It must be a jumbo-ass pain cooking up a sequel to a movie everyone effing loved the first time. Iron Man wasn’t just a big, ballsy, $318 million box-office jackpot in 2008. It reinvented Robert Downey Jr. as an action hero and a genuine movie star. Iron Man 2 — total blast that it is — doesn’t jazz us with the thrill of discovery. But we do have Downey, still exuding his irresistible loose-cannon vibe in a Hollywood product that’ll whup every summer 2010 epic that dares to take it on. Downey is actually better and bug-fuckier than ever, even when the movie buries him in unnecessary clutter. Too many stunts, too many subplots, too many villains jammed in from the Marvel Comics universe, too many romping, stomping, clanking iron armies.
Screw it. Iron Man 2 knows how to jump the hurdles and have you smacking your lips for more. For that, all credit to Downey. As Tony Stark, the playboy weapons-manufacturer-turned-pacifist-superhero, Downey never tries to be likable, like Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, or to throw a pity party for himself, like all the actors who climb into the Batman suit. Downey plays Stark like the horny, hard-drinking, self-destructive narcissist he is. Stark likes his life on the edge. He knows the shrapnel-wounded heart that fuels him is also killing him little by little. And he gets off on it.
The secret of the Iron Man film franchise is that Stark is always more compelling outside the suit than he is in it. Cover him up, and all you have is heavy metal. Downey knows this intuitively. Lucky for Iron Man 2, returning director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) has the same up-for-anything spirit as his star. Whenever the plot threatens to go conventional and sugary, these bad boys turn on the sass. They’re twisted siblings under the skin.
As for the plot machinery, it’s just that. Hear it grind. Iron Man 2 catches up with Stark in midcrisis. The U.S. wants to turn his Iron Man armor into a weapon. So do Russia, Iran and North Korea. Tony won’t let his invention fall into the wrong hands despite attacks from Senator Stern (Garry Shandling doing sleaze to perfection) and Bill O’Reilly (the real one), who question his patriotism. Tony says no one is close to catching up with him.
Ha! Enter Ivan Vanko, a.k.a. Whiplash, a Russian killing machine played by Mickey Rourke like his Wrestler character after a massive case of tattoo poisoning. Rourke is a bloody wonder, spitting out his lines in an outrageous Russian accent to rival John Malkovich in Rounders. To hear Vanko pine for his parrot (“Vere eees my boird?“) is comic bliss. Rourke, too good an actor to slide by on silliness, invests Vanko with human dimensions. Hardened by his time in prison, he blames Stark for the death of his father and for stealing his invention.
In the movie’s killer stunt sequence, Vanko — decked out as Whiplash with two springloaded electromagnetic whips extending from his arms — confronts Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix. Stark is handed a briefcase by his Girl Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, pretty but wasted), and it morphs into Iron Man armor. Very cool. But Whiplash is a formidable opponent. I won’t spoil what happens, but prepare to be knocked for a loop.
Rourke is more than enough of an adversary for one movie. He and Downey, playing fatherless boys who can’t grow up, are a dynamite team. But Iron Man 2 isn’t content with one bad guy. There’s also Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the industrialist who wants to steal Stark’s thunder by putting Vanko on his payroll. Rockwell is a hoot, glorying in being slimy and soulless, like Stark before his conversion.
So far, so serviceable. Then it’s overload. A sleek Scarlett Johansson shows up as Natalie Rushman, a.k.a. Black Widow, working for Stark Industries but really engaged in espionage in the employ of S.H.I.E.L.D., under the direction of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Who can Stark trust? His military friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard in the first Iron Man, now replaced by Don Cheadle) is constructing his own War Machine, a robot outfitted with every weapon in the army’s arsenal. Whiplash, in league with Hammer, goes War Machine one better by building an entire droid army. Before you know it, the clank, clank, clank has robbed the film of intimacy in the name of spectacle, with AC/DC on the soundtrack shooting to thrill.
For some, it will be a fair trade-off. It took four writers to construct the first Iron Man. Responsibility for the sequel fell to just one man, Justin Theroux, who co-wrote Tropic Thunder, the comedy that earned Downey (in blackface) an Oscar nomination. Theroux clearly knows Downey’s verbal rhythms. He also knows that Stark is a man hurting inside. That pain gives us a rooting interest. Favreau supplies the go-go-go that makes the movie stratospherically entertaining, even without 3-D. But it’s the promiscuously talented Downey who adds the grace notes that make Iron Man 2 something to remember.