Monday, May 10, 2010

Movie Review: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 ***
Directed by:
Jon Favreau.
Written By: Justin Theroux based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck and Larry Lieber and
Jack Kirby.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes / War Machine), Scarlett Johansson (Natalie Rushman / Natasha Romanoff), Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Paul Bettany (Jarvis), Garry Shandling (Senator Stern).

The first Iron Man movie is about as good as superhero origin movies can get. The film took its time to setup Tony Stark as a narcissistic playboy arms dealer, who is forced into a corner and ends up creating a suit that transforms him into a superhero. Anchored by an incredibly performance by Robert Downey Jr., who is the most perfectly cast actor to play an superhero perhaps ever, and a fine supporting cast – especially Gwyneth Paltrow having fun for once and Jeff Bridges who made a good bad guy. The film pretty much avoided the trap of spending so much time on the origin, that there was no other story left to tell, and yet at the same time, established its characters in a great way. The stage was set for Iron Man to really take off in the second installment – much like the recent Batman and Spider-Man franchises did. But while Iron Man 2 is certainly top notch entertainment, it falls short of the mark left by its predecessor. It tries to jam so much into one movie, and as a result, some things feel rushed.

Now that everyone knows that Tony Stark is Iron Man, he is being hassled by the government (here represented by a hilarious small role by Garry Shandling as a US Senator) who want him to turn over the suit to them. Not only that, but his competitors, including Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), want to create their own version of Iron Man, as they rightly see it as a cash cow. As well, the artificial power source that is both keeping Stark alive, and powers the suit, is slowly killing him by poisoning his blood. In short, things are a mess for Stark even before Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the disgruntled son on a Russian scientist who worked with Stark’s father shows up with his own weapons that push Iron Man to the limit.

Iron Man 2 is a lot of fun, mostly because of Downey who has really found the perfect role for himself as Stark. He is whip smart and hilarious as the egomaniacal Stark, and he gets a lot of mileage out of the screen persona he invented for the first film. He is surrounded by a wonderful cast – Paltorw again is smart, funny and sexy as the only woman who will actually stand up to Stark and Don Cheadle is fine as Terence Howard’s replacement as Jim Rhodes, Stark’s Army friend who will become his ally War Machine. The new additions to the cast function well in their roles. Sam Rockwell appears a little overwhelmed at first in the role of Hammer, but he quickly finds the right note. He isn’t evil per se, but greedy to a fault, and jealous that Stark has become a celebrity, while his arms company is faltering. Rourke fares better in his limited role as Vanko – the true villain of the piece. They seem to have cast Rourke more for his intimidating physical presence (and the man is stacked, with tattoos littering his body and metal teeth) than his acting ability, but Rourke still finds the right notes to play. Less successful is Scarlett Johansson as Stark’s new assistant Natalie Rushman – but that’s mainly because the film doesn’t give her much too do, until that is, revelations (that surprise no one) come out, and then they give her too much. They never give her time to settle into the character – like Rourke, she seems to be cast for her impressive, although entirely different, physical attributes.

But herein lies the problem with Iron Man 2 – the one that makes it merely a good movie instead of a great one. The filmmakers try to cram so much into one movie, that at times it feels like it’s cheating – or at the very least, simply setting up other movies rather than just being a movie on its own. The story of Hammer and Vanko, as well as Stark’s illness is good enough, but then the filmmakers throw in flashbacks to Stark’s troubled relationship with his father (although, it was a stroke of casting genius to get John Slattery, a Mad Man himself, to play Stark’s father seen only in a video out of the 1960s). As well, the film spends a little too much time setting up the upcoming Avengers movie – a move that means that Samuel L. Jackson’s surprise cameo in the first film is expanded here, and is the whole reason to bring in Johansson as well (and most glaringly, an awkward conversation between Downey and Clark Gregg, about the later going to New Mexico – land of enchantment – something that only pays off if you watch until the end of the credits). The main thrust of the story is too often shunted off to the side to go on these tangents.

Iron Man 2 is still superior entertainment – don’t get me wrong about that, I enjoyed the movie a lot. The action sequences are well done, and it’s always a treat to see Downey at the top of his game. But Iron Man 2 at times feel more like a Coming Attractions segment stretched into two hours – giving us a sneak peek at what’s coming, rather than concentrating on what’s here. Iron Man 2 is a good movie – but with these ingredients, it should have been a great one.

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