Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Iron Man 2

Let's get the groundwork out of the way first: Iron Man 2 isn't an improvement on the terrifically entertaining original, but is, at least, it’s equal. Guilty (inevitably) of trying to have its cake (or ten) and eat it too, there’s far too much to work through this time, threatening to turn a light soufflĂ© into a stomach bothering carb fest. Not content with its central hero-villain axis adding Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to the mix, now there has to be conflict coming at Robert Downey Jr’s impossibly chipper Tony Stark from all angles, be it the shifting loyalties of best friend Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard), a redundant dead father angle and the attentions of SHIELD agents Sam Jackson and Scarlet Johansson (as Black Widow).

However, there are numerous saving graces, not least of which is director Jon Favreau whose deft storytelling keeps the balls juggling in the air much better than Sam Raimi did with Spiderman 3, keeping the tone light in spite of Justin Theroux's overstuffed screenplay. It’s also tremendous fun, just like the first, never shoving a moral sermon down our throat when Downey Jr’s delightfully anarchic hero can instead get drunk in his own suit as a way to solve his issues. Favreau is also a helmer who knows how to use effects, well, effectively, blending smooth CGI with a loud (but not aggressive) sound design to bring Marvel’s hotrod hero to life.

But while he may be fine on the side of the good, there’s a sense he’s less interested in the Dark Side. With Downey Jr such a show-stopping swirling vortex, inevitably Rourke’s vendetta-led, bird-loving Ruskie feels swept aside, odd as he’s the crux of the main plot. Seeking vengeance on Stark for the disgrace done to his father (who worked with Tony’s father, only to be extradited to Siberia) amid US Senate calls to hand the suit over to the military, he’s soon creating chaos in Monaco with an electric whip before teaming up with Rockwell’s incompetent weasel, always a step behind everyone else. Meanwhile Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (still enjoying crackling chemistry with Stark) is elected major responsibilities of her own, Johannson’s notary has her own agenda, and Cheadle has ideas of his own for Iron Man. Oh, and Stark is being poisoned from within by his own technology, forcing him to search for an alternative.

It’s less too many cooks spoil the broth than too many rivets ruin the chasse: a more earthbound, somewhat heavier sequel that comes with built-in franchise expectation, more exposition to wade through and more set-pieces to knock out of the park. It is though as good looking, shiny, sleek and energetic as ever, bolstered by a muscular John Debney score. Performances also register excellently despite the screentime wavering drastically between each character. Rourke is intimidating as an undercooked villain; Rockwell fares much better on that front as the slippery, useless flipside to Stark; while Paltrow and Cheadle (facing a thankless task) offer great alternate romantic/comic relief. Only Johansson feels like a cipher, a set-up for the third act, and Jackson's appearance inevitably leans towards the same.

Yet Favreau’s main attention is, ultimately, on his hero and Downey Jr. not only more than validates his casting as the man in the iron mask: he is by far the most interesting thing about the whole film, an inspired piece of counter-casting that has worked dividends, a mumbling, energetic anti-hero who more often than not shrugs off his troubles in order to save the day. It's the man inside the suit (whom Favreau pleasingly cuts to often in the midst of the carnage) who draws our fascination the most. More, please

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