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'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2' goes lighter, brighter 

It's got star power.

click to enlarge 'MR. BLUE SKY': With a jewel of a soundtrack, stunning eye candy and an all-star cast, James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" sets a high bar for summer blockbuster contenders.
  • 'MR. BLUE SKY': With a jewel of a soundtrack, stunning eye candy and an all-star cast, James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" sets a high bar for summer blockbuster contenders.

James Gunn, the director and writer of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," waits only as long as the opening credits sequence to announce he's playing for keeps. We find the Guardians — Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax and Rocket — bracing on a floating neon platform on some distant planet for an attack from a gnarly space monster. They bicker over whether it's worth the effort for Rocket to set up a stereo system to play music while they fight. (Quill, for once, says no to tunes; Rocket, just trying to do something nice, is of course fiddling with the equipment.) New to the mix is Baby Groot, the adorable toddler version of the hulking tree-hero who was nearly obliterated at the end of the first film. Anyway, a giant flailing octopus shark blob arrives, the Guardians all charge in to attack and Baby Groot hooks up the tunes: ELO's upbeat-to-the-point-of-high 1978 rock hit "Mr. Blue Sky." For the rest of the virtuoso sequence, the frame stays with Baby Groot, blithely grooving along as credits flicker past unnoticed and the space monster's tentacles pummel the rest of the heroes.

The first "Guardians" arrived in 2014 as an antidote to superhero films that had become tendentious even within the relatively cheery Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since then, DC's offerings disappointed by tilting toward the relentlessly grim (hopes are somewhat higher for "Wonder Woman," arriving in a few weeks) and "Deadpool" became an unlikely $800 million worldwide smash by going even sillier, snottier and naughtier. This installment of "Guardians" manages to hit just about every tone on the spectrum, with grisly space deaths and a surprising amount of killing set against Looney Tunes-style physical comedy and a barrage of quips. It does just about everything you could ask from a brash, sprawling comics adventure movie. There won't be a better crowd-pleasing blockbuster all summer.

Again we get Chris Pratt as Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, a human and small-time interplanetary hustler who somehow tumbled into the big leagues when he bumbled into the ferocious and aloof Gamora (Zoe Saldana, ever in green- or blue-face); a maniacal genius cyborg wisecracking raccoon in Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper, who is having a blast); and Drax, a hyper-literal and definitely on-the-spectrum alien warrior (Dave Bautista, wrestler turned comedy genius). Vin Diesel on helium is your show-stealing Baby Groot, again saying only, "I am Groot." You also get strong turns from Michael Rooker as the blue-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold Yondu; Karen Gillan as Gamora's estranged hate-fueled, partial-cyborg sister Nebula; and Pom Klementieff as Mantis, a gentle empath creature who works for Star-Lord's dad. Oh, right, we get to meet his dad! It's Kurt Russell, and he's some sort of demigod with great hair and shifty intentions. He also has big thoughts on the deeper metaphors of "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," which he thinks might be Earth's finest-ever musical work. This movie is ridiculous, and ridiculously well cast.

Only in hindsight do you realize there's not just a whole ton of plot at work here. Every action is predicated on family drama (Quill vs. Rocket, Gamora vs. Nebula, Quill vs. his dad, Yondu vs. his crew of space pirates) that spills into greater conflict. Dazzling special effects and kickass '70s classic rock soundtrack aside (including possibly the best-ever use of Fleetwood Mac in a film). Whether you cotton to a tongue-in-cheek comic-book space romp depends wholly on whether you dig the dialogue and the characters. This is sci-fi minus the sci-, after all, "Star Trek" that did whippits instead of sitting through physics. On this count, better than any other films of Marvel or DC or, hell, even recent-vintage "Star Wars," the Guardians films have built out likable, distinct characters you want to spend time with. They're so delightfully daft and so fully imagined that you just want to wind them up and watch them fend off aliens while cracking wise and rocking out to the same music your parents made out to in a back seat, once upon a time.

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