Thursday, May 6, 2010

'Iron Man 2' mostly survives its missteps

Even Tony Stark needs an occasional quiet moment.

Here's the lowdown on the new Iron Man movie: The first installment was better, but 2 will do.

Despite some prominent liabilities, Iron Man 2 makes an acceptable and mostly welcome addition to a series that seems destined to continue at least until Robert Downey Jr. demonstrates that he’s more in need of a walker than an Iron Man suit.

The best that can be said about Iron Man 2 is that some of the attitude of the first movie survives, most notably in Downey’s mixture of arrogance, irreverence and flawed humanity. As we all know by now, Iron Man (a.k.a. Tony Stark) makes no attempt to hide his superhero identity. Stark’s prowess as a defender of freedom depends on a suit that provides most of his power. His is a propped up, slightly artificial brand of heroism that’s admirable as much for its flesh-and-blood weaknesses as for its strengths.

This time out, the suit’s the thing: In Iron Man 2, the Defense Department – using a senator (Garry Shandling) as its front man – wants Stark to hand over his Iron Man suit to the military. A disillusioned Russian tough guy with gold teeth, a ton of body tattoos and an ever-present toothpick (Mickey Rourke) wants to invent a suit that will allow him to exact revenge on Iron Man for a variety of past grievances. Even Iron Man’s ally in the military (Don Cheadle taking over where Terrence Howard left off) squares off against poor Stark, whose power is depleting because of high blood toxicity levels.

Credit director Jon Favreau, who also appears in the movie, with a decent job of mixing old and new characters: Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant. In this edition, Stark hands over the reins of his company to her. New recruits to the franchise include Scarlett Johansson, as another employee of Stark’s company, and Sam Rockwell, as the obviously named Justin Hammer, head of a rival armaments maker.

Perhaps realizing that sequels inevitably climb escalators of excess, Favreau makes no attempt to conceal the movie’s garish ambitions. He begins at an Expo that’s being staged by Stark in Flushing Meadows, New York, the site of the 1964/65 World’s Fair. The opening, replete with chorus lines and Las Vegas glitz, re-introduces Iron Man, who has allowed his role as guarantor of world peace to inflate his ego. Stark congratulates himself for having “privatized world peace.” In these opening bits, peace looks suspiciously like an extension of show business.

Of course, the good times can’t keep rolling. Fearing that his end is approaching, Stark turns into a dissolute party animal, even trying to boogie down in his Iron Man suit.

Downey has no difficulty providing the necessary spark, whether he’s in confident or debilitated mode; Rourke’s appropriately menacing without being entirely unsympathetic as a Russian with an impish smile and hair that looks to be in need of an Environmental Impact Statement; Johansson brings verve to a late-picture fight scene, and Rockwell goes for giggles with a performance that sometimes finds him working a little too hard to mine laughs.

Fun aside, the sequel doesn’t rocket into the same entertainment sphere as the original.

The exposition, some of which is presented in dull fashion in a script by Justin Theroux, can be regarded as filler between the typically abundant action set pieces and CGI mayhem. Favreau does a nice job with an early scene set at a Grand Prix race in Monte Carlo, but some of the battles between Tony and other ironclad creations are more noisy than exciting.

Of course, there are many explosions, some propulsive flying sequences and (did I already mention this?) lots of noise.

I guess you can say that the screenplay's the biggest culprit here. When a villain is vanquished – which of course he must be – the battle pretty much fizzles. At least one A-list performance – Samuel L. Jackson’s – is too abbreviated to mean much of anything, aside from serving as a preview of the upcoming Avengers movie. Having entered franchise territory, it’s difficult for even as freewheeling a venture as Iron Man to retain all of its freshness.

Fortunately, the movie's mixture of scattered plotting and incidental garnish doesn't prove fatal, and Iron Man 2 manages to get summer off to the kind of start that makes Hollywood happy; i.e., one that’s bound to keep the turnstiles spinning over the course of a couple of weekends.

And because we live in the age where box office performance trumps almost everything else, it’s arguable that Iron Man will face a bigger test next week than he does throughout the two hours of this reasonably entertaining sequel. What happens next Friday? Iron Man faces off against Robin Hood. Due on May 14th: the latest Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe collaboration.

No comments: