Like the '70s cassette mix tape so dear to its hero, "Guardians of the Galaxy" scavenges all sorts of "greatest hits" precedents, from "Iron Man" on down, to come up with its own summertime fling. It's looser, scruffier and more overtly comic than the average Marvel action fantasy. And despite the usual load of violence, not all of it properly handled, the film owes its relative buoyancy above all to Chris Pratt as the wisecracking space rogue at the helm.
There are moments in "Guardians of the Galaxy" when Pratt, so funny on "Parks and Recreation" and already a versatile screen actor ("Moneyball," "Zero Dark Thirty"), seems to be growing into a quirky action hero before our eyes, the way Robert Downey Jr. did in the first and best "Iron Man." The material is right for him. The Guardians were introduced in 1969; director James Gunn's script refers heavily to the 2008 Marvel Comics incarnation created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Gunn's film treats its universe as a parallel world to that of "The Avengers" and other Marvel hits. In "Guardians of the Galaxy," adventurer/scoundrel Peter Quill is an abducted earthling now knocking around the galaxy. He's in the employ of Yondu (Michael Rooker), a treasure hunter. In an early scene blatantly swiped from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Quill steals a mysterious and powerful orb much like the Tesseract, the knick-knack causing all the fuss in the "Avengers" franchise.
The orb is the apple of the bad guy's eye; the bad guy, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), has designs on universal destruction (don't they all) and, in particular, the fate of the peaceable planet of Xander hangs in the balance. Glenn Close, with a hairdo that screams out "I deserve top billing!", has the unenviable task of playing it straight in a film more successful in its self-mocking streak. Xander, as designed in the movie, resembles the retro-future of "Logan's Run," and that's the whole vibe of "Guardians of the Galaxy" — beloved '70s and '80s schlock reprocessed for a story of outsiders who figure out how to work together.
Pratt's co-stars include Zoe Saldana, the "Avatar" alum, as Gamora, orphaned daughter of the formidable Thanos; Dave Bautista as the elaborately tattooed Drax; Rocket, a genetic freak, part raccoon, part human, voiced by Bradley Cooper; and Groot, a sweet-natured tree with some human features, voiced by Vin Diesel.
Before he arrived in big-budget filmmaking land, director Gunn made the crafty and witty monster movie "Slither" and the nasty, uneven superhero jape "Super." There are moments in "Guardians of the Galaxy" when the brutality gets to be a bit much, and the tone seems off. At one point Groot, the lovable tree-fellow, impales several adversaries on one of his branches and bangs them around for a few too many seconds. It's a gag modeled on the Hulk whaling on Loki in "The Avengers," but the joke sours before the visual punch line arrives.
What I enjoy in "Guardians of the Galaxy," co-written with Gunn by Nicole Perlman, relates to the off-action scenes, when special effects take a back seat to banter. My favorite scene is a simple one of the raccoon, the tree, the aliens and the human sitting around arguing the difference between hatching a universe-saving "plan" and a mere "concept" for a plan. I wish the scene went further, but it works, and it's enough to give an orb-weary moviegoer some hope for a worthy sequel.
"Guardians of the Galaxy" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language)
Running time: 2:02