Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Two: Iron Man 2

I know, I know; I'm late on this one. I liked Iron Man enough to be a little nervous about the sequel, especially after seeing the film's star, Robert Downey Jr., marooned in Sherlock Holmes, which reached for that same mix of cool special effects, kinetic camerawork, clever dialogue, and mildly kinky characters and missed by a mile.

I didn't even plan to see the sequel yesterday. I'd set out to see Everyone Else, but my train got stuck in the station, delayed by an investigation down the line. So I walked upstairs and down the block to another theater, where Iron Man 2 was starting in 15 minutes.

As he did in the original, director Jon Favreau tells a story as streamlined as Tony Stark's Iron Man suit. The premise is set up and the hero (Stark) and nemesis (Ivan Vanko) are introduced before the credits finish rolling. The pace never slackens or bogs down in tangents or tedious exposition, though a couple of the fight scenes feel superfluous or overly familiar.

Mickey Rourke, that ruined mountain of a man, is smartly cast as Vanko, a sociopathic Russian thug with a thing for birds and an unshakeable grudge against Stark. Walking slowly toward Stark on a racetrack, his long graying hair loose on his massive shoulders and electrified metal whips trailing from his arms while racecars upend themselves and burst into flames in his wake, he's the scariest coldblooded killer to come out of Hollywood since Javier Bardem carted that cattle-killing machine through No Country for Old Men.

The years have been good to Stark since we last saw him. Always rock-star rich, now he's rock-star famous for having "successfully privatized peace," as he puts it in a comically bombastic Senate hearing. He even has his own Shepard Fairey-style poster.

As sleek as Vanko is surly, Stark is all cocky confidence and preening self-regard. In the first movie, he wanted to atone for his weapons-proliferating past; now he just wants to burnish his shiny reputation. "I don't care about the liberal agenda any more. It's boring," he tells his assistant turned CEO, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Only Vanko, who's convinced that his own future was stolen when his father's Iron Man blueprint was taken by Stark's father, still wants Stark to pay for "all the lives the Stark family has destroyed." You can't help but root for Stark when he's fighting Vanko or Justin Hammer, a corrupt weapons manufacturer gleefully played by Sam Rockwell, but he's a seriously compromised hero. Vanko isn't so much his nemesis as his evil twin, a bitter reminder of what he could have become with a little less luck—or larceny.

That makes for a pretty chewy comic-book movie, but Iron Man 2 never feels self-important or dense. A little overloaded, maybe, but too much of a good thing is good here, for the most part. I didn't mind the ongoing tease about whether Stark's best friend, a straight-arrow soldier, will become his sidekick, and though I never doubted that Stark would win the race against his own ever-weakening heart, it was kind of fun to see how he did it. And if your interest flags for a moment, there's always something to look at or ponder, like: Whose lips are more pillowy, Rourke's or Scarlett Johansson's?

My mind wandered a lot when Johansson was on the screen, since she made a remarkably unconvincing lawyer-slash-model-slash-martial arts expert. Samuel L. Jackson's phoned-in cameo didn't add much either, and I hated to see the great Don Cheadle wasted in the lame best friend role. But the Iron Man franchise has been great for Paltrow. The actress, who sometimes seems stiff and unsympathetic, almost patrician, in her dramatic roles, comes alive in her prickly, often overlapping exchanges with Downey. It reminded me of what screwball comedies did for Katharine Hepburn, and of how invigorating fast, funny talk is—for audiences as well as for actors.

The trailers for Iron Man 2 stress the superhero suits, the sex, and the showdowns. But it's the smart, snappy dialogue, at least as much as any of those things, that gives this movie its energy.

Written for The House Next Door.

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