Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2: Solid iron

Iron Man 2 (2010) • View trailer for Iron Man 2
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.10
Buy DVD: Iron Man 2 • Buy Blu-Ray: Iron Man 2 (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

When it buckles down and gets to work  much as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark does, midway through this story  Iron Man 2 succeeds nicely.

The capably directed, summer-style action flick certainly will satisfy longtime Marvel Comics fans, while remaining reasonably accessible to clueless civilians who wander in, wanting to know what all the fuss is about.
When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dons his Iron Man suit and makes a
drunken fool of himself at his own birthday party, longtime gal pal and
business colleague Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to talk him off the
very public stage; after all, partygoers are clicking away with their cell phone
cameras. Sadly, Tony hasn't hit bottom yet...

For the most part, director Jon Favreau gets the job done  as he did two years ago, with this film's predecessor  and avoids the worst pitfalls of the so-called "sophomore slump" that often sabotages high-profile sequels. Downey remains mesmerizing as bazillionaire industrialist-turned-reluctant superhero Tony Stark, and he's surrounded by interesting supporting players.

When Justin Theroux's screenplay remains serious, this film achieves some of the dramatic heft that made 2008's Iron Man so entertaining. The two primary villains are well conceived and engaging in their own right, and Stark's ego-driven arrogance escalates quite credibly, making him the flawed-hero-needing-redemption that gives this narrative a solid emotional core.

On the other hand...

Stark's Iron Man faced and defeated a bucket-headed adversary in a bigger tin suit in the first film, so building this sequel to a climactic bout with a bucket-headed adversary in a bigger tin suit seems ill-advised: Been there, done that. Much worse, as well, is Favreau and Theroux's decision to preface that final battle with an assault by scores of bucket-headed robots in similar tin suits.

And blowing stuff up. Lots of stuff. Race cars. Buildings. Tony's Malibu home. An entire industrial expo's worth of convention showrooms and outlying buildings.

This suggests ... a lack of imagination.

Finally, much as I enjoyed the banter between Tony and reliable Gal Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the first film, Theroux rather overdoes this running bit here. Conversations between Tony and Pepper involve both of them never getting to finish a sentence; that's cute the first few times, but wears thin very quickly.

Even so, there's no denying the mesmerizing spin Downey puts on Stark. Whether double-takes or throwaway gestures, half-spoken thoughts or dismissive impatience, this guy's always fascinating: doubly so, since Downey makes this guy persuasively real, despite this film's crazy-quilt, sci-fi trappings.

When a revitalized Tony chases down tantalizing clues from his long-dead scientist father, guts his home in order to construct a particle accelerator and then synthesizes a new element, Downey genuinely sells the preposterous scene. Heck, I believed it.

Downey also sells Tony's weaker moments, which serve as the film's much more intriguing backbone.

Having acknowledged publicly that he is, indeed, Iron Man, Tony now faces congressional demands  delivered by an irritatingly condescending Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling, marvelously smarmy)  to share his tech with the U.S. military. Tony has no intention of doing so; aside from owning the suit outright, its secondary function is to keep him alive ... something he hasn't told the world.

Unfortunately, the all-important gizmo's platinum core is poisoning him, which Tony hasn't revealed to anybody, not even Pepper. Alternately reckless and despairing, he blows off the senatorial investigation committee  insisting that nobody else could recreate his tech for at least another decade  and starts behaving any which way he chooses ... which includes entering himself, at the last second, in a Monte Carlo race.

Ah, but somebody has mirrored Iron Man's marvelous gadgetry: That would be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, suitably menacing), an angry Russian determined to avenge his father's supposed poor treatment by Tony's father, by destroying the Stark legacy. Ivan wreaks havoc in Monte Carlo and fully understands the psychology of the situation: If Tony and Iron Man can be seen as vulnerable, flawed and unreliable to the American public, then the game's over.

Things get even worse when Ivan allies himself with Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival military weapons developer who has been a thorn in Tony's side for years.

Tony responds poorly to all this dangerous attention; his already impetuous behavior, now fueled by too much alcohol, becomes positively suicidal. Needless to say, Downey well understands how to play this personality disorder, and Tony's very public meltdown at his own birthday party is cringe-inducing (for all the right reasons).

Poor Pepper is beside herself, and Paltrow deftly walks the line between concerned friend (or more?) and responsible corporate figurehead.

The already heady brew is further spiced by some additional characters, starting with new corporate associate Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), a swooningly sensuous distraction Tony can't quite figure out. Downey's double entendre-laden exchanges with Johansson merely further the degree to which Natalie remains enigmatic, particularly after she demonstrates some unexpected boxing talents.

(Comic book geeks already know Natalie's secret, but I'll not spoil that surprise here.)

Don Cheadle, taking over for Terrence Howard, does nice work as the conflicted James "Rhodey" Rhodes, the U.S. military liaison who likes Tony too much to be comfortable betraying him. Alas, Rhodey has a chain of command to follow, and his personal preferences may need putting aside ... particularly as Tony becomes more and more unstable.

The always reliable Samuel L. Jackson pops up briefly as Marvel Comics' super-secret agent Nick Fury, reprising his role from 'Iron Man' and setting up his greater involvement in the upcoming films Captain America (scheduled for release in 2011), Nick Fury and The Avengers (both 2012).

Paul Bettany will be recognized immediately as the voice of Jarvis, Tony's state-of-the-art computer system. It's also nice to see that with all his golly-gee-willikers gadgetry, Tony has retained the clumsy old-style robot that saved his life in the first film.

Favreau abandons his director's chair long enough to reprise his role as Happy Hogan, Tony's driver and comic-relief associate.

J. Michael Riva's production design is quite slick, most particularly with Tony's ultra-modern home and all the halls and showrooms of the massive Stark Expo. The special effects are cool, particularly with respect to small details such as the concrete-crumbling weight of the aforementioned bucket-headed robots.

A few sequences, however, can't help raising a skeptical eye. There's simply no way Pepper and Happy could have avoided being sliced in half by Ivan's electrified whips during the explosive Monte Carlo battle, and  in the same scene  we can't help chuckling over the absurd notion that Tony's entire Iron Man suit could be concealed in a single medium-size suitcase that morphs and expands as required, to prepare him for battle.

I know Tony's a demon genius inventor, but really!

All that said, this series' fans are apt to forgive the occasional transgressions. If Favreau set out to make solid entertainment, he certainly succeeded. Iron Man 2 marks the accelerated early arrival of the summer film season, and while I hope better is to come, this isn't a bad way to start.

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