Directed by:Jon Favreau
Rare is the sequel which lives up to the expectations generated by audience reactions to the first in its series; Bond, Bourne & Batman have pulled off that feat, but their success is swamped by Hollywood’s increasingly frenetic efforts to repackage the charm, excitement & emotion of true originals. Yet the economics of the movie business almost demand attempts at repetition, because box office profit so surely follows in the wake of a big hit. Stallone grew far richer with Rocky’s 2 thru 5, (not to mention his outings as Rambo) than he did with either of the films that came first in their respective series - - Bruce Willis & Mel Gibson have ridden their repeaters (Die Hard & Lethal Weapon respectively into the ground while pocketing large salaries and can anyone argue that the Star Wars trilogy improved with age? Oddly enough, what works quite well within the confines of series television, (the gradual development of likeable characters) just doesn’t seem translate well to the big screen.
There are two sequels currently drawing crowds to the multi-plexs; Sex & The City II, (it drew such horrid reviews my wallet refused to open) and Iron Man II, which sadly conforms to the observations made above. Despite occasional flashes of the originality, this sequel makes the all-too-familiar mistake of trying to outdo, with gaudy contraptions and grandiose action sequences, its predecessor, ignoring in the process that old dictum that plots without riveting characters never live up to the expectations placed on them.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark, eccentric genius and reformed arms manufacturer who morphs into a super hero with a social conscience when he perfects a suit of day-glow body armor equipped with dazzling capabilities that he employs to fight bad guys. As this installment begins, Stark’s ego-centric personality and way with a quip are being drained by the mysterious power source he invented to release nuclear energy into his body (it comes from a battery-like container screwed into his solar plexus). The juice thus provided might accomplish might deeds, but it’s also slowly poisoning him…
Villains abound in the comic book-derived action film and director John Favreau employs an especially juicy pair of them here; Mikey Rourke plays a discredited Russian (what else?) scientist named Ivan Vanko and Sam Rockwell portrays Justin Hammer, a business rival of Starks who finances Vanko’s efforts to destroy not only the Iron Man himself, but his reputation as the people’s defender as well. Rourke, who looks even more disgustingly bizarre than he did two years ago in The Wrestler, believes that Starke’s father cheated Vanko’s dad in years past and he plots Downey’s Stark destruction with the help of a host of robots financed by Rockwell’s Hammer. Rockwell provides a delicious performance as an unctuous war profiteer ready to sell what little soul he has left to defeat Starke’s near monopoly of armament sales to the U.S. Government. (Unfortunately, none of the original Iron Man’s ambiguity about the morality of America’s desire to maintain the capacity to destroy the rest of the world remains in this outing.) Rourke’s malevolent grunts, along with Rockwell’s smarmy grins and used-car sales pitches, carry the movie in fits and starts, as does the semi-romantic repartee between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow, who returns as Pepper Potts, Stark’s executive secretary and putative gal pal.
But what are skilled actors like Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson doing in this film? Apparently padding its length; the storyline gives them little enough to do and perform with such an air of bored indifference it saps the kinetic energy Favreau worked so hard to inject into the script. (Jackson’s eye patch appears designed solely to justify one of the lamest clichés in recent screen memory.) Their contributions are only marginally less annoying than that of Scarlett Johansson, who apes Halle Berry’s Catwoman as a government agent who’s infiltrated Starke’s company in order to claim his technology for the U.S. Government.
The eye-popping advances devised by Hollywood’s special effects technicians over the past few years are used to good effect; with the production budget available to him, the director makes this retread glisten with shiny surfaces, mysterious contraptions and strikingly realistic panoramic shots which supposedly represent Flushing Meadows, that section of Queens which housed the 1964 Worlds Fair. The skeletal remains of that extravaganza appear to form the spine of Favreau’s tableaux - - and the results are appropriately breathtaking.
But all the gee-whiz pyrotechnics in the world can’t over come this film’s glossy emptiness - - if Downey’s character had struggled over the moral implications of his private ownership of the inventions he puts to public use only when he chooses to do so, Iron Man II might have had some of the bite it’s predecessor possessed - - but the producers have gone for flash and dash without substance and the movie’s the poorer for it.
One final note to Favreau - - deciding to direct yourself in a supporting role should be left to those with George Clooney’s diffident approach to his own persona (which he displayed to such good effect in Good Night & Good Luck); your clumsy attempt at playing the hero and heroine’s right hand man here requires a more deft hand than you provided….
The Verdict? Big news at the box office, but small potatoes when it comes to real audience appeal.
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