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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: 4 STARS. “a mix of high-tech and lowbrow.”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” opens with a battle scene that would not be out of place in almost any other superhero movie. The set-up has the Guardians—Peter Quill / Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper)—working for the Sovereigns, a thin skinned race of aliens who have hired the heroes to protect valuable batteries from an inter-dimensional monster called the Abilisk. In exchange they will receive Gamora’s estranged sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).

It’s a lot of names and intrigue to keep straight right off the top. The action is as wild and woolly as we’ve come to expect from these big CGI extravaganzas, but the thing that sets the scene apart from all other superhero movies is the sheer, unbridled joy brought to the screen by Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like being too small to take part in the fight. Instead he blissfully dances throughout to “Mr. Blue Sky,” the lush, Beatlesque ELO song that underscores the sequence.

The scene and the movie brims with the missing element of so many other big superhero movies—fun.

Anchoring the rock ‘em sock ‘em action is a subtext about family; you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. Gamora is bound by blood to a sister with an extreme case of sibling rivalry while Peter must choose between his birth father, a small ‘g’ god named Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), his adopted dad Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his Guardian posse.

Set to a soundtrack of 70s radio hits and a cavalcade of pop culture references “Vol 2” is less story driven than the first film. With the origin tale out of the way it focuses on the characters and their relationships. Director James Gunn doesn’t allow the characters to become overwhelmed by the computer generated imagery. From Rocket’s wisecracks to Peter the semi-inept action hero and Gamora’s pragmatism—“If he does turn out to be evil will just kill him.”—the characters are front and center. Like the true scavengers they are, Drax—with Bautista’s deadpan delivery—and Baby Groot—“He’s too adorable to kill,” says Taserface (Chris Sullivan)—steal the show.

Fans will get what they expect—loads of goofy, gross and gooey cartoon action and cool Day-Glo creatures—but it’s the characters that make it so enjoyable. They spend as much time laughing as they do in action, bringing with them an infectious joyfulness. The movie is at it’s best when the characters are hanging out, when Peter finally gets to play catch with his dad with a ball made of pure energy, when Drax is ribbing Mantis (Pom Klementieff) or when Baby Groot is perched on the shoulders of his Guardian pals.

But Gunn also stages interesting action. The “Come a Little Bit Closer” sequence with Yondu’s deadly arrow is a showstopper, an imaginatively staged set piece with a huge body count and just as many laughs.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a mix of high-tech and lowbrow that breaks the sequel curse. It’s a tad too long, succumbs to CGI overload in its final moments and the not so subtle anti-bullying and free to be you and me messaging feels tacked on but is so much fun (there’s that word again) you’ll forgive its transgressions.

There will be a time when the “Guardian of the Galaxy’s” formula of 70s kitsch and wisecracks won’t work but we’re not there yet.

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