Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (12A) **
The Promise (15) **
Lady Macbeth (15) ****
Handsome Devil (15) **
Based on an obscure sci-fi comic, smartly directed by a purveyor of self-aware B-movie schlock, and elevating a hitherto-schlubby sit-com star to A-list leading man status, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a playful reflection of Marvel’s confidence in its own branding genius. The James Gunn-directed, Chris Pratt-starring comedy might have been a risk in as much as its above-the-line talent was untested, but it was a very calculated risk: one based upon the fact that the Marvel name had finally become a trusted, Pixar-like identity in its own right. Indeed, so great was Marvel’s confidence, the film even cheekily signed off with a Bond-like promise that its titular quintet of misfit superheroes would return.
And return they have, albeit in a film in which that aforementioned self-confidence has tipped over into self-indulgence and self-satisfaction. Not that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 doesn’t start out promisingly enough. A 1980-set prologue may seed the by-now-standard Marvel MacGuffin of yet another energy orb destined to cause all kinds of civilization-threatening destruction, but it also introduces us to Kurt Russell and that’s never a bad thing. Benjamin-Buttoned with digital trickery to resemble his burly, bouffant younger self, he looks almost exactly as he did when he was regularly starring in John Carpenter films. As it happens, that’s perfect for Guardians given his quickly revealed connection to the film’s rougish hero, Peter Quill (Pratt) – a character who even in the first film seemed to have been conceived with Russell’s most iconic roles (Snake Plissken, RJ MacReady, Jack Burton) encoded in his DNA.
Fast-forwarding 30-plus years, the film catches up with Quill and his fellow Guardians while on a mission to protect some valuable batteries from a hideous inter-dimensional space creature. As that sentence indicates, it really doesn’t do the film any favours to describe story details. But in re-introducing us to Quill and his rag-tag cohorts – the green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the musclebound Drax (Dave Bautista), the Vin Diesel-voiced Baby Groot (an off-shoot of the arboreal hero he voiced in the first film) and Rocket, the attitudinal raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper – Gunn deftly backgrounds the wanton chaos and destruction happening all around the characters to zero in on Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. It’s a funny way to start and it feels like a promising statement of intent. But as the film progresses that background chaos can’t help but spill into the rest of the movie in the form of multiple underdeveloped plot strands and city-levelling destruction of the sort that Marvel movies seemed to be consciously trying to move away from lately.
But it’s not just the action that’s overdone. All the self-aware jokes and pop-culture references may be funny to start with, but by the umpteenth time Gunn has telegraphed, commented upon and deconstructed an innuendo- or poo-related gag, any laughter tends to die in the throat. Ditto every time he undercuts a moment of tension with a flippant comment, or has a character explain what Cheers – or some other 1980s relic – is.
There’s also that gratingly retro soundtrack. In the first film the mix tape Pratt’s character carries was a plot point that was both entertaining and poignant; now it’s just part of the Guardians of the Galaxy brand: a random collection of rock classics and rock travesties in which any qualitative difference between, say, Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and Cat Stevens’s Father and Son is eliminated by their aggressively nostalgic use here as an irony drenched way of getting easy laughs from juxtaposing moments of high stakes action with incongruous song choices. It’s a shame because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 should have been a delightfully irreverent blast of blockbuster fun. Alas, at close to two-and-half hours (and with multiple post-credit stingers) it ends up standing alongside Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron as another example of the Marvel sophomore slump.
On the subject of slumps, Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale can’t prop up The Promise, a frustrating attempt to explore the Armenian genocide through the prism of a sweeping romantic drama. Director Terry George (who made the solid Hotel Rwanda) has his heart in the right place but his eye on the wrong story: set on the eve of the First World War, the film spends too long developing a dull love triangle between Isaac’s Armenian doctor, Bale’s American reporter and the French woman they both come to love (she’s played by Charlotte Le Bon). It does eventually hit its stride, but it doesn’t quite find a way to make such an important story count cinematically.
Don’t go into Lady Macbeth expecting Shakespeare. The title of theatre-turned-film director William Oldroyd’s auspicious debut has nothing directly to do with the Scottish play. Adapted instead from Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s novella of (almost) the same name, the film – which is set in the north of England in the 19th Century – is a tense and austere character study about a young woman’s attempts to excise herself from the patriarchal prison of her arranged-for-cash marriage. That said, there’s enough intrigue, tragedy, vaulting ambition and murderous intent to justify the implications of the title – and breakout star Florence Pugh really is transfixing in the lead.
A chaste coming-of-age story about gay teens learning to be true to themselves in a rugby-obsessed Irish private school, Handsome Devil has a nice idea at its core, but writer/director John Butler’s semi-autobiographical comedy is polite to a fault. Andrew Scott brings it briefly to life as an inspirational English teacher encouraging his pupils to find their own voice, but ironically the film’s vanilla execution ensures its own voice never emerges.