Iron Man 2 – Does Rourke Steal the Show?
by Richard von Busack
Iron Man 2: Heavy metal, rocket men, and weirdly elegant screwball comedy.
Elating, if politically confusing, Iron Man 2 serves up the pleasures of a gorgeous and energetic superhero film. It’s buffered with emotional underpinning and quiet time-outs: the crisis-struck rocket man lounging forlornly in the center of LA’s Randy’s Donuts sign, for instance. Or he’s seen, sitting dejectedly, in what was once the living room of his house, and what is now the patio, thanks to a drunken flameout.
It’s difficult to make a young audience care about a mid-life crisis in a fortiesh man with a heart condition—but the movie might do it. Robert Downey Jr.’s arrogance and wit as Tony Stark powers this film. There’s verve in the Howard Hawks-like overlapping dialogue between Downey’s Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper. The two play impossible boss and harried secretary. Paltrow has never had to hit such fast pitching…and this elates her, too; the smooth screwball comedy is played fast and tight.
Justin Theroux’s clever script brings us to a Stark who has “privatized world peace” and now is a libertarian’s dream of an enlightened munitions factory owner. Nobody knows that Stark is slowly succumbing to heavy-metal poisoning from the palladium in his atomic pacemaker, the powerhouse that allows him to assume the shell of Iron Man. The Senate (especially one pesky solon, played by Gary Shandling) is giving him grief.
And vengeance is brewing in Russia, where Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) a physicist with enough Eastern Promises tattoos for a dozen criminals, is preparing his own version of the Iron Man generator. Moreover, Stark’s weapons-building rival (Sam Rockwell, always just right in little doses) is aiming to hire Vanko. Some have already claimed that Rourke steals the show, but there’s enough well coordinated traffic through this film that Rourke is but one amusing part of it. The middle of Iron Man 2 vamps a bit, trying to get on track, through riffs and wordplay; an example is an amusing but not very necessary scene of Rockwell selling some ordinance to Air Force colonel “Rhody” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terence Howard).
Rockwell has a bit of fast double-talk about a bomb so smart that it could write a novel that’d make Ulysses look like it was written in crayon. And Scarlett Johansson’s classic old-movie curves packed into jumpsuits to play a ninja of some sort who speaks 12 languages; in the middle of the film, we keep waiting for her to do something.
Is Rourke too great for this material, as some are saying? Iron Man 2 seems underestimated as thin material—just as The Wrestler was overestimated as dense. Rourke, introduced dangling a vodka bottle from a nerveless hand, staring into a wall, gets to be The Bear That Walks Like a Man, talking in untranslated Russian to piss off the Americans around him. Diverting…and as in the trailers, Rourke has a growled speech about Stark’s guilt in particular (and American guilt in general) that’s like the ghost of Howard Zinn channeled through a Moscow medium. Good, but it’s more risky to watch Stark entrenched, heartless, and screwing up—the movie touches on the Iron Man comic books 1978 plot line that had Stark suffering from alcoholism. Don’t expect praise for Downey’s fast talk and culpability. Our cinema values heavy, self-conscious suffering and devalues grace. And grace is what Downey has.
Director Jon Favreau appropriates the 1964 World’s Fair grounds in Flushing Meadows as the place for Iron Man 2’s opening and closing. The story goes that Tony Stark’s father, as much Walt Disney as Howard Hughes, had planned it as an Epcot center. (An inside joke: Richard Sherman, Disney’s bard, actually wrote a song in the ‘60s Disney style as a theme for the old footage of the late Howard Stark.) The Stark Industries MacWorld-style expo on the site, with its giant hollow globe and pavilions, is a perfect comic book set. Iron Man jets in to be the center of a spectacularly choreographed chorus line and fireworks show.
This glittery image of American too-muchness is doubled, made evil, in the finale. And yet the political slipperiness here—good war profiteers versus corrupt ones—is a little troublesome. It always gets slippery, when a power fantasy loses the sense of where the power is coming from. There is some reckoning before Stark learns the limits of self-interest.
Fight scenes—they’ve got them; Rourke (in the person of “Whiplash,” though he’s never addressed as such) filleting automobiles like an electric Benihana chef. The exquisitely edited clobbering match between Stark and Rhodes (in his own silver Iron Man suit) is a treat for the inner kid. Lastly, there’s the battle-royal finale in which Favreau overcomes any stiffness he demonstrated as an action director in the first Iron Man movie. All this plus Samuel L. Jackson straight facedly describing a power source that “makes nuclear power look like a triple-A battery.” The rest of the summer’s films are going to have to play catch up, or they’re going to look like triple-As.