Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau)

I know the worst terms one could use in trying to argue for a movie's virtues are to describe it as "light, fun entertainment." It's damning praise, by God! But sometimes there's a movie that is so assured in its mission to entertain, such an absolutely perfect piece of genre entertainment, and has a personality so uniquely its own, how could anyone possibly shut it down?

In short, Iron Man 2 is the perfect sequel, one that not only surpasses the original, but surpasses the vast majority of like minded films. It gives more of everything that made the first one great (namely Downey, but in a larger sense great, colorful characters) and less of what made it problematic (the action scenes are...well, more on that later). Leading up to the film's release, I kept hearing that it was anticlimactic given the first film's creative success, and while the sequel could never be the breath of fresh air the original was, there is no question that in every aspect it sets out for, the film is a triumph.

More after the jump...

A great swath of recent superhero films have been praised for giving us "real people who just happen to wear masks," but in fact they just burden relatively flawless people with "real people problems." However, the fantastic creative force of screenwriter Justin Theroux, director Jon Favreau, and star Robert Downey, Jr. have come up with the great conceit that just because a narcissistic, live-for-the-moment playboy has become a superhero doesn't mean he isn't still narcissistic and unable to confront the real, pressing issues in front of him.

In Iron Man, he had to face up to his company's role in violence around the globe, an issue he faced and overcame fairly quickly. In this film, Tony Stark has to face his own mortality, and that no amount of intelligence, money, or alcohol is going to erase that. He will, however, repeatedly attempt to use all three to do just that, and it's telling that the solution to this central conflict (yeah, spoiler, Iron Man doesn't die) has nothing to do with realizing that money or alcohol are not solutions.

Needless to say, Downey is once again in top form as Tony, and at this point to dismiss him as simply "charming" or "Downey being Downey" would be tantamount to dismissing Cary Grant for the same crime. A great performance is still a great performance, no matter how "hard" it seems to be. The joy of this film is that, unlike the first outing, the supporting cast has been given a lot more to work with, and has done their all with it. Gwyneth Paltrow, who spent most of the first film trying to keep up with Downey, is now his equal in their verbal sparring, and the scenes between them are absolute dynamite. Don Cheadle proves a great replacement for Terrence Howard in the role of Colonel James Rhodes (and the film deals with the switch nicely), Sam Rockwell is at his most electric as Tony's corporate rival, and Mickey Rourke, as this film's true villain, adds a needed touch of menace so absent from the original.

Add onto that a...suitable performance by Scarlett Johansson (it's weird to think that she used to be considered the next big thing) and some damn fun work from Samuel L. Jackson, and one would be tempted to call this film "overloaded," a word that inevitably comes up sooner or later in a superhero franchise. The difference between this and Spider-Man 3 or X-Men 3 or even The Dark Knight is that this is never a movie about anyone other than its titular protagonist. Sure, we're given filler scenes to ramp up the tension leading to the action sequences (I've always wondered what a superhero film would be like if we never saw the villains except when the hero did - I bet it'd be pretty God damn surprising to see Mickey Rourke suddenly standing on your race track holding electric whips if you had no idea where he came from), but they never overtake Tony's central conflict, which is not the one you'd be expecting.

This is not, for those who were confused, a film about a guy fighting another guy. This is about a guy fighting himself, so when it comes time for the film's low point (here's a handy breakdown of nearly every movie you'll ever see, though it may have the effect of not only ruining movies for you henceforth, but making you hate the whole movie industry too), it's not because Mickey Rourke has been super-mean to Tony; it's because Tony is a self-destructive asshole. And that's pretty cool that a superhero movie has its hero be the one who causes most of the problems. Even though some of the finest actors working today end up dressing up like rock-em-sock-em robots, this is not an action film in the way action is defined today. It's more Howard Hawks than Jerry Bruckheimer, and as arresting as Downey's performance was in Iron Man, it was thrilling to watch him delve deeper here.

Which is not to say it's a terribly deep, tortured film (it's also more Hawks than Nicholas Ray). Continuing a prior comparison, Cary Grant quite often played pompous, narcissistic assholes, but one can do these things in an incredibly fun, lighthearted way, which Favreau and Theroux have little trouble with. It has more than its share of laughs, and even when we're not laughing we can't help but be entertained - and how many movies offer us pure entertainment just from watching people talk?

Now for the action...granted, its attempts to satisfy the genre needs do come up a little short. I'll give you that. I quite enjoyed the final set piece, which is really two action scenes folded into one, especially its anticlimactic showdown, and the first fight between Tony and Ivan (Rourke) has some nice suspense to it. The fight scene in the middle is only good in a theoretical way of accomplishing some story goals; in the moment it feels fairly unmotivated. To put the film in musical theater terms, though, there aren't any showstoppers here, and anyone who took issue with the way Christopher Nolan stages action sequences is going to have a field day here. But then again, the action is such a minor point in every way (there are only three, maybe four if you're being generous, action scenes), I have a hard time faulting the film for not being better at something it was doing purely out of genre (and no doubt studio) demands; in fact I commend it for making it such a minor point.

And, really, it's just so much fun. The cast is absolutely on fire, the writing is is the very reason we have big summer movies. If one must live in a society overrun by sequels, reboots, properties, and franchises, may they all be this good.

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