Contrasting TV news personalities Bill O’Reilly and Christiane Amanpour don’t see eye to eye on much, but they stand united in agreeing it was worth their time to make cameo appearances in the sequel to the mega-successful ” Iron Man.” Such is the persuasive power of a film that took in more than half a billion dollars at box offices worldwide.
Once a film makes that much money, it is only a matter of time until the sequel, prudently titled “Iron Man 2,” arrives and that time is now. As sequels go, this one is acceptable, nothing more, nothing less. With star Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau back in the fold, this is a haphazard film thrown together by talented people, with all the pluses and minuses that implies.
Given the non-organic way “Iron Man 2’s” plot came into the world — hatched by the producers in a series of meetings before a screenwriter was brought on — it’s surprising that the film has any pluses at all. What makes the difference, at least for a while, is the sense of humor of screenwriter Justin Theroux, who also wrote for Downey in the manic “Tropic Thunder.”
A film that just wants to have fun, “Iron Man 2" brings back Downey’s affable billionaire Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer and self-described textbook narcissist, whose exploits inside the all-powerful Iron Man suit have bought a welcome calm to the world. The man himself, however, has to face the challenge of the erratic battery in his chest that makes him a superhero with an expiration date.
Not one to hide his light under a bushel, or anything else for that matter, Stark likes to say things like “I have successfully privatized world peace.” Clearly, this is one ego that’s cruising for a bruising and no one plays over-the-top self-satisfaction with more élan than Downey.
“Iron Man 2" is at its best when it surrounds him with practiced farceurs who are adept at keeping things funny. Sam Rockwell is appropriately icky as rival weapons tycoon and smirking slimeball Justin Hammer (of Hammer Industries, of course) and Garry Shandling matches him as an oily and obnoxious U.S. senator who can’t wait to get the government’s greedy hands on Stark’s design.
Scarlett Johansson also gets into the act as amusing, drop-dead mysterious triple agent Natalie Rushman and even actor-director Favreau has expanded his own role as Stark’s man-of-all-work, Happy Hogan.
The most enjoyably scenery-chewing acting of the movie, however, comes from Mickey Rourke, who looks as if he’s having the time of his life as Ivan Vanko, a.k.a. Whiplash, a disenchanted Russian with a family grudge against Stark as well as the ability to come up with a suit of his own to challenge our hero for world domination.
Whether chewing on a toothpick, cozying up to his parrot or displaying more tattoos than the entire Russian mafia, Rourke’s Vanko may look like a doorman at a bondage club when he gets into his Whiplash costume, but once he cracks those devastating whips the film takes advantage of his electricity.
Not faring so well are the performers who either don’t have a comic touch or don’t get to use it, which in this case include Gwyneth Paltrow, as Stark’s close associate and excruciating hysteric Pepper Potts, and Don Cheadle, who has mysteriously replaced Terrence Howard as humorless Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes.
Though he is nominally Stark’s good friend, Rhodey gets so peeved at him he steals one of the Iron Man suits and emerges as War Machine to battle toe to toe with Tony in one of the film’s more pointless combat scenes.
In fact, though they no doubt cost the earth and employed effects houses without number, the battles in “Iron Man 2" are so pro forma in terms of motivation and execution (except for the first appearance of Whiplash) that their main reason for existence has to be to feed the frenzy of the film’s fanboy base.
Catering to that base causes other problems. Though Nick Fury, leader of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, may be well known to Marvel Comics devotees, less deep-dish viewers will be simply baffled when the Samuel L. Jackson character appears on the screen. It would be too bad if Marvel became so intent on creating an on-screen empire by uniting all its superhero films (the apparent purpose of Fury’s character) that it forgot about the people outside the sacred circle.
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