ON FILM

Chris Pratt enters a new galaxy with his winning brand of acting

Sharkey on Film

Actor Chris Pratt at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills hotel. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / March 27, 2014)

You may not remember it, but there is actually a light moment in Kathryn Bigelow's political thriller "Zero Dark Thirty." It comes as a Navy SEAL team heads for the Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

Everything is on the line in this high-risk play to sever the hydra head of Al Qaeda. Minutes from touchdown, the silence and sweat of men on a possible suicide mission hangs thick in the helicopter bay. The camera catches Chris Pratt's Justin, his face as intent as the others, but …

One of the guys glances over and asks: "Whatcha listening to?" Without a beat, Justin pulls out an earphone and says, "Tony Robbins. I got plans after."

With the precision of a sniper's shot, Pratt's soldier defuses the pressure without damaging the mood. His buddies needed it, that sense they might survive. More than two hours into the unrelenting drama, we needed it. Which only goes to prove that even the most serious of subjects can benefit from the Pratt effect.

At the moment, we're experiencing the full power of that particular phenomenon with the actor at his most charming in the sci-fi action fun of "Guardians of the Galaxy." The filmmakers hang nearly every frame on one facet or another of Pratt's appeal, and it has paid off impressively in critical acclaim for the film, its roguish star and in box-office gold.

That appeal is as the kids say massive and in a sense only beginning to be seriously tapped.

An actor rising

Like a hurricane, the actor's impact has been building for a while: lovable for years slouching through life as a happily dimmer bulb in Amy Poehler's NBC show, "Parks and Recreation." More than believable as a washed-up catcher getting a second swing at success in 2011's "Moneyball" or the cocky top jock nearly a decade earlier in the teen prime-time soap of "Everwood." He was unmatched as an overworked and ill-prepared single father and attorney doing laundry and offering counsel to Vince Vaughn's prolific sperm donor in last year's "Delivery Man." His lug-ish boyfriend in "Take Me Home Tonight" was not quite so lovable, though it definitely worked for Anna Faris, who played a smart chick opposite him. The two would marry in real life not long after.

Like so many funny guys, he's been responsible for a lot of comic relief — and yes, even comedies need that relief factor, that break in the action, that unexpected distraction. One of the best examples of how adroit he is can be found in "Her." Though Joaquin Phoenix's performance as a man falling in love with a computer operating system named Samantha deservedly drew the lion's share of the attention, Pratt was adorable as the guileless nerd sporting high-waisted pants, eager to be friends, never one to judge. It didn't hurt that writer-director Spike Jonze (who would earn the original screenplay Oscar) delivered so much smart dialogue.

Perhaps because Pratt's been such a reliable comic sidekick to the main attraction, it's taken Hollywood longer than it should to put him center stage. A shout-out to "Guardians" director James Gunn for knowing the actor had the goods to be great. Not surprisingly, a sequel is in the works.

Technically, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is not Pratt's first leading role. Earlier this year, he voiced the intrepid, hard-hatted and hard-headed hero in "The Lego Movie," the actor having a grand time walking that fine line between irony and idiocy. In a clever bit of animation artistry, the filmmakers gave his plastic smile a little smirk, an eye the occasional wink.

Pratt was also the lead in his first film role, actress Rae Dawn Chong's writing-directing debut, 2000's "Cursed Part 3." In one of those classic Hollywood stories: Chong first encountered Pratt at a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant in Maui; he was her server. The comedy-horror short never went much of anywhere, but one very special Bubba did.

Crucial 'Bubba-ness'

His quintessential "Bubba-ness" is one of Pratt's central strengths. He has the solid look of a kid raised to hunt and fish in Washington state because he was — tailor made to throw a football on game night and a few zingers in a bar later. He's never — at least not yet — the smartest guy in the room, still you trust him to win the day because he's also the kind of guy who's been getting himself and his buddies out of scrapes for years.

What makes Pratt particularly interesting is the way he plays jock-style arrogance for laughs. It's the kind of letter jacket entitlement that should make enemies, but in Pratt's hands it is funny and endearing. Until "Galaxy," he's never had a bigger stage for it than "Parks and Recreation."

When the sitcom first introduced Andy Dwyer in the 2009 pilot, both of his legs were in casts, having broken them with a drunken fall into a pit at an abandoned construction site. But it was the cavalier way he managed to make Dwyer, a struggling, without-a-chance-of-fame garage-band rocker and a newly debilitated couch potato, so irritatingly amusing that struck such a chord. The pit would become a continuing story line, and Pratt's guest-starring status would soon turn into a series regular. Despite the pull of major movie stardom, the decent dance-with-the-one-that-brung-ya guy has said he'll be back for the show's seventh and final season.

With the change in his Hollywood status, the actor may not need those second-banana scene-stealing skills he's been perfecting. While I'm glad to see him out of the shadow of others, he's left a trail marked by a wicked mix of merriment and mayhem. In the spotty comedy of "The Five-Year Engagement," starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as the long-intendeds, he kills moment after moment. The best is his silly but kind of moving crooning of a Spanish ballad titled "Cucurrucucú Paloma" at his own shotgun wedding. Pratt's emoting is priceless.

He's got bigger fish to fry these days. A remake of "Knight Rider" is rumored to star Pratt as an unstoppable crime fighter. Next year he'll no doubt beat back the prehistoric beasties handily in the sci-fi fantasy "Jurassic World." And it won't be long before he's once again forced to save the galaxy.

So malleable, so likable, so playful is Chris Pratt on-screen, he just might prove to have the same sort of nearly unshakable staying power of a certain reigning audience favorite named Sandra Bullock. Mr. Congeniality, if you will, gone from pudgy to superhero buff, from sidekick to leading man. Pratt is most definitely pageant ready. Cue music.

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