On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.

The Third Time Is The Charm

Rebooting a series with a reworked cast can cause problems, especially when it’s the third time. Most movie lovers try to forget when George Clooney pulled on the black cowl of Batman (and the infamous nipple breastplate) after Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer hung up their capes. Batman and Robin was not a high point in the history of cinema, or in Clooney’s career, either. Thankfully he did Out of Sight the next year and never looked back. With the Spider-man franchise, Tobey Maguire was good in the first two films and then completely self-immolated in the third, while Andrew Garfield was okay in the first but couldn’t save the mess of a sequel. Sony Pictures had changed the name to the Amazing Spider-man, but neither of those films lived up to that promise. I might have skipped Spider-man: Homecoming if not for the introduction of the reboot in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland was delightful in the role, and having Marisa Tomei as a non-geriatric Aunt May was a bold and welcome change. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. hitting on Rosemary Harris. Have you clawed your eyes out yet?)

Marvel sold the rights to the character to Sony, as they had the X-Men to Fox. In the short term, it was a financial help to the company as it transitioned from print comic books into the media powerhouse it’s become. But it meant they couldn’t control a product that they knew intimately. Now Sony (under its Columbia brand) has wisely returned the webslinger to Marvel in a co-production deal, and it has paid off handsomely with a $100 Million plus opening weekend, an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb (the best of any film in the series), and a rejuvenated character that outshines all five previous movies.

Homecoming is literally true. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield spent their time swinging around Manhattan, since it has all those lovely skyscrapers. Spider-man: Homecoming returns the character to Queens, Peter Parker’s home in the comics. He’s back to being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-man. The “bit by a radio-active (or genetically modified) spider” backstory is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. The production team also put him in a realistic high school, populated with characters that look like they belong there. With Tom Holland you have an actor who is only a couple of years separated from those High School days himself, much closer than either Maguire or Garfield were when they did the role. Finally, the film takes a classic Spider-man villain – The Vulture – and generates a compelling backstory for him.

The story begins in the rubble left by the Avengers fight against the alien invasion of Manhattan. A salvage company run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) wins a contract to collect the alien technology that litters the scene following the battle. However, they’re soon shut down by the government after they decide to do the collection themselves in partnership with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toomes decides to keep the tech they’ve already recovered and, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), turn it into black-market weapons. One thing created is a set of self-propelled set of wings that allows Toomes to fly, turning him into the Vulture.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the events of Captain America: Civil War. We see Peter Parker (Holland) recruited by Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and transported to Germany for the airport battle, but our viewpoint is Peter’s video diary filmed on his phone. Following the battle, Peter returns home ready to do great things, but he’s ignored by Stark and Happy. He does his own small-scale heroics – and posts videos on the internet – but mostly he’s stuck in High School purgatory. He’s obsessed with the beautiful senior Liz (Lauren Harrier); he’s tormented by Flash (Tony Revolori), a nerd like Peter but one whose father’s bank account is large enough to make him cool; and he hangs with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while the sardonic Michelle (Zendaya) watches unimpressed. Things change when Peter runs across a robbery team (wearing Avengers masks) using the alien tech provided by Toomes. When Happy ignores Peter’s request for help, Peter decides to track down who’s providing the tech on his own.

Normally the more writers on a project, the worse it turns out, since they have a tendency to muddle the focus. Three writing teams contributed to the screenplay, though the primary team that also has story credit is Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Their milieu has been comedy, with the Horrible Bosses movies being their biggest hits, and they bring a cockeyed viewpoint to the story that serves it well. Daley is mostly been known as an actor, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” and spending almost a decade on “Bones” as psychiatrist Lance Sweets, but with more scripts like this that will change. One delightful bit is having the school use corny PSAs recorded by Captain America in the gym class and detention. “I know that technically he’s classified as a terrorist now,” the bored gym teacher says, “but the administration says show these, so I’ll show them.” Beyond the humor, though, the screenwriters know you need a powerful villain, and the action needs to keep flowing. They deliver on both.

Director Jon Watts also has a resumé heavy on comedy, including directing the Onion News Network. But then as his first feature film he made Cop Car, a mean little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. The set pieces on the Staten Island Ferry and at the Washington Monument are thrilling, but they’re also woven into the whole fabric of the film.

It’s a particular delight to watch Keaton. Ever since Night Shift, he’s been inventive and interesting on screen, even in lesser roles. After a long season out of the spotlight, he’s now come roaring back. With Vulture, he matches the effectiveness of Jack Nicholson’s Joker without the over-the-top schtick.

Homecoming’s almost two-and-a-quarter-hour running time flies by. This is a movie you could easily watch several times and be entertained at every viewing. The first time, though, make sure you stay until for the final tag after the credits. It is arguably the funniest one ever for a Marvel movie.

Driven to Succeed

2015 should have been a great year for Edgar Wright. He’d first made his name in British TV, including “Spaced,” a series starring Simon Pegg that was a wildly inventive comedy. Switching to film, he created the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy with Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. Then he got the chance to write and direct Marvel’s Ant-Man, a dream project for Wright that he’d pushed to do for a decade. It would have been a major breakthrough into Hollywood, but “creative differences” led to Marvel replacing him at the start of filming. (He did get story and screenplay credits, but he’s said he’ll never watch the film.) Some people could be broken by the experience. Instead Wright has come back with his best picture ever, and my favorite film of the summer that doesn’t star Gal Gadot. Baby Driver takes the classic crime drama and gives it a nitro-injection that puts it into a new class.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excelance. Atlanta crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) puts together different crews for different capers, but he always uses Baby to drive, almost as a good luck charm. The opening sequence underlines his prowess with a hi-octane race through the streets of Atlanta after a bank robbery executed by Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).

A car accident when he was a child killed his beloved mother and abusive father, and left him with tinnitus that he plays music to cover. Baby lives with his adoptive father, Joseph (C.J. Jones), a wheel-chair bound deaf-mute who doesn’t approve of Baby’s work with Doc. Then Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a coffee shop, and falls hard for her. He has one more job to do to settle a debt with Doc, and then he dreams of getting away with Debora. But getting out isn’t that easy.

As usual, Wright both directed and wrote the original script, and it retains his trademark comedy flair. A robber is told to get Michael Myers/Halloween masks and instead gets Mike Myers Halloween masks. Later, Baby takes Doc’s 8-year-old nephew along while casing a robbery target, and the kid proves better at the job than Baby. He also has a tracking shot during the opening credits that would have made Orson Welles envious (something he’d also done at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead). But in Baby Driver they’re pace points to give the audience a chance to breathe. When Baby’s behind the wheel, that chance is gone. Wright went old school with the action sequences, eschewing green screen and actually choreographing the chases with stunt drivers. You can practically smell the burnt rubber.

While shot mostly in the brilliant sunlight of Atlanta, Baby Driver has the DNA of film noir. Wright creates serious tension with Spacey’s and Hamm’s characters, as well as a lethal Jamie Foxx who comes in midway through the film. It gives a sharper contrast to Baby, who is bothered if anyone is harmed in the course of the capers.

Elgort made a name for himself with YA movies (The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) but here he graduates to an adult, action role and handles it beautifully. Lily James was luminous in Cinderella. In this film she oozes southern charm, even though the south that she’s from is Southern England. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx have a field day with their roles, especially Hamm, though a wonderful discovery is Eiza Gonzalez. Her Darling is a bonny Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde, and she matches the others in lethal intensity.

Wright has crafted an awesome soundtrack for the movie, blending T. Rex, Queen, and Beck with Martha and the Vandellas, Golden Earing, and Barry White. It underpins the movie, and at times even adds commentary to the action. The credits feature Simon and Garfunkel with their eponymously titled “Baby Driver” off of the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

A phrase often tossed about in the face of adversity is “Don’t get mad, get even.” After the experience on Ant-Man, Wright didn’t just get even, he excelled. If you like action, but wish it could be handled in an inventive, fresh way, with deep and interesting characters, this is the movie for you.

Keeping Faith

In November of 1969, Sister Catherine Cesnik left the apartment she shared with another nun in Baltimore. Her younger sister had gotten engaged, and she wanted to purchase a gift for her. Sister Cathy was never seen alive again. In January, her body was found in a field, the side of her skull smashed in.

Decades later, two former students at the school where Sister Cathy taught launched a Facebook page seeking justice for her and for another young woman who disappeared at nearly the same time. Joyce Malecki was twenty years old when she disappeared. Her body was found after a few weeks on the property of a US Army base, which originally made it an FBI case. But as with Sister Cathy, nothing happened in regard to discovering who killed her or why she died. The former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, had warm memories of Sister Cathy, who was in her mid-twenties. She taught English at Archbishop Keough, a Catholic girl’s high school, and she was approachable and concerned about the students. So they created the Facebook page “Justice for Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki” in the hopes of finding leads to whoever killed the young women. What they found was a story of systemic abuse and collusion between the Diocese of Baltimore and the political and legal institutions of the state to cover up what went on.

Now Netflix is showing “The Keepers,” a seven-part documentary on the case. Recently there have been documentaries on killers, such as Netflix’s “Making of a Murderer” and HBO’s “The Jinx,” that focus on the suspect. Instead, “The Keepers” focuses on the victims and those who have dedicated themselves to the investigation. It is riveting viewing.

Director Ryan White has managed to organize in a logical progression a story that’s spread out over 50 years and covers a huge canvas. The first hour introduces the viewer to Gemma and Abbie, and to Sister Catherine and Joyce. It gives context to their world in 1969, and then gives the details of the disappearances and eventual discovery of the bodies. It’s fairly straightforward, though it hints at deeper strains to the story, such as when the former supervising officer on the case takes Gemma and Abbie to the place where Sister Cathy’s body was found. There’s a palpable anger within Gemma, even as she smiles and converses with the retired officer. Later we understand why.

But it’s the second hour that grabs you by the throat, and the documentary won’t let go from then on. The former chaplain of the school, Father Maskell, ruthlessly abused and raped the girls under his care. Multiple women share what happened to them, including how Maskell would invite other men, including police officers, to abuse the girls as well. Maskell was the chaplain to the Baltimore Police Department, among other assignments that insulated him from suspicion. Central to the story is one woman who would eventually sue the diocese under the name Jane Doe, whose memories (like many abuse victims) were suppressed by her mind for twenty years before they finally began to surface. One of the memories that come back is Maskell taking her to Cathy’s body a few days after her disappearance and threatening her with a similar fate.

Two years ago “Spotlight” won the Best Picture Oscar (deservedly) for its story of the Boston Globe’s breaking the priest abuse scandal wide open. The only town that could compete with Boston for the level of the Catholic Church’s entrenched power is Baltimore. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony, a place of refuge for English papists from the hegemony of the Church of England. Just as in Boston, the church could make abuse complaints disappear. Worse, as the documentary illustrates clearly, they are still doing it to this day.

“The Keepers” is a story that will infuriate, as documentation and evidence goes missing or is “accidentally” destroyed, and where the church blindly ignores complaints while, just as in Boston, moving the offending priest to a different assignment. But in the end it is also a story of endurance and faith in justice if not in the justice system. It’s a story that needs to be seen to clear away the obfuscation and victim-shaming that’s still employed by the diocese to keep a lid on the scandal. But mostly it’s the story of people who kept faith with Sister Cathy and Joyce Malecki. I heartily recommend it.

Sandpaper Required

You’ve likely heard the quote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but fewer people have heard how the line ends: “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” The film industry believes in imitation as a business model. If a style or genre of film worked once, they assume it will work a dozen more times. Currently, thanks to the success of The Hangover and Bridesmaids, there’s a flow of R-rated comedies coming out of Hollywood. We get Neighbors, Office Christmas Party, and Fist Fight, among many others. Currently, the movie on the marquee is Rough Night.

Rough is right. The movie veers wildly from farce to gross-out comedy to action, with a script that seems more concerned about checking all the usual boxes. Sex? Check. Drug use? Check. Australian friend? Check. Director Lucia Aniello co-wrote the script with Paul W. Downs, the pair having worked together on the TV series “Broad City” and the mini-series “Time Traveling Bong.” I’d say the writing is cartoonish, except cartoons usually do comedy better.

The plot, such as it is, concerns four college friends reuniting for a bride’s night out. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is about to marry Peter (screenwriter Downs) and Jess’ college roommate Alice (Jillian Bell) has organized a trip to Miami to celebrate. Also invited are their two best friends from college, Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer), as well as Jess’ friend from Australia, Pippa (Kate McKinnon). The writers substitute stereotypes for characters: Jess is a hapless political candidate that no one really supports, Alice is the NFF (needy fat friend), Blair’s a hard-driving career woman, Frankie’s a liberal organizer in flannel shirt and jeans, and Pippa is Rebel Wilson.

After a coke-fueled trip to a nightclub, the women return to the house they’re borrowing. Frankie has ordered a male stripper from Craig’s List, and when a handsome though surly guy comes to the door, she invites him in. The guy does a rough dance, but grosses Jess out. Alice calls out that it’s her turn and leaps into the guy’s lap, sending him falling backwards so he hits his head against the fireplace and dies.

Paul calls Jess from his bachelor party, a pretentious evening of wine-tasting, and she almost confesses what happened before the phone’s grabbed from her hand and smashed. Paul (of course) assumes Jess is breaking up with him. Worse, he listens to his friends when they recommend he act like the former female astronaut who drove from Houston to Florida wearing adult diapers so she didn’t have to stop to confront a rival. (Apparently the writers didn’t remember the woman did it to murder her rival and then get back to Houston fast enough to establish an alibi. They convinced themselves the visuals would be funny. They aren’t.)

What follows is pretty much cobbled together from other films (The Trouble With Harry, Weekend at Bernie’s, Ruthless People, and others) while the women do everything they shouldn’t in the situation. The best part of this pastiche is Kate McKinnon, though she’ll likely be roasted on the barbee in Australia for her accent. On the other hand, ScarJo is miscast. One subplot has Ty Burrell and an unrecognizable Demi Moore as oversexed neighbors, a trope meant to titillate but that is just tedious.

The plot twists might as well be accompanied by flashing lights and blaring horns – subtlety is not something the script aspires to accomplish. And it twists itself into a pretzel to work out a happy ending. But probably the best way to sum up the movie is that there’s a long tag at the end of the credits to tie up a plot point, but I’d long before given up caring to pay attention.

Rough Night could definitely use sandpaper on its rough edges.

Wonderful Woman

It has been a long trip to the silver screen for the most iconic female superhero. Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comics a couple of years after its two male superstars, Superman and Batman, yet she’s just now getting her own movie. Christopher Reeve put on Superman’s tights and cape back in the 1970s, while Michael Keaton became Batman in the 1980s. Since then two more actors have played Superman while four others have worn Batman’s costume.

The good news is that Wonder Woman is worth the wait, particularly to have Gal Gadot play the role. Gadot is both a beauty queen (Miss Israel, 2004) and an Israeli Army vet, which pretty much puts her in the class of Wonder Woman off the screen. She began acting in movies in 2009 when she appeared in Fast and Furious, the fourth movie in that series and the one that refocused it after it drifted off to Tokyo. She was the best part of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in her first appearance as Wonder Woman. (The movie works best if you think of it as a teaser trailer.)

Wonder Woman begins shortly after Batman v. Superman with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s cover identity, working in the Louvre in Paris. Bruce Wayne sends her the photograph she’d sought to recover from Lex Luthor. Looking at it, Diana remembers what led to it being taken back in 1918. The story jumps back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Diana was the only child, created by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, with life breathed into her by Zeus. She’s tutored in combat by Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest Amazon warrior, but it eventually becomes clear that Diana is someone special.

When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a German monoplane into the ocean by the island, Diana rescues him. He was being pursued by a German warship which breaks through the island’s protective screen and sends marines onto the beach to kill Trevor. However, they’re met by the might of the Amazons. In questioning after the battle, Trevor explains about “the war to end all wars” that has engulfed the world for four years, resulting in millions of casualties. While the Armistice to end the war is being negotiated, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working with Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to create the next generation of poison gas that will reignite the conflict. Diana sees the hand of Aries, the God of War, in the conflict, and knows she must stop him to stop the war.

While in its first season, the 1970s TV series with Linda Carter mirrored the origin story of the comic and was set during WWII. It switched to a contemporary setting for its last two seasons. Here, though, screenwriter Allan Heinberg along with others who developed the story set the movie during the First World War. It benefits the story in that it was the first truly mechanized war and widespread conflict, and it was before women gained voting rights and started moving toward equality. While Diana is a throwback to Ancient Greece, the setting also places her as far more progressive than the world at that time.

Director Patty Jenkins wrote and directed Monster, for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar. Since then she’s mostly done television (“Arrested Development” and “The Killing” among the series), but she helms this movie with a firm hand and a fine sensitivity to the story. The pacing’s tight throughout most of the film. It does suffer a bit in the third act from the same over-the-top action previously seen in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. It’s like DC has standard film stock to be used in any such battle sequences. Still, it plays much better than either of those previous movies.

One delight is Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve Trevor’s secretary/assistant. She pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are effective villains, and Anaya manages to still evoke sympathy in the end. (The Spanish actress is mostly known for her work with Pedro Almodovar in Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In.) Pine has plenty of experience in adventure movies with the rebooted Star Trek series, though he’s stretched past that recently with Hell and High Water. He can handle the comedic wit in the character, but still makes you care for and about him.

But the movie, rightly, belongs to Gal Gadot. (In case you’re wondering about the pronounciation, the first name rhymes with “doll” and the last with “a float.”) While most superhero characters mask their feelings, with Gadot’s Wonder Woman they are there to be seen clearly. More than that, they are the motivation for her actions. It is rare for an action movie to pass the Bechdel test, but Wonder Woman does that with flying colors. Hopefully the likely success of the movie will begin a flow of more films centered on female characters. That truly would be wonderful.

Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.