Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Theroux deserve credit for trying to infuse the sequel to 2008’s Iron Man with equal parts pleasure, wit, intelligence, silliness, self-awareness and steely action-movie grit. In other words, Favreau tries to make it a worthwhile vehicle for the acting ability of his star, Robert Downey Jr. — once again interesting as the eccentric Tony Stark, the idealistic industrialist/inventor who dons his unique, gleaming red super-suit to become Iron Man whenever the world is threatened. And Favreau succeeds enough to make it enjoyable by the standards of summer-movie comic-book adaptations/sequels.
It’s mostly fluff, a couple steps removed from the first film’s interesting story establishing the character’s existence. But every now and then there’s a hint of a parallel between the fantasy Iron Man and the real-world Predator drones and what will happen when all countries have them.
In aiming high, though, Favreau also exposes the film’s weaknesses. Chief among them is some miscasting — and too much cast — that comes from hiring too many prestige actors to surround Downey. There isn’t enough for them all to do, a problem the first Iron Man avoided. And the film underutilizes what should be its (second) greatest asset: Mickey Rourke, in his first high-profile appearance after The Wrestler.
As a rival inventor to Stark, Rourke’s Ivan Vanko (a diabolical Russian meanie) is an unholy vision from hell with his long skuzzy hair, tattooed torso and mechanically outfitted arms that coil and whip like metallic snakes as he attacks Stark’s car in the Monaco Grand Prix.
That scene, which comes early, suffers as an overall action set piece from some cheesy special effects — a surprising problem that occurs intermittently in the film. But that weakness doesn’t matter when Rourke, like a towering Cyclops out of Greek mythology, is letting loose; he is a special effect.
But after that confrontation the film sidetracks Rourke as Vanko goes to work for a slimy, corrupt American weapons manufacturer named Justin Hammer. Rourke stays on the film’s sidelines until the final confrontation. It’s a relatively satisfying one involving lots of “drone” Iron Men fighting Stark and his iron-suited friend (Don Cheadle). But the film could have used Rourke a lot better.
Another problem is Sam Rockwell’s archly sarcastic turn as Hammer — think Breaking Bad’s Steve Oedekirk turned up to 11. Rockwell has a slight physique, and the thought of him bossing around and intimidating the imposing Rourke (or even thinking he can) is too ridiculous for us to ever buy into. So this whole subplot is a time-waster.
So, too, is Scarlett Johansson, virtually inert and in way over her head as Stark’s legal secretary, possible romantic interest and, as the story develops, athletic guardian angel from a counter-terrorism agency. And, sadly, much of the frisson that developed between Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey in the first Iron Man dissipates here as her Pepper Potts character is promoted to Stark Industries head — a promotion we never accept as legitimate.
So Iron Man 2 has a lot of dead time plot-wise as it moves among the secondary characters and slowly heads toward its showy climactic battle at the world’s fair-like Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. Thank goodness, then, Downey is in good form — he plays Stark like a very self-conscious, self-effacing playboy existentialist constantly questioning the meaning of life when not driving fast on the Pacific Coast Highway or getting drunk on his birthday and trashing his mansion in an iron-suited rage. (He does have a reason for his pessimism: The substance he uses in the “arc reactor” that keeps his heart beating is also poisoning his body, and he needs a replacement.)
Downey does amusing physical stuff, like fuss with a small, kinetic sculpture on Pepper’s office desk. He’s also verbally funny and sharp-witted at a confrontational U.S. Senate hearing where he argues with Senator Stern (Garry Shandling, in a delightful small role) over whether his Iron Man suit is a weapon or wearing apparel. And he can be the loud, brash life of a party.
More than likely, there will be an Iron Man 3. Let’s hope, then, the lessons of 2 are learned: Give Downey a wide berth to develop his character and play with it, but also give him one strong opponent who's a considerable, consistent challenge for the entire course of a movie. Grade: B-
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