Let's face it: No one gave half a damn about Guardians of the Galaxy before the bastard child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hit the multiplex in 2014. Then we all effing loved it. So what if the comic book, created in 1969, felt like Avengers-lite on the page; on screen, it achieved a near-perfect comic lift-off, thanks to cowriter-director James Gunn throwing out the rulebook invented to protect major Hollywood investments and just letting the craziness rip. You could see that anarchic spirit in the now-iconic image of Chris Pratt, in his breakthrough performance as wannabe Star Lord Peter Quill, busting dance moves in space to an Awesome Mixtape of 1970's pop tunes. (It was left to him by his dying mom; we'll get to his dad in a second.) GotG scored a worldwide box-office jackpot of $773 million by showing us how throwaway charm and runaway silliness could be just the antidote to the usual Hollywood formula. There had to be a sequel.
Be careful what you wish for. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 can't match the sneak-attack surprise of its predecessor. You can only do that once. The good news, however, is that the followup, while taking on some CGI bloat and sequel slickness, hasn't lost its love for inspired lunacy. Hanging with Quill and his mercenary space misfits is still everything you'd want in a wild summer ride.
Besides Pratt, a virtuoso at lacing hilarity with heart, Zoe Saldana is back as Gamora, the green-skinned assassin who keeps cock-blocking Quill's advances. And there's wrestling champ Dave Bautista, a hoot as the hulking, tattooed and perpetually pissed-off Drax the Destroyer. But the MVPs in Guardians 2 are still the in-house computerized scene-stealers. I'm talking about Rocket, the gun-slinging, wiseass raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper; and Baby Groot, a cute chip of tree bark delicately spoken by Vin Diesel who, whatever the situation, squeaks out the same three words: "I am Groot." It's enough for comic immortality.
The plot? The first one involved stealing a magic orb from an evil dude intent on galactic genocide. This time, Quinn and his crew on the spaceship Milano are running from a gold-plated race of aliens who call themselves the Sovereign. Hired to protect the batteries that keep these extraterrestrials running, the Guardians incur the wrath of High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) when Rocket steals a few batteries for himself. A doozy of a space battle ensues, resulting in the ship crashing on the forest planet Berhart. This new world is the kingdom of Ego, the Living Planet (the reliably terrific Kurt Russell), an astral being who happens to be – are you ready? – Quinn's daddy dearest. Remember in The Empire Strikes Back when Vader told Luke, " I am your father"? It's just like that.
I won't journey further into spoiler territory, except to say that family ties are ingrained in this script's DNA. Not just Quinn and Ego, but Star Lord and his surrogate father, the blue-skinned Yondu (Michael Rooker, most excellent), the Ravager leader who first kidnapped Quinn as a child and then enslaved the kid in the his bounty-hunting racket. Yondu is so soft on his adopted/abducted offspring that his former ally – called Taserface (Chris Sullivan, Toby on This Is Us) and teased mightily for it – organizes a mutiny. It also turns out that Gamora has a sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), a psycho sibling that our heroine yearns to bring to justice. And what of Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the hottie antennaed alien Ego keeps around for company? She can read feelings in others; why is the lady suddenly crushing so hard on Drax? And what is Sylvester Stallone doing sniffing around on the fringes?
I'm pleased to report that Gunn pulls back before Guardians 2 morphs into all-out Greek tragedy. Still, it's no secret that everyone in this nutjob space opera is mysteriously linked, which makes Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," a natural fit for the killer soundtrack. Quinn makes good use of another cassette tape from his mom – named, of course, Awesome Mix Vol. 2 – that's packed with cheesy tunes with disturbing subtexts. You'll never hear ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" in the same way again.
Or you can banish all the psychological probing and just roll with the nonstop fun and games. Gunn never runs out of fresh funny business for the Guardians. There are monsters to vanquish (Abilisk, yikes!), hilarious bits to invent (Groot and the Death Button!), insults to fire off (Rocket to Quinn: "Hope daddy isn't as much of a dick as you are, orphan boy"), and more sequels to set up (look for Avengers: Infinity War next year). Remarkably, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 still has the loosey-goosey feel of a rogue epic that the kids made when the grown-ups weren't watching. Only a turd blossom could resist it.