Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Oh, sequel! Sequel, sequel, sequel!

It should be one of the words that made your mother wash out your mouth with soap. Most sequels, i dread. Will it be a mediocre shadow of the former movie? Will I want those two hours of my life back? Will it still crush every well meaning well written independent movie being simultaneously released in it’s wake? The sad legacy of most sequels.

Then there’s Iron Man 2, an exciting, hard-rocking rumpus of one liners, leads getting pounded, pummeled and persevering, smart chicks in power suits, and another very famous red metal suit that had me glued for the duration the movie and feeling very grateful sequels exist.

We get the expected increase in firepower, villainy, and stuff blowing up, but in Iron Man 2, there is as much acting prowess onscreen as there are explosions, destruction, and mayhem. However underutilized, the impressive combined talents of Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), Sam Jackson (Nick Fury), Don Cheatle (Rhodey Rhodes), and Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko) are added to the cast. As over the top as the movie is, this collection of actors gives more dimension to each of their roles. Iron Man 2, though, belongs to Robert Downey Jr, and not even this impressive list comes close to taking a moment of the movie away from him.

The plot takes up where the first Iron Man leaves off, with the world discovering billionaire Tony Stark is Iron Man. The army wants his technology. Something is going wrong with his palladium heart and it’s slowly killing him. He starts making drastic decisions based on what he believes to be his impending death. Meanwhile, defense contracting mogul Justin Hammer is drooling at the chance to steal and militarize the Iron Man technology. Russian physicist Ivan Vanko is building a plan to avenge his disgraced physicist father’s name by wreaking havoc in Tony and Stark Industry’s world. That’s the basis for much of the movie’s interaction and special effects.

Sam Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman also figure into the proceedings, but how they do is for you to discover and knit together with the rest of the story. Samuel Jackson has a way of playing similarly badassed characters without becoming a cliche of the Christopher Walken variety, even when sporting a Jheri curl or an eye patch. Scarlett Johansson calls to my inner bitch goddess in a role that has insusceptible Tony Stark’s tongue hanging down. Sam Rockwell, the wonderful actor of last year’s “Moon”, plays Justin Hammer, a jerkier, unenlightened pre-Iron Man version of Tony Stark, reminding me of a more megalomaniacal version of his character Eric Knox from Charlie’s Angels. Mickey Rourke, donning a million tats and bizarre Russian accent, finds ways to be both subtle and over the top in the same five minutes.

A few too many subplots and villains bog down Iron Man 2 slightly, but there’s more than enough action to keep it a tightly wound, exciting 124 minutes, and i’d rather have my cake of more developed interesting characters and eat my action too.

Jon Favreau deserves credit for choosing actors he knows will layer their performances enough to make them compelling. It’s not the first movie in which he’s done that, so clearly actors enjoy working with him and respond positively to his direction. Even in the devolving mecha-manic race towards the movie’s climactic ending there’s still character interaction to keep us emotionally plugged in to them.

He and Downey Jr. make a great team, seeming to know the best way to keep the audience connected and engaged is to focus on Tony Stark out of his metal suit, giving us a flawed yet idealistic character to root for.

Downey Jr. doesn’t make us idealize Stark as perfect hero, or make him overly sensitive. He’s still the same unapologetic narcissistic blusterer we’ve grown to begrudgingly love in the first movie, but he’s got a heart, albeit made of machinery, that sees the future the way real superheroes do. He believes he can help create a better, safer, more peaceful world. Under all that metal, there’s a soft, gooey, complicated center.

It’s not the explosions. It’s Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark what that keeps us coming back for more. Watching him is like being invited over and over to his highly entertaining, extravagant party. We’ll be invited again. And we will be back. Now, when is Iron Man 3 coming out?