Saturday, October 2, 2010
Iron Man 2
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Running Time: 125 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
While it seems like faint praise, Iron Man 2 really isn't all THAT much worse than its predecessor. What complicates the issue is that the first film was massively overpraised, accumulating truckloads of accolades for just simply being a fun, competent summer diversion. So we all knew, if only for monetary purposes, we'd see a sequel, no matter how unnecessary. As the continuation of the groundwork laid in the original, this film works as a logical progression, except for the fact that it's a discombobulated, annoying next chapter of a story that didn't need to be told to begin with. I'll give it this though: At least it lets go and tries to have fun, and doesn't attempt at any point to try and get us to take the material seriously, which was a sore spot with me in the original. Unfortunately, there are enough other problems to go around. And how couldn't there be with so many plotlines and characters fighting for attention? Packed with non-stop action, celebrity cameos and quick one-liners, the movie never bores. It advertises instead, delivering what amounts to a mildly enjoyable two-hour Marvel Studios trailer.
For at least the first hour, it appears director Jon Favreau had the ingredients for a successful sequel, until losing his way in the second act. It's at it's best early on when focusing exclusively on Stark Industries CEO, Tony Stark (Downey), who's now living the life of a rock star after revealing his identity as Iron Man to the world. The government doesn't quite see things his way as senate hearings are called in an effort to get Stark to turn over the Iron Man technology. Meanwhile, mad Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) aims to settle a long-standing family grudge by constructing a reactor-powered suit to take Stark down and finds a generous supporter in rival defense coordinator, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). With the reactor in his chest slowly releasing toxins that are killing him, Stark appoints his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) new CEO. He must also deal with the mysterious arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. organization director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who's undercover agent, Natalie Rushman, (Scarlett Johansson) has infiltrated his company.
The set-up for all of this is actually quite good with Favreau doing an admirable job handling an overstuffed Justin Theurox script that tries to find room for every character, without giving enough of them something to do, or us a reason to care. For a little while at least he effectively balances all the sub-plots and it was the right way to go focusing on the hard-partying Stark's struggle to deal with increased with his new found celebrity. Then at about the hour mark Samuel L. Jackson appears as Nick Fury and this becomes a paint-by-the-numbers superhero movie doubling as an infomercial for whatever sequel or franchise Marvel studios is planning to take our dollars with next. In this case, it's The Avengers and while comic fans may be drooling over it (assuming it's ever even released), that's not an excuse to sidetrack the story being told NOW. You know, the one with Iron Man in it. For all I know it could fit perfectly into the Marvel "Universe" but in this film it doesn't and in a deck already stacked too high with sub-plots and characters, it's an unnecessary addition. Not quite as worthless as the throwaway Tony Stark cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk, but close. The rest of the film suffers along with it as Stark's best friend Lt. Jim Rhodes' (Don Cheadle taking over for Terrence Howard) transformation into War Machine feels too rushed, the Natalie Rushman character loses her mystique the more we learn about her and the promising storyline involving the alliance between Hammer and Vanko turns into a bit of a mess. The remaining run time is a big blur, lost in a sea of noises and explosions before arriving at the final credits.
The performances are mostly solid all-around but let's be honest in admitting that as well as he plays it, the role is clearly beneath an actor as talented as Robert Downey, Jr. who could be spending his time on more meaningful projects that better utilize his skills. There's nothing wrong with taking on fun, escapist entertainment but this is essentially a repeat of his work in the last, with the cockiness amped up. It's to his credit that he makes Stark's struggles interesting at all but praising him for this role is starting to feel like congratulating The Rolling Stones for covering Katy Perry songs. Well done, but a waste. The biggest letdown is how little is done with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper going from being the rarest of well-written female love interests in the first film to merely an afterthought. You know it's bad for her when even a bloated Garry Shandling (who now strangely resembles Jiminy Glick) gets just as much screen time as a crooked senator. Still, even a little Gwyneth goes a long way. Johansson really isn't done any favors either with an underwritten role, which is a shame because her character had potential. Rourke looks to be having almost too much fun as Vanko/Whiplash, letting his inner goofy flag fly with a pet parakeet and a hilarious take on a Russian accent while Cheadle is actually a downgrade from Terrence Howard as Rhodes, possessing a more calming, laid back presence that conflicts with the commanding one we previously associated with the role. That it was recast so haphazardly by the filmmakers demonstrates how little regard they have for a character that could have easily been excised from the film altogether without anyone noticing. Aside from Downey, the best performance comes from Sam Rockwell, who steals every scene he's in as Stark nemesis Justin Hammer. If the series must continue (and you know it will) his return would at least be a suitable consolation prize.
If I'm making it all seem slightly worse than it is it's only because this franchise wore out its welcome after the first film and there's no reason to keep going other than the almighty dollar, which the filmmakers make abundantly clear with their cross-promotional tie-ins. They should concern themselves with making one really good film first before thinking ahead to other ones. Part of the problem may be that after The Dark Knight the bar has been raised to the point where all these superhero movies can't help but come off as child's play, with this being no exception. But at least it moves at a brisk pace, the action sequences impress (the race track scene is something else) and unlike last year's big summer release, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it has its fun moments, most of them again provided by Robert Downey, Jr. Calling Iron Man 2 disappointment wouldn't be fair, if only because it assigns the sequel expectations it couldn't have met to begin with.