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'Guardians of the Galaxy' is in good hands

*** (out of four)

There may never be a better use of Vin Diesel than providing the voice of a “humanoid plant” named Groot who can only say, “I am Groot!” The casting brings Diesel in on the joke of his own limited abilities (nobody saw his best work in “Find Me Guilty,” so he stopped trying) while also asking him to do no more than usual.

Chris Pratt, on the other hand, has arrived as a movie star in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The hilarious “Parks and Recreation” star brings newfound pecs and the all-important skill of shifting between character-driven goofballery and true feeling. He plays Peter Quill, who in 1988, just minutes after the loss of his mother, is yanked into a spaceship. Twenty-six years later (do the math), he’s still listening to the same “Awesome Mix. Vol. 1” in his Walkman, and he’s smart enough to play dumb to defeat an enemy but dumb enough to forget when a hookup is still hanging out on his ship. He’s a busy guy, stealing for his surrogate father (Michael Rooker). Preferring to be called “Star Lord,” Quill becomes the target of ruthless Kree leader Ronan (Lee Pace), who looks like Skeeter Valentine’s angry uncle and seeks to destroy all Xandarians, after Quill takes a mysterious orb.

Thanks to a trip to maximum security prison, Quill aligns with Groot, a defensive talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced semi-unrecognizably by Bradley Cooper), revenge-seeking, ultra-literal tough guy Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista, holding his own) and Gamora, who is green and another check box in Zoe Saldana’s (“Avatar”) efforts to play the entire rainbow. (Gamora tells Quill she won’t fall for his “pelvic sorcery,” but the arc of their relationship is standard stuff.) The progressive bonding of this group of misfits represents the film’s biggest asset.

On some level, all planets in the Marvel Universe are similar. Though lighter than its movie siblings, “Guardians of the Galaxy” revolves around some typically thin diabolical plans and ensemble universe-saving. It’s more engaging than exhilarating and more amusing than hilarious, with most of its laughs on the small side. The movie never clicks into greatness.

It flies, though. This is the best film co-writer James Gunn (“Super,” “Slither”) has ever directed. It looks damn good. And with a tone that lands closer to clever than snarky, “GOTG” represents the rare comic-book movie that’s enjoyable with or without sound.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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