It seems like everybody wants a piece of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Beyond the usual mindless herd of groupies and hangers-on, a Senate sub-committee led by Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling) wants Stark Industries to turn over the metal suit to the government, rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants the intellectual property for his own devices, Stark friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has been ordered to procure a suit for the Military, S.H.I.E.L.D head Nicky Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) wants Stark’s expertise, and discredited physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) wants Stark’s head, sans ideas or chrome helmet.
And poor “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow)? She just wants a little of Tony’s time and attention…strictly business, of course.
That’s easier said than done. Time is in short supply for Tony—the Palladium-powered pacemaker keeping his heart going is killing him, throwing him into a jet-powered tail-spin of narcissistic self-pity and hedonism. And it’s hard to get any elbow-room for all the people trying to set-up an intervention, tough-love or no. The one person who seems to seek nothing from the head of Stark Industries is voluptuous Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) from legal, who’s a whiz at business transition components, but can also take down Stark’s driver/bodyman “Happy” Hogan (director Jon Favreau) in the tightest skirt possible. Tony’s watching her, but not the way he should.
At this point, one should be aware that “Iron Man 2” is suffering from some serious character bloat, a traditional problem with super-hero sequels that decide to take their eyes off the hero and onto the guest-villains. Fortunately, scenarist Justin Theroux takes a story breakdown from “The Dark Knight” and integrates all the conflicts into a single story…of Tony Stark, used up and spent, finding his worth despite a life of increasingly attention-deficited indulgence, and, instead of using and being used, getting something from an unexpected source in an unlikely way that re-charges his batteries.
It's all about Tony, you see. He's always been selfish and self-absorbed, but with a ticker that's counting down his limited moments, he becomes even more internal and narcissistic, deciding to use that time in pursuit of new thrills and new highs, though they may be increasingly self-destructive. Those jets in his feet and pulse generators in his hands only show that he's burning his candle at both ends. A celebration of all things Stark at the StarkExpo in Flushing, New York provides a backdrop for his inner struggle. A "city of the future," it was the brain-child of Tony's father, Howard ("Mad Men's" John Slattery, seen in archive footage), a combination of Hughes and Disney—StarkExpo, amusingly, has a theme written by Disney-musical scribe Richard Sherman—father and son are seen in Stark contrast: Howard was a giver and Tony, a taker. And Tony's understanding of their differences is the major character arc of the movie. It takes Tony out of the self-imposed metal bubble (represented by the Iron Man suit) that he has placed himself in. It also gives him a second chance at life.
That arc, and the movie, also provide plenty of opportunities to see some of the quirkiest and quickest actors in the business sparking off each other. One of the problems with the first “Iron Man” was that no one could match Robert Downey’s energy and ability to riff in a scene. In “Iron Man 2,” almost everybody can, and it’s a particular joy to see Downey playing “Can You Top This?” with the likes of Rourke and Rockwell (at his smarmy salesman best), but also Clark Gregg (returning as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson) and Don Cheadle. Even Gwyneth Paltrow brings her best game, never once succumbing to Downey-inspired giggle-fits (as she did often in the first film), and matching his speed. Johansson and Jackson, in a completely different tactic, merely have to dead-pan their way through their scenes with him to register. They’re supposed to be mysterious, anyway.
Are there problems? Sure. The action scenes are best when Rourke and Downey’s antagonists are spitting sparks at each other—Ivan Vanko’s energy-whips have the same animated fierceness of the Id-Monster from “Forbidden Planet”—but most of the fights are swooping flame-trails and orange explosions in their wake (not very involving). And despite starting the film fast out of the gate under the Paramount logo, Favreau indulges in some long set-ups to punch-lines with little pay-off—one of them involving his character in an extended fist-fight that drags along, increasing his screen-time. There are too many times when the film is one big TV monitor for full-frame large graphics of news reports, and there may be a couple of cameos too many.
But, quibbles aside, “Iron Man 2” might be a bit better than its predecessor, which managed to make a nice breezy transition to the screen, and sparked the imagination of its audience. A lot of the credit must go to Downey, who brought more energy than any number of “Transformers”-like Rock’em Sock’em Robot fights could muster. The stakes are raised performance-wise (and robot-wise) here, but this sequel continues to soar, fueled primarily by its lead actor.
"Iron Man 2" is a Matinee.
A shorter version of this review appears at BSCReview.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Iron Man 2