Monday, May 10, 2010


“Iron Man 2” (**1/2 out of ****) ranks as an overblown, CGI-riddled, second-rate sequel.

Director Jon Favreau’s original 2008 Marvel super hero saga delivered a slam-bang, refreshing blend of super-heroism and bad attitude on the part of its egotistical protagonist, while Jeff Bridges proved a worthy opponent as his treacherous vice president who replicated his high-tech suit of armor and challenged him. While Favreau’s ambitious sequel delivers more than enough pyrotechnics, “Iron Man 2” is neither as nimble nor as engrossing as its groundbreaking predecessor. Indeed, Iron Man faces a new contender. Brutal Ivan Vanko isn’t as memorable as the sinister Obadiah Stane, but he does appropriate high moral ground as part of his crusade to topple our hero. Meantime, Robert Downey, Jr. is every bit as good as he was the first time, and he tackles bigger problems for his encore in this follow-up adaptation of a popular comic-book series that first appeared in 1963. Unfortunately, “Tropic Thunder” scenarist Justin Theroux wraps everything up a predictable plot that presents a plethora of complications but few surprises. Some movies suffer from too many characters and too great an agenda. Too much of everything cripples “Iron Man 2.” The middle section of this 124-minute marathon buckles under the weight of excessive plotting and extra characters before the film recovers sufficiently for a triumphant ending.

The action unfolds in chilly Moscow as destitute Soviet physicist Anton Vanko (Yevgeni Lazarev of “Lord of War”) dies with his son, Ivan (Mickey Rourke of “Sin City”), at his side. While this is happening, the local news contains a broadcast of Tony Stark coming out of his metal closet to admit that he is Iron Man. Before the elder Vanko passes away, he assures his son that Ivan should have been in billionaire industrialist Tony Stark’s shoes as Iron Man. As it turns out, Stark’s late father Howard (John Slattery of “Traffic”) and Anton were partners who collaborated on the invention of the arc reactor. Eventually, Anton was deported to the Soviet Union where he managed to scrape out an miserable livelihood. Ivan finds the blueprints that his father created with Howard Stark. He sets about to construct a primitive version of Iron Man’s breastplate and adds two crackling fiber-optic whips that can slice through metal as if it were butter. Look out Tony Stark! If Ivan doesn’t represent a minor threat in the overall scheme of things, Tony discovers that the very suit that enables him to carry out his vigilante crime fighting exploits is contaminating his blood and gradually killing him. In other words, our hero has got to find a new energy source that won’t kill him. Meantime, a United States Senate Investigation committee, headed up by slimy Pennsylvania Senator Stern (Garry Shandling of “What Planet Are You From?”), insists that Stark hand over the technology of his Iron Man outfit to the government for military application. Naturally, Stark refuses to cooperate. He explains that the suit and he are one, and that America need not fear anybody cloning his flying suit of armor.

Bored with the routine of running his massive corporation, Tony promotes his right hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow of “Great Expectations”), as the CEO of Stark Industries. Of course, Pepper is flabbergasted by this extravagant gesture on Tony’s part. Our hero flies off to Monaco to race in the Grand Prix and collides with Ivan and his razor-sharp whips. Pepper and Tony’s chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau of “Couples Retreat”) careen onto the race course and toss our protagonist his portable suitcase version of his outfit. In no time at all, Iron Man emerges and defeats Ivan. Not long afterward, Tony’s worst enemy--rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell of “Moon”) -- breaks Vanko out of prison and then cuts a bargain with him to clone Tony’s Iron Man outfit. Ivan, however, is no flunky, and he embarks on an entirely different program. Instead of replicating Iron Man’s outfit, he masterminds an army of drones that Hammer plans to sell to the Pentagon. Stark stages the Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, New York, to carry on his father's legacy. Anybody who creates a worthwhile contribution to technology can display their handiwork. Hammer unveils his drones, but learns too late that Ivan’s infamous scheme supersedes his own plans.

The chief problem with “Iron Man 2” is its lackluster villain. As Ivan Vanko, Rourke appears appropriately nefarious as a walking, talking tattoo with a grudge against our champion, but he poses only a disposable threat. Mind you, he looks menacing enough, but his lack of charisma is only matched by his absence of hygiene. Now, Ivan’s outfit looks more interesting, but Iron Man turns it against him in no time as he does the drones. Basically, Ivan combines Iron Man's adversary the Crimson Dynamo and the super villain Whiplash. Sam Rockwell’s buffoonish second string villain spends most of his time making an idiot out of himself. Essentially, he is an expendable character. On the other hand, comedian Garry Shandling virtually steals every scene that he has as a Congressman, particularly the last scene when he decorates Tony Stark for saving the country from Ivan. Sexy actress Scarlett Johansson shows up as Natalie Rushman, a mysterious undercover female commando who defies gravity in the scenes of close combat that she has with men. She is a feminine looking Amazon with graceful acrobatic moves. She replaces Pepper since Tony promoted Pepper upstairs. Don Cheadle takes over the role of Lieutenant Colonel "Rhodey" Rhodes from Terence Howard. Rhodes snatches one of Tony’s Iron Man outfits because he doesn’t want his friend to have a monopoly on world power. Favreau gives actor Samuel L. Jackson more screen time this time as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this character does little more than act as a press agent for the eventual "Avengers" team-up movie.

Unfortunately, this installment generates neither enough excitement nor irony to overwhelm its own inertia. Anybody who walks out before the long end credits conclude their tedious roll will miss a brief scene where our hero’s new antagonist leaves his calling card in a sprawling pit.