You get your money’s worth while Iron Man 2 is blasting away onscreen because the action is top-notch. But on the way out of the theatre you remember that effects are merely effects and a movie is supposed to move you somehow with a story that means something. That doesn’t happen. Brilliant performance by Robert Downey Jr., interesting exploration of the Iron Man character as a person with all his frailties and concerns about mortality, and of course his ever ticking battery-operated heart. Great music, cinematography and special effects, especially the fascinating futuristic technology such as instant holographic information streams. But the story is so unfocused that you find yourself yawning as often as Iron Man shoots off to the stratosphere. Worst of all, several wonderful actors are put into roles that don’t pay off either for them, or for the audience.
The movie starts with great promise. We meet Ivan Vanko, channeled by Mickey Rourke as a mad Russian physicist, victim of 15 years in the Gulags, tattoos all over his body, silver-capped teeth, deranged grey-streaked hair and eyes almost as lethal as the acid-laser whips he’s designed. He blames Stark Industries for stealing his father’s work and forcing both of them into lives of hard misery. You think — aha, we’re finally going to get a villain as interesting as Alan Rickman in Die Hard! Well, not quite. Ivan is fiendishly nasty, his murderous motives understandable, and his sparkling, lacerating trip down the race track in Monaco is worth the price of admission. But the script pulls Ivan out of action pretty quickly, and then dilutes his bad-guy power by introducing a second bad guy who can’t come anywhere near his threat level. More on that later.
Soon after we meet Bad Guy # 1 (Rourke), in comes Iron Man, billionaire Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., in a breathtaking sequence, which turns out to be the opening ceremonies of the Stark Enterprises corporate meeting. Downey flies in his shiny red iron suit, lands in the middle of the high-kicking Ironettes, applauds the fireworks and then exhorts the crowd in his flawlessly constructed three-piece business suit. He promises his screaming fans that Stark Industries will have its most profitable year ever. Ho-hum. But where’s the big thing at stake that is supposed to get me, the audience, pulling for the good guys and ranting against the bad guys? Am I supposed to get excited about competition for corporate profits? What happened to something that mattered? Where’s world hunger or environmental disasters or economic melt-downs?
Then onto the Senate hearings where Garry Shandling plays his best role ever as reptilian Senator Stern who wants Tony Stark to hand over his Iron Man technology to the U.S. government. Tony won’t do it. Iron Man is his idea, and he has singlehandedly, so he claims, privatized world peace by using his technology to prevent wars. He doesn’t want the military to get their hands on it. Besides, doesn’t everyone realize that he and Iron Man are one and the same?
Bad Guy #2 comes in at the Senate hearing. This is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the young head of Hammer Industries, who tries to best Tony Stark in everything but he’s a poseur and doesn’t have a good tailor. Rockwell is a wonderful actor, one of my new favorites, but he doesn’t have the charisma to come off as Tony Stark’s rival. Robert Downey Jr. is literally electric with neuroses and psychological hang-ups and a twisted brilliance, not to mention that latent malevolence just waiting to erupt. Rockwell as Justin Hammer is just too nice. And he’s a wimp, too. How can Iron Man be a fantastic hero if he doesn’t have worthy villains to fight against?
Hammer goes ahead and springs Ivan Vanko out of prison in France and induces him to work for Hammer Industries. Being Mickey Rourke, however, Ivan doesn’t do exactly what he’s told and rigs up the Hammer Industries Iron Man robots to do his bidding to try to wreak revenge against Tony Stark. Ensuing soon are lots of battle scenes between Iron Man and his buddy Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) against the Hammer industry robot baddies, but it’s just sort of been there/done that as far as big metal suits clanging around goes. Worse, Don Cheadle, one of the country’s great actors, is lost behind his medals and scenes that go nowhere.
Bring in the comic relief, please! Finally we’ve got something to praise unequivocally. Raising the entertainment level is the precarious romance between Iron Man and his gal Friday, the feisty Pepper Potts, played with appropriate beauty and aplomb by the inimitable Gwyneth Paltrow. If nothing else, the couple is adorable to watch and they engage in some of the best screwball comedy routines to hit the screen since the 30s. And yes, they finally do kiss, but frankly, it wasn’t worth all the downright dumbness that lead up to it.
Oh, yes, how could I forget? Or let’s say how could the filmmakers forget? Scarlett Johansson, as gorgeous as ever, plays some kind of secretary/secret agent character named Natalie Rushman, who speaks Latin and fights better than any guy in her head-to-toe skintight black leather outfit. Ho-hum again. How any film could under-use Ms. Johansson is beyond me but the yo-yo’s behind Iron Man 2 managed to.
The main yo-yo is director John Favreau, who admirably helmed the first Iron Man, and whom you can spot onscreen as Happy Hogan, Pepper’s luggage lugging assistant. The other yo-yo is script writer Justin Theroux, who did a dandy job on his previous outing with Robert Downey Jr. —Thunder Road: Rain of Madness–but he failed completely to deliver a story worth caring about in Iron Man 2.
If you like these kinds of action hero movies, be sure to sit through the long end credits to catch an interesting snippet of a future project.