The only downside to crafting one of the most wildly original, insanely clever, out-of-nowhere crowd-pleasers of the past few decades?
Eventually, you have to try to top yourself.
I adore “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Heck, I love it more than some members of my family. (You know who you are.)
I saw it three times in three theaters in three formats, and it was the only press screening that’s ever made me want to call the studio to see if they could crank it up and immediately show it again.
As for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” I’m planning to wait and pick it up at a Redbox — assuming they still exist — as a refresher before seeing “Vol. 3.”
The sequel is still marked by random weirdness and the occasional deep belly laugh, and the actors have a better grasp of their eccentric characters. But trying to re-create the indescribable delight of the original is like trying to catch a cybernetically enhanced, genetically augmented raccoon in a bottle.
When we catch up with the Guardians, they’re fighting a space beastie at the behest of Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the high priestess of an arrogant race known as the Sovereign, who look like members of a “Goldfinger” victim cosplay group.
The only payment Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians demand is Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) villainous sister, so they can collect the bounty on her head for her actions in the first movie. But when Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals some of what they were hired to protect, because the little fella simply can’t help himself, Ayesha launches the full military might of her people after them. She also hires Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his band of Ravagers to fetch the Guardians so she can make examples of them by killing them herself.
While fleeing Ayesha’s massive armada, the Guardians — Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — are introduced to the celestial being known as Ego (Kurt Russell), the father Quill never knew.
Writer-director James Gunn set himself an impossibly high bar to clear with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” so it’s little surprise that “Vol. 2” comes up short.
Oh, Gunn gives it his all. Quill’s goofy eagerness, Gamora’s fending off Quill’s advances, Rocket’s mischievousness and Drax’s bluntness are still a pleasure. Baby Groot — or, as Drax calls him, “dumber, smaller Groot” — mostly is just there to be adorable and sell merchandise.
More than any other character, Drax is fleshed out as he opens up and shares — often too much, sometimes way, way too much — while laughing uproariously and inappropriately. He has an insulting yet oddly sweet rapport with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empathic, buglike alien from Ego’s planet. At one point, Drax loudly boasts, “I have famously huge turds!” So there’s that.
While “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a nonstop joyride, “Vol. 2” gets bogged down in messy family issues.
There’s Quill’s relationships with Ego, the father who abandoned him, and Yondu, the bounty hunter Ego hired to retrieve Quill after his mother died but who chose to raise Quill himself.
And Nebula’s hatred of her sister Gamora is traced back to the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of their “father,” Thanos, who staged a series of fights between her and Gamora. Every time Nebula lost — which was every time they fought — Thanos ripped away a piece of her and replaced it with something mechanical to even the odds.
Worse than occasionally being a downer, “Vol. 2” is something “Guardians of the Galaxy” never was: dull, often for long stretches.
Even the K-tel-style soundtracks can’t compare. The feel-good “Come and Get Your Love,” “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and especially “Hooked on a Feeling” of the original are replaced by the likes of “Lakeshore Drive,” “The Chain” and Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” which Ego describes as “one of Earth’s finest compositions, perhaps its greatest.”
Gunn has included a whopping five post-credits scenes — some are good, one’s hilarious, another is confusing unless you’re a fan of the comics.
But the last is underwhelming, reinforcing the feeling that the sequel is a letdown as moviegoers shuffle rather than bound out of the theater.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.