Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iron Man 2

Making a good sequel is a tricky business.  Of course, you want to stay true to what made the first film good, but you also need to change it up a little to keep the audience interested.  The tricky part is that you don't want to change it too little, or the sequel feels too similar to the previous movie (see the Saw series).  One cure for this is to spend the entire film budget on the stars and special effects, leaving you with enough cash to buy eleven bananas, so you just hire a half-witted chimp to write your script (which is the true story behind the making of Bad Boys II).  Every so often, though, filmmakers get it right, giving depth to the characters, while including more action because the origin story has already been told.

Iron Man 2 is one of those sequels that gets it right.  A big part of this is the fact that the principal cast remains from the original film, with one exception.  The role of James "Rhodey" Rhodes is played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard this time around.  While both have been nominated for an Oscar, I think of this as a casting upgrade because Cheadle is charismatic enough to hold his own in the Ocean's movies, and Howard was pretty wooden in Iron Man.  Other than that, Robert Downey, Jr. returns as Tony Stark, the man that wears the Iron Man armor.  Gwyneth Paltrow also returns as his devoted not-quite-romantically-involved life partner/assistant, Pepper Potts.  Downey is once again fantastic as the egotistical and sarcastic lead character.  Paltrow's character has more to do in this movie, and she's fine, but the plot requires her to be annoyed with Downey most of the time, so their chemistry isn't as strong this time.  Cheadle, however, comes through with a pretty solid performance as Tony Stark's straight-laced best friend.  Jon Favreau apparently did another good job directing, because the actors all performed well and the action was awesome.

The supporting cast is good, too.  The role of the malicious Russian physicist/tinkerer, Ivan Vanko, is played with relish by Mickey Rourke.  It's always better when his character has a reason for looking as haggard as Rourke does naturally; here, he plays a heavily tattooed veteran of the Russian prison system with some gold teeth and greasy hair.  Aside from his first scene, Rourke is very good; in that first scene, though, he gives a howl of mourning comparable to Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode III.  Rourke's best moments are when he chuckles to himself.  That creepy laugh with that ugly face makes Rourke a pretty scary guy.  The other villain here is Stark's business (but not intellectual) rival, Justin Hammer, played by the always amusing Sam Rockwell.  Rockwell approaches his character as a first-class salesman that doesn't necessarily care to know the details of what he is selling, as long as it makes him money.  As such, he's perfectly annoying.  To be honest, he doesn't come across as a legitimate threat to Stark (because he's not), but the scene where he is talking weapons to Rhodey shows how effective he can be.  Sam Jackson expands his role as super-secret agent Nick Fury from the last film, and he is appropriately Sam Jackson-esque (read: bad-ass).  Scarlett Johannson stretches her acting range in a small supporting role as a sexy redhead/secretary/martial artist that wears really tight clothes.  Garry Shandling was amusing as an antagonistic senator.  They even had Leslie Bibb reprise her slutty journalist role from the last movie and threw in cameos by Olivia Munn and the late Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein.

You might notice that I've given a lot of attention to the actors so far.  While this is an action movie, Iron Man 2 spends a lot of time developing characters and plot.  The first movie was like that, too, but part of that was because they were telling an origin story.  Here, they use that down time to give Stark two separate types of problems.  The first is the fact that Stark is slowly killing himself with the Iron Man suit.  It's not his fault, really, but his chest battery thingie that saved his life in the first film has a metal component that is poisoning him in the long term.  Oops.  It turns out that no known element can replace the one he's using, either.  That means that, when Stark isn't being his arrogant public persona, he is planning for his eventual death.  These scenes go over well, with Downey doing another great job showing Stark at his most vulnerable.

The other problem is, like in the last film, one of assuming responsibility for his technology.  In Iron Man, it was about keeping Stark weapons out of the hands of terrorists.  This time around, Stark has decided to give the Iron Man technology to no one.  Obviously, the US government is not happy with this.  Justin Hammer wants to fill the hole Stark has left in military contracts, but he cannot figure out the Iron Man technology on his own.  That is where Ivan Vanko comes in; his father worked on a previous generation of the Iron Man battery with Tony Stark's father.  Vanko built an imperfect, but effective version of the battery to power his own suit, but this one has weird electric whips instead of armor.  Obviously, the bad guys team up to take down Stark as a business, as well as a hero.

Since this is a sequel, they have made the action scenes even bigger.  Vanko's first scene using his whips is surprisingly cool and the sheer amount of car wreckage is impressive.  Personally, my favorite action had Stark fighting Rhodey, with each in their own Iron Man suit.  It was just cool to watch.  I would like to point out that only billionaires can afford to fight like that in their own homes.  Scarlett Johannson looked convincing in her fight scene, too, although some of her poses seemed like a little too obviously T & A.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but some of it just looked uncomfortable.  The big ending fight scene was great, once Iron Man and Rhodey/War Machine finally teamed up.  The action leading up to their team-up was a little underwhelming, given how long it took and I was a little disappointed by the durability of the evil robot drones in the climax, but the fight with Vanko made up for those concerns.  Until this movie, I never considered whips as even remotely cool or threatening; I'm sure they're an acquired taste (as a weapon), but Vanko looked like a legitimate threat in this movie.

Now, for the bad news.  There are a few moments where this movie failed for me.  The first involved Vanko's first battle scene.  As awesome as it was, it had a ridiculous plot hole.  It looked like his plan was always to sneak on the racetrack and attack Stark's race car...but Stark decided to drive the car himself only minutes before the race began.  Was Vanko planning on sneaking into the fancy restaurant where Stark was going to watch the race, dressed as a car mechanic?  It's not a big deal, I admit, but it was a stupid writing mistake.

The other moment was when Stark is watching an old video of his late father, Howard.  It's pretty boring stuff, showing how focused he was on business and not his family, until Howard addresses Tony through the video.  It's the typical emotionally distant father finally admitting how much he cares for his children speech.  If you liked it here, you'll love it in The Incredibles.  It's not that the scene was terrible, but it just...too predictable.  This scene is meant to show Tony at his most vulnerable, finding inspiration and love for an unexpected place, but it just feels flat.  This is probably because the father-son relationship is barely mentioned until the video is played, but Stark's vulnerable moments in this movie are just not as effective in this movie because they are not spent with other characters.

These flaws are pretty well balanced out by a lot of clever little things throughout the movie, though.  Justin Hammer is such a wanna-be, of course he uses bronzing lotion; it is just as obvious that his palms should be orange from using the bronzer, too.   Rourke's tattoos looked like legitimate Russian prison tattoos, too; I recognized some of them from Eastern Promises.  Pepper Potts was upset at Stark giving away his modern art collection because he worked hard to build it; this is a nice bit of work, making subtle reference to the modern art knowledge she showed briefly in the first film.  There's more stuff, but it's more fun to see it yourself.  Honestly, this movie has a lot going for it.  It is a nearly pitch-perfect sequel that introduced new problems to established characters and developed the returning characters even further.  The action is a little bigger and provides a very powerful character with a more even fight.

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