Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kiss Kiss Clang Clang: IRON MAN 2

Iron Man 2 sent me into adrenaline-fueled euphoria. It’s a thundering, overstuffed sequel that never feels bloated or cumbersome because it’s pitched and paced at the level of graceful comedy and built around excellent actors giving carefully modulated character-based performances. It’s entertaining – a blast, actually. Only afterwards was I bothered by the flaws in the film. The first film had a lovely, elegant structure on which to hang its charming performances and enjoyable action. Though part 2 is ultimately suffering from a sagging midsection and enough strands of plot to obscure forward momentum, the two main action set-pieces are actually bigger and better, the comedy is zippier, and the ballooning supporting cast is exceedingly talented. Not only is Robert Downey Jr. continuing his truly great performance as Tony Stark, the billionaire who is also Iron Man,  not only does Gwyneth Paltrow continue to excel as Pepper Potts, his assistant, but this time they are joined by Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson who bring differing and intriguing qualities to their roles. Rourke gets a little underused, nearly buried by such a busy film, but his character is distinctive, menacing, and serves as a catalyst for Stark to learn more about his past.

In this sequel, Tony Stark is confronted with enemies approaching from several different angles at once. Rourke’s character is a classic problem of the past that intrudes on the present, the son of a man who had his life demolished by Stark’s father (who is charmingly played in sort-of flashbacks by Mad Men’s John Slattery). Rockwell plays a rival arms dealer who is trying to make the Iron Man look like the Tin Man. Smarmy and more than a little ridiculous, Rockwell very nearly steals the movie from Downey, no small feat. He lights up the screen, adding extra interest and joy with his mere presence. The same goes for Rourke; although he’s not used as much as he should have been, he draws attention to himself with his mere physicality, so aptly described by Slate’s Stephen Metcalf as resembling a “Julie Taymor puppet.” No one can match Rourke for pure intimidating glower.

The film is a high-gloss, whiz-bang summer action blow-out, filled with literal fireworks. It treads no new ground in big blockbuster filmmaking but treads the old ground about as well as it can be trod.  Returning director Jon Favreau keeps charm and dazzle blasting out of the screen as he keeps the pace and plotting nimbler than is usually seen in films of this type. It filled me with a kind of giddiness and excitement that carried me over the flaws. The film disappoints only slightly in its soft-pedaling and vague handling of politics, despite blatantly bringing it into the plot. The first film got a kick out of its left-leaning fantasy of an arm of the military-industrial complex, represented by Stark Industries, growing a conscience and using its powers for peace. Here, the politics are muddier. The sleazy senator played (excellently, I might add) by Garry Shandling is never tied to any particular ideology and the way the United States government reacts to the Iron Man situation is ill-defined. I understand the need to be politically restrained to play to a broad audience, but it’s a little awkward to bring up the topic through a Senate hearing in fake C-span footage and then fail to follow through with any true political resonance.

But, I hardly care. The pacing and politics aside, I found the movie to be an utter delight. Even the recasting, with Don Cheadle taking the place of the first film’s Terrence Howard role, barely registered. The film moves mechanically forward, eventually encasing nearly all of the best actors in these clanking metal suits, but I found the action to move along agreeably swiftly – for once the explosions almost seem to take up too little time. With zip and some (small) wit, the movie slapped a simple smile on my face.

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