Movies: Iron Man 2 * * *
On the face of it, there has hardly been a more unlikely screen action hero than Robert Downey. Yet, in 2008, he was the main reason why Jon Favreau's slick but rather slenderly plotted Iron Man worked.
He was both charming and believable as billionaire inventor turned superhero Tony Stark, and the film's success set the seal on Downey's painstaking career resurrection after his earlier and well-documented substance abuse problems.
He has since gone on to sneak an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, and team up with Guy Ritchie to launch another successful action franchise in Sherlock Holmes. And now he's back in the bright red flying suit as Tony Stark resumes his covert battle against the forces of evil.
As the film opens, though, it's clear that Tony has pretty much lost the run of himself. So much so, in fact, that at a press conference to launch Stark Enterprises' year-long science expo, he ends press speculation and admits that he is Iron Man.
Not so wise a move, as it turns out, because as Stark indulges his massive ego by appearing in public at rallies in his iron suit, in a Russian tenement a very bitter man is watching and plotting his elaborate revenge. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is the son of a great physicist who died in poverty after being expelled from the United States. He blames Tony Stark's late father, and is developing a very nasty electricity-spitting suit of his own to bring Iron Man -- and Stark Industries -- crashing to the ground.
Also plotting against Stark is a wannabe competitor called Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), an altogether less ingenious inventor who is scheming with a resentful senator to acquire Stark's flying suit. When Vanko takes the stage by crashing onto the Monaco Grand Prix circuit and almost killing Stark, Hammer sees another possible collaboration that might just bring his detested enemy down. And, meanwhile, Stark himself is careering out of control, becoming ever more careless as the toxins that power the electromagnetic device that keeps his heart going build to potentially fatal levels in his blood.
Luckily, help is at hand, from his faithful friend Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (with Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard from the first film), a beautiful employee called Natalia Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) who's also a secret agent, and of course from Veronica 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark's assistant and the woman he truly loves. And a strong cast also includes Samuel L Jackson, Garry Shandling and Jon Favreau himself.
What Iron Man 2 has going for it in spades is a kind of manic energy. As with the first film, Favreau keeps his story nicely ticking along, and CGI fighting scenes are not allowed to overwhelm the flesh and blood characters. In fact it's pretty entertaining in the main, but there are problems.
First, there's the length (why does everything have to be two hours long these days?), and then there's the rather convoluted and meandering plot. Two villains are always a potential problem, in that your attention gets divided and neither are particularly scary as a consequence. That's exactly what happens here, though Mickey Rourke is grand as Vanko, looking like a mountain of meat and sounding, for the most part, kind of Russian. Sam Rockwell is a fine actor, but needs more jokes if he's to be expected to pull off a Gene Hackman/Lex Luthor number.
Downey has lots of jokes, and he knows how to make the most of them. He's on wonderful form again here, and saves Favreau's film from collapsing into outright tedium at several points. He revels in his character's rampant egotism, and there are some lovely bickering couple moments between him and Gwyneth Paltrow, who is also good. Scarlett Johansson looks less at ease: dyed black hair does not become her, and neither does playful superhero dialogue.