May 2, 2010

Film Review: Iron Man 2

DIR: Jon Favreau
CAST: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle,
Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke

Well, as far as sequels that largely centre around robots punching each other go, Iron Man 2 is, happily, a great deal better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, Revenge of the Fallen is a cinematic war crime; one of the worst things ever created, so that’s not really saying much. I quite liked Iron Man, it was a fun, jaunty little thing, powered largely by Robert Downey Jr’s sheer charisma as Tony Stark, the playboy inventor who creates the Iron Man suit in order to escape from terrorists who want him to make them a missile and his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, as Stark’s secretary ‘Pepper’ Potts. Iron Man 2 tries to recapture that same feeling, but it has some pretty glaring problems.

The first problem is beyond the control of anyone associated with this film. Kick Ass. Every now and then a film comes along that really changes the game, and for the superhero movie Kick Ass should be that film. If I’d seen Iron Man 2 before Kick Ass it might have been more fun, after that shot of adrenaline though, this just feels like very weak sauce.

That’s a sad quirk of timing though, and it’s not really fair to review one film through the prism of another, but on its own merits Iron Man 2… just isn’t very good. It’s boring. Now, I know that’s an easy and somewhat unimaginative (and not especially analytical) phrase to throw around, but it’s the truth, this film is just dull almost from start to finish. The backstory never engages, because it doesn’t have much definition. There’s some vague sketching of a feud between Stark’s inventor father and his Russian partner (whose son, Rourke, is one of the film’s antagonists) but it’s never delved into in sufficient detail for us to care much, or to give Rourke’s Whiplash much of a reason for his apparent 30-year grudge.

There was fun had in the first film with Tony Stark’s character; an inconsiderate and often outright rude playboy type. Here though he’s gone from being amusingly unable to edit himself to simply being a raging asshole. In one scene, which is outright mortifying to watch, because Downey is awful in it, Stark gets drunk at his birthday party while wearing his Iron Man costume. There’s a larger problem with Stark being such a tremendous dick here, because it robs him of any real heroic qualities. I don’t believe this guy puts on the Iron Man costume and attempts to help people, because he’s a complete dick, and seems to have no interest in anyone beside himself, so why should he want to be a superhero?

As is the case with so many action filled movies, the fact that I don’t care removes a great deal of the purpose of the action. Okay, the Monaco grand prix sequence is pretty spectacular, but at this point we know little about Whiplash and care little about Stark so the explosions and all the other special effects toys amount to little more than noise. It’s not that its unimpressive, but I don’t care, so what’s the point of any of it? The action is also surprisingly limited. Iron Man only really has two scenes. The rest of the time we’re left with a tension free story of an increasingly irritating Stark (Downey at his twitchiest for some time) trying to find a new power source for his suit, as the existing one is slowly and unconvincingly killing him. Don Cheadle is a great actor, but he’s got little to do as James Rhodes (who does finally become War Machine this time out) and is pretty dull and while Scarlett Johannson looks nice in her leather catsuit Black Widow is also a pretty perfunctory character. The villains fare little better, with Mickey Rourke’s broad Russian accent substituting for, rather than adding to, his character and Justin Hammer; Sam Rockwell’s rival munitions manufacturer, rather neutered by the fact that Stark is such a dick in this film that his role feels like no more than a plot device, and he’s not sufficiently nasty or threatening to be interesting.

For me, the only time that Iron Man 2 really came to life was during the scenes between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow, who has seldom looked better, is still excellent as Pepper Potts, and there’s such chemistry between her and Downey, both in a romantic sense, with that unspoken attraction that meant so much to the first film felt just as powerfully in this one and in terms of their comic timing. I’d really love to see these two in a smart romantic comedy, because the snap of their dialogue is a real joy and whenever the plot, or scenes of metal clad people hitting each other and shooting at each other intruded I found myself longing to get back to this simple, but wonderfully entertaining, dynamic.

As a superhero movie Iron Man 2 is a comprehensive failure, because that part of it is completely unengaging. Jon Favreau knows how to assemble the bits into a functioning whole, but there’s nothing about this film that feels custom engineered, indeed the only really memorable shot (aside from one of Paltrow kissing the Iron Man helmet, which was in the trailer but has hit the cutting room floor) is a direct visual quote of The Wrestler. What’s missing here is that spark, that magic something that the first film, at least to some degree, had. As it is this a rather inert, tedious film. Instead of going to see it lobby Hollywood to pair Downey and Paltrow in a rom-com (while My Man Godfrey doesn't need remaking, they'd be perfect casting), and then go and see Kick Ass again.

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