Friday, May 7, 2010

From the Archive: "Iron Man 2" Film Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here.  

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Iron Man 2.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Iron Man 2”
Originally published May 7th, 2010

I say it’s a good day for feminism when the best moment of Iron Man 2, a testosterone-fueled joy ride with a badass-moment-per-scene rating of approximately 17.6 RDJs, is not the joyous carnage of villain Whiplash on a Monoco racetrack, nor Tony Stark’s incredible Iron-Man-in-a-briefcase contraption, nor even the mind-blowing awesomeness of seeing our titular hero get a sidekick in the form of War Machine, but instead Scarlett Johansson performing a breathtaking acrobatic smack down on a series of increasingly befuddled henchman—all while wearing a stylish tight-fitting black costume.  Maybe I’m misinterpreting the goals of feminism, but hot damn...that was pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a movie.  I’d give you a high five Scarlett, but I think you’d kick my ass.   

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the unit of measurement for the badass-moment-per-scene rating, RDJ, stands for, it means Robert Downey Jr.  Does casting get any more inspired than this?  It’s not exactly a revelation any more, since the first film proved that Downey was put on this earth to play Tony Stark, but it’s still fun to be reminded just how cool this guy can be, even when playing a character who, under different circumstances, would be despicable. 

Yes, Robert Downey Jr. owns Iron Man 2, just as commanded the first film, but there’s plenty of other stuff going on in this sequel to challenge him for that position.  The cast is huge, without a single actor out of place, and each character is exceedingly well-developed, with clear motivations.  There are plenty of sub-plots and story threads to keep track of as well; make no mistake, Iron Man 2 is a very busy film.  And at times, that weight threatens to crush the entire production, just as in the story, Tony Stark’s own inflated ego nearly proves his undoing.  But, like Tony, the film doesn’t ever buckle under the stress, overcoming the odds to deliver a high-caliber superhero sequel.  In fact, the film’s ambitions kind of reminded me of Spider-Man 3, but where that film fell apart quickly amidst a confused and tangled web of underdeveloped stories and characters, Iron Man 2 flies high, succeeding in its many lofty goals.

The film picks up six months after Tony Stark announced to the world that he is Iron Man; I remember how cool that moment was two years ago, when I saw the film for the first time, and since then I’ve wondered whether or not director John Favreau and company would make good on their promise to take Stark’s secret identity away.  The short answer is that they do; the sequel is basically a large cautionary tale for all aspiring superheroes out there, the message being that a secret identity is actually a huge asset.  But once it’s gone, it’s gone, and here, Tony Stark has to deal with the consequences of blowing the secret.  There’s never really been a superhero flick before now that with such a public hero revealing himself to the world, and that gives Iron Man 2 a fresh feeling from start to finish.

Revealing his secret identity has gained Tony more fame and love than he ever had before, but it’s also put him under scrutiny—the government wants the Iron Man technology for warfare, and Stark’s new form of notoriety has also gotten the attention of a mad Russian genius named Ivan Vanko.  He’ll have to contend with all this, along with the jealousy of a competing corporate rival, Justin Hammer; that, and the fact that his own Iron Man technology is slowly killing him. 

Like I said, a busy movie, but it all works splendidly in the end.  If there’s any one element that makes this controlled chaos function, it’s the cast and the characterization, which is insanely strong.  Robert Downey Jr, as I said above, was born to play this part—the narcissism, the ego, and the warm heart underneath it all—he pulls it off effortlessly.  He had a tall order to fill the first time around, but Stark’s journey here is even more vast, and arguably more cerebral.  In Iron Man 2, we’re confronted with a man whose own inflated ego and personal demons are slowly consuming him, both literally and metaphorically.  This is a consistently present theme from beginning to end, but the script never draws strict attention to it—it’s up to Downey to illustrate it all with his acting, and he pulls it off beautifully.  From the quiet, reflective moments to the big-budget, show-stopping action beats, he owns the screen and revels in the fun.

The other returning players continue to impress as well.  I was pleased to see that, amidst all the chaos, the filmmakers remembered the incredible chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr., and gave Paltrow plenty of screen-time as Pepper Potts.  It would have been easy to cast the character aside this time around, but like in the first film, she’s the second most important character here, and she’s a joy to watch.  Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, which has been hugely expanded this time.  He’s pretty much just playing Samuel L. Jackson, but nobody can deny that he’s damn good at playing that effortlessly cool, laid-back persona he’s been perfecting since Pulp Fiction. 

Other than director John Favreau returning as Stark’s driver, Happy Hogan (who, like Jackson, gets more well-earned screen-time), the rest of the cast is new, and they’re all wonderful.  Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko is an all-around stronger villain that Jeff Bridges was in the first film.  Vanko is your classic mad scientist with a penchant for sadism, and Rourke plays him one step away from Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago; Rourke holds back enough to keep the character threatening, but never loses an important sense of comic-book fun.

But the antagonist most people will come out of the film talking about is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell.  Rockwell’s been doing some amazing work for years now, culminating last year in his one-man show Moon, a brilliant little sci-fi flick that deserves attention.  I suspect his dynamite performance here will help him break into the mainstream, and he deserves it.  Justin Hammer is, in the Iron Man universe, the guy who wishes he could be Tony Stark, but just isn’t clever or charismatic enough to pull it off.  Thus, he teams up with Vanko to take down his rival and become a national hero.  Rockwell is perfect in the part, going for a lot of big laughs.  Hammer’s nerdy disposition doesn’t make him a threatening villain, but his delusional personality proves him to be very dangerous.

And speaking of dangerous, I’m dead serious when I say nothing in this movie beats Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, known to comic readers as Black Widow.  She doesn’t really get to anything except stand around and look pretty (which she excels at) for most of the movie, but then, during the third act, she suits up,  Just wow.  When the gloves come off and she gets her turn to deal damage to the bad guys, you’ll be able to hear a pin drop in the theater.  That’s the silence of hundreds of minds being simultaneously blown away.

Finally, we have one cast replacement, with Don Cheadle taking over from Terrance Howard as Tony’s best friend, Rhodey.  If there’s any character who gets the short straw in the film, it’s Rhodes; he’s absent for long stretches of the movie, but when he does appear, he’s immensely fun to watch.  Cheadle is very good in the part, as he always is, but I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that Howard would have fit the role even better if he’d returned.  Still, that’s not Cheadle’s fault, and you can tell he’s having a grand old time when he gets to suit up to be Tony’s sidekick.  Some of film’s coolest moments come from Rhodes as he becomes War Machine, and when he and Iron Man fight side by side in the final battle, you’ll be blown away.

For a summer blockbuster, Iron Man 2 is surprisingly light on a big action scenes.  There’s really only three in the entire film, and only two of those deal with the villains.  Most of the time is spent on character building and plot development, with the protagonists and antagonists staying apart until the third act.  It’s an unusual structure for a superhero movie, but one that works surprisingly well and gives the film a distinct flavor.  I’m sure Favreau could have found more opportunities to throw in some fight scenes, but as it is, the flow of the story feels very natural, and the action we do get is so immensely satisfying that I couldn’t possibly ask for more.  Sometimes, less really is more, and I think Iron Man 2 is one of those cases where restraint on the part of the filmmakers heightens the quality of the whole package.

The pacing is certainly unconventional, and while it worked for me, I will say that some may dislike how the film moves.  It’s certainly not your traditional superhero structure, where the hero battles the bad guy again and again until he wins.  Instead, Stark is wrestling with his own demons for most of the movie, without paying attention to the bad guys.  It’s certainly different, but not as unconventional as one may think—Spider-Man 2, one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, worked the same way (I think the world of cinema would benefit greatly if more films learned from that movie). 

My only real complaints with Iron Man 2 lie in the music.  Any time there’s licensed music, like AC/DC (which appears twice), it works brilliantly, heightening the whole experience.  But John Debney’s film score is weak; it’s generic and rather bland, getting the job done without going the extra mile.  It’s sad, because Ramin Djawadi’s score for the first movie was memorable and exhilarating; unfortunately, none of Djawadi’s tunes return here.  I was also unimpressed with certain filming techniques employed in the first act; a POV shot from Stark’s perspective early on doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers obviously hoped, and the shifting between TV-style news filming and standard cinematography in the senate hearing sequence is distracting. 

But when these two relatively minor complaints are all I have, I think it’s safe to say that Iron Man 2 is a damn fine night at the movies.  It will be long debated whether or not this one is better than the original, but for my money, I think the two stand equivalent.  Iron Man was shockingly original and refreshing, and the sequel could never hope to emulate that “new car” feel the original gave us.  But the sequel impresses in other ways, with superior antagonists and action, and arguably better characterization.  I’d ultimately say that the original had a tad bit more heart to it, but that’s a very subjective thing.  At the end of the day, the two movies complement each other perfectly, and I can’t wait to see where they take the characters in The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and beyond.