The first Iron Man, a modest surprise of a box-office hit two years ago, was a nearly perfect blend of fanboy techno action with verbal jousting, delightful characters, a witty and entertaining script, antiheroic charm and just the right balance of humanity with special effects.
While Robert Downey, Jr. again sells his Tony Stark with a refreshing blend of narcissism and comic book bravado, Iron Man 2 is far too much style with an almost non-existent substance and a distressingly bland script from snark extraordinaire Justin Theroux, who squeezes virtually everything that worked in Iron Man out of Iron Man 2.
It was hard not to be a tad concerned going into Iron Man 2 given the advance knowledge that we all had that the film would feature a wide array of characters including baddie Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), corporate baddie Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) along with the first film's Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrance Howard).
Everything, and I mean everything, about Iron Man 2 is more, bigger, louder, wider and, well, you get my drift. Unfortunately, while everything in the film is bigger and louder and more excessive, the entertainment value, humor, story and even heart plummet drastically to the point that Iron Man 2 feels an awful lot like a Transformers movie with actors who can actually act. At one point, quite seriously, I find myself wondering if one of the monstrous techno machines was going to turn into a vehicle and drive away.
Jon, oh buddy, why'd you have to turn into Michael Bay?
Okay, actually, that's unfair. Iron Man 2 is nowhere as dismal as a Michael Bay action flick, but words can't express how disappointing this film is given that Iron Man nearly made my Top 10 two years ago and certainly would rate as one of this critic's favorite comic book-themed flicks.
The good news is that for Downey alone Iron Man 2 is worthy of at least a modest recommendation, even if script writer Theroux did manage to turn Stark into an obnoxiously self-obsessed S.O.B. rather than his previous incarnation as a rather charmingly and endearingly self-obsessed narcissist with a gold-lined heart for peace and techno toys. Despite Theroux's ill-conceived script (Have I made my point yet?), Downey manages to give an appealing, energized and pleasing performance. Speaking of pleasing, there's not much more pleasing than the perfectly cast Paltrow as galpal Pepper Potts opposite the larger-than-life Starks. While Theroux manages to dilute the chemistry between Stark and Potts, both Paltrow and Downey are simply too talented as actors to allow this dynamic to totally disappear.
There's almost no denying that Terrence Howard replacement Don Cheadle, as Rhodey, exhibits a better chemistry with Downey. However, he's given so little to do in the course of the film that it's difficult to comprehend why a replacement and the "bad blood" that followed was really necessary.
Oh yeah, I forgot. Money.
While it's inevitable that Iron Man 2 will open with killer box-office given the success of the original and the hyped up buzz, whether or not the film has long legs at the box-office may very well be determined by whether or not audiences buy into the villains and how audiences respond to more action, less personality.
At first thought, Mickey Rourke seems ideally cast in the slightly dual role of Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, the embittered son of a Russian physicist who once partnered with Stark's father until being banished to Siberia over, um, differences of opinion. While it wouldn't quite be accurate to call Rourke's performance "Wrestler with a Russian accent," mostly because there's nowhere near the depth to this performance, Rourke does seem to be aiming to corner the market on slightly verbal and embittered guys who just want to kick some ass. This almost feels like a phoned in performance, definitely lacking Rourke's usual intensity and zest that could have turned Whiplash into a far more interesting, perhaps menacing villain. Instead, he played out more like the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Rockwell, as corporate baddie Justin Hammer, is slightly more successful in capturing both the action flick and comic book vibe despite his excessive preening that nearly, but not quite, turns Hammer into a laughable caricature. He preens so frequently, however, that it's difficult to buy into the hugely wealthy and powerful weapons magnate as a, well, hugely wealthy and powerful weapons magnate.
Scarlett Johansson is fine, and surprisingly spry, in a dual appearance while Jon Favreau is, essentially, Jon Favreau. Among the supporting players, Samuel L. Jackson would appear to be the winner, giving his trademark "bad ass" treatment to the role of Nick Fury.
While it's easy to rip apart Theroux's script, and fun, the film's special effects are surprisingly disappointing at times, as well. Most notably, the whips used by Whiplash are laughably bad and unconvincing, while the climactic battle scenes are filled with Transformer like toys that are jarringly anticlimactic.
While Iron Man 2 possesses nowhere near the charm or entertainment value of its vastly superior predecessor, there's just enough Downey and the delightful ways that he interacts with those around him to give the film an ever so modest recommendation. Indeed, those who prefer techno over story or personality may even consider this film to be more fun and more entertaining (you're wrong!).
This time around, I'm guessing that Iron Man will prove to be Teflon Man as there's not a chance that a drop in critical acclaim will touch the film's box-office. While Iron Man 2 may not contain everything we'd hoped for, it still has Robert Downey, Jr. and Iron Man.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic