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Shout Factory // Unrated // December 7, 2017
List Price: $16.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 9, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Ahead of what'll seem like a pummeling on Guardians, Russia's entry into blockbuster superhero cinema, it's worth mentioning that comic studios "liberally borrowing" concepts of characters and their powers from competitors has been going on for decades, especially between, y'know, the big two. Before the size-shrinking Ant-Man, there was Atom; before Hawkeye's archery prowess, there was Green Arrow; before the cosmic sorcery of Dr. Strange, there was Dr. Fate; and so on and so forth. What separates these characters from one another can be found in the details of their personalities both big and small, and with time these traits overcome the similarities of their powers to other entities, allowing them to coexist. Guardians attempts to force heaps of point-blank superhero copycatting into less than an hour and a half, aspiring to the boldness and camaraderie of Marvel's team-based movies without paying the necessary attention to fleshing out these characters. The result is an awkwardly rushed, superficial imitation that overestimates the scope of its physical and emotional capabilities.

During the Cold War, some 40 years before the events in the film, individuals in Russia are gathered together -- recruited or forcibly taken? -- and given supernatural powers so they might defend their land from otherworldly threats, in a project codenamed "Patriot". Their creation and the trials they undergo are on display at the beginning of Guardians, which cuts to several decades later after the termination of the program, where the government continues to develop more mechanical defenses against such threats. One of those involved in the original design of these supernatural soldiers, Professor Kuratov (Stanislav Shirin), returns many years later armed with exoskeletal apparatus and the ability to manipulate machinery and electrical currents, enabling him to gain control of these high-tech military robots and infiltrate compounds. In response to this threat, Major Elena Larina (Valeriya Shkirando) has been tasked to reunite these "guardians", who have been scattered across their homeland and largely conceal their immense capabilities.

After a brief montage with very little context displaying how these potential superheroes developed their powers, Guardians frontloads the story with a stretch of cumbersome, oddly imprecise exposition to get the audience up to speed on what's happened between the Cold War and now. Immediately, the similarities and distillation of Western superhero cinema begin to take shape, with Professor Kuratov embracing a presence similar to Mickey Rourke's own devious scientist in Iron Man 2, infusing his agenda with bits of the overarching tech-control threat imposed in X-Men: Days of Future Past. By the time Major Larina's recruitment of the reclusive Patriot participants enters the picture as an incontestable echo of ScarJo's Natasha Romanoff and her "assembly" of would-be Avengers, director and co-writer Sarik Andreasyan has overburdened the narrative with far too many resemblances to hold the attention of those who've seen these billion-dollar grossing comic blockbusters.

Guardians just keeps rushing forward with its absence of originality, though, introducing the foursome of heroes intended to stop threats like Kuratov from leveling the civilized world. Each of these heroes have slight tweaks that prevent them from becoming outright counterfeits of characters from Marvel's universes: a reclusive man (Sebastien Sisak) with a dark past who can levitate rocks instead of metal; a martial artist (Sanzhar Madiyev) with curved scythe-like blade who teleports short distances in wispy smoke clouds; a dude (Anton Pampushnyy) who can hulk out into a normal-colored, beastly bear on command. The likenesses to other heroes stand out because writer/director Andreasyan doesn't take the time -- doesn't really have the time -- to focus upon their traits as genuine characters, instead triggering thoughts of, "Oh, he's this universe's version of X" upon seeing what they're capable of doing. The only character who evades this issue is Xenia (Alina Lanina), the sole female of the bunch who can become transparent and adjust to temperatures at will, whose existence post-Patriot program receives attention because she's the only one who utilized her abilities in public.

Had the action applied their specific abilities in chaotic ways unexplored in other superhero films, Guardians could've still pulled out a unique experience by one-upping its inspirations with resourceful combinations of skills against an absurdly overpowered foe. Paired with merely functional visual effects, especially the rendering of the unconvincing were-bear, the action not only doesn't accomplish much different than other blockbusters of its ilk as it stumbles through a Moscow under siege, it actively disregards the established uniqueness of the heroes. You've got a swordsman who can teleport at will, another guy who can levitate mass particles of earth debris, a woman who can turn invisible and make other things -- and people -- invisible by touch, and a freakin' sapient bear with a machine gun. That's a staggering amount of room to play with cooperative strategies, yet, instead, Guardians separates them at all the wrong times and executes set pieces that are monumentally unaware of their potential, both as individuals and as a team. Caring about these forged heroes wouldn't have saved this mess.

Video and Audio:

Guardians drops down onto home-video from Shout Factory, presented here in a 2.35:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer that expertly captures the density of textures and the vividness of certain colors wherever necessary. Vivid electric blues, the light aqua glow of cloudy incubation chamber water, and orange-and-yellow plumes of explosions offer the strongest hues in the transfer, which are bold yet constrained by the general intentions of the palette, steering toward slate grays and tans throughout. Skin tones, the brown of bearskin, and the mild brick-red shade of a garment offer compellingly suppressed earthy shades underneath the grimness. Fine details in fur, hair, stone, water, and steel -- both digital and organic -- offer immensely satisfying sharpness, though the motion of the CG effects creates harsh jitteriness that isn't so pleasing to the eyes. Contrast is perfectly suitable, with rich black levels and solid midrange shadows that enhance the image's depth. Aside from the smoothness inherent with digital photography, Guardians looks pretty darn terrific.

Surround tracks arrive in both Russian and English 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, to which the original language option was selected with this screening of the film. As expected for a superhero blockbuster, there's no shortage of bluster due to hand-to-hand battles, firing artillery, and the embellished sounds of superpowers taking effect, which runs the gamut of high-pitched and low-end activity. Bullets and lightning strikes are crisp and immersive, while slighter effects like the crumbling of stone and the crystallization of ice are acutely nuanced. Explosions fill the room with robust bass response, perhaps a bit too booming and big in coordination with the surround track, while the thumps of combat are tight and convincing. The dialogue is reasonably clear, if a bit low and mumbling more than it should be, while the English subtitles are mediocre in translation quality; missing words in sentences isn't uncommon. In general, it's a fine original-language sound presentation of a foreign blockbuster.

Special Features:

Trailers, an Image Gallery, and Character Profiles, Guardians only arrives with a single substantive extra: a series of Interviews With the Cast and Crew (7:32, 16x9). This foursome of snippets leans closer to being press-kit BTS pieces, though, and the glimpses at the craftsmanship that went into building this blockbuster tend to be more intriguing than the actual interview footage, though some of the discussions move in lockstep with the footage onscreen to form a running commentary of sorts.

Final Thoughts:

Plenty of effort went into creating the superhero blockbuster intensity of Guardians, and it makes one wish that just as much attention -- or just a suitable ratio of attention -- would've been poured into crafting characters and a script that weren't so overtly derivative of its Hollywood counterparts. Granted, the practical and digital visualization that went into creating this comic-inspired universe hits speedbumps along the way, but not nearly as frequently as the dramatically undercooked characterization and the film's lack of creativity or self-awareness while using incredibly familiar superhero powers. Guardians wants to cram what the X-Men, Avengers, and to a lesser extent Guardians of the Galaxy accomplished into the space of less than an hour and a half, and the result is far too shallow and slapdash to make someone overlook its plainly obvious intentions. Skip It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site






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