clumsy teenager in the film, a far cry from his more serious mein in the original Jim Starlin comics -- but not before leaving Rocket in critical condition. Unable to heal him because of a fail-safe self-destruct device embedded in his chest by the Evolutionary, the Guardians have no choice but to head over to the biotech lab that houses Rocket's precious internal data, in order to find the code to disable the device and save their friend.

As he's being transported in a coma, Rocket's backstory is revealed in bits and pieces of flashback, and it's heart-rendering. Brought to the lab as a young pup, among a throng of brothers and sisters, Rocket is plucked out of his cage, and put through horrible surgeries and genetic enhancements, until he becomes a talking biped. Stripped of his nature and terrified, he befriends a trio of similarly transfigured creatures, including a walrus with wheels, a rabbit with arachnid-like metal appendages, and a sweet Otter named Lylla (voice of Linda Cardellini), with metal blades for arms. The quartet become best friends, helping each other survive, right up until when the Evolutionary makes the call to have them all exterminated in favor of the next phase of his experiments. Rocket, with his incredible ability to create mechanicals, escapes, but loses his friends in the process, a difficult scene that Gunn plays for maximum emotional punch.

It is, of course, impossible not to see these poor suffering creatures and not be haunted by the all too real grisly fate of millions of animals forced into labs and tortured to death in the name of science, legit or otherwise, which adds a particularly poignant pathos to these scenes. Watching the terrified Rocket pup, wide-eyed and shivering, it's almost impossible not to tear up. It's a far cry, indeed, from the swashbuckling, artificial limb loving, firepower-mad scoundrel we've come to know in the previous films, but Rocket's not the only character to have undergone such a sobering transformation.

Gamora, now working with the Ravagers, has yet to learn the important lessons her older self discovered about fighting injustice and caring for others. Refuting Quill's frequent puppy-eyes, she's cold, brutal, and unsentimental, especially to the members of her former/future team, whom she finds soft and inefficient, at least at first. Roped in to the initial caper to retrieve Rocket's data -- the ravagers she works with want access to this lab -- she is forced into working with them more or less against her will, and largely keeps her distance.

Quill, too, first despondent over losing Gamora, and then concerned for his best friend ("second-best friend," Drax keeps insisting), is a far more serious-minded, less loose version of his former self. The Guardians still do their thing, assembling finally to accomplish a nearly impossible job with aplomb, but there is the palpable sense, this go round, how much it might be costing them to do so.

After the disastrous showing of Phase 4 in the MCU, burning up much of the credit and goodwill the vastly superior Phase 3 generated in the process -- and the truly regrettable "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania," the opening film of Phase 5, can it be enough to have a Marvel movie that isn't just outright awful? If so, this does its part. It certainly doesn't advance the MCU cause -- in fact, there is, thankfully, precious little in the film, even in its pair of bonus post-credits scenes, that links with anything else in this regrettable phase -- but it does manage to be reasonably competent, even if the spark is largely absent.

This "Guardians" doesn't come with the same verve and moxie as the first two -- there are precious few surprising moments of humor, for example, or even extended scenes of the players' camaraderie, which helped fuel the good-time vibes of the franchise previously -- but there is, at least, a sense of growth. In the end, the film is far from tragic, exactly, but it doesn't tie everything up in a pretty bow: to its credit, it keeps elements unresolved, in a way that feels more elegiac than obligatory.

Fittingly, for a film that begins with a song about alienation and remorse, it ends on a note of more contemplative achievement: as the screen goes black, we hear the opening guitar jangle of the Replacements' "I Will Dare." As a statement of purpose, for this most unlikely of hit-franchises, Gunn has chosen to go out with a blatant bang.

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'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

87 Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, (voice of) Vin Diesel, (voice of) Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Will Poulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Maria Bakalova, (voice of) Linda Cardellini, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rosenbaum, Nathan Fillion

Director: James Gunn

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Playing theatrically


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