07 May 2010

Iron Man 2

Gwyneth Paltrow, left, and Robert Downey Jr. are shown in a scene is shown from "Iron Man 2."
Robert Downey Jr. seemingly can do no wrong.

Does anyone think "Sherlock Holmes" would have been even half as entertaining as it was without him as its anchor?

Could anyone else have emerged from a broad summer action-comedy like "Tropic Thunder" with an Oscar nomination?

And let's not even try to imagine another actor as billionaire-industrialist-turned-humanitarian/superhero Tony Stark in "Iron Man." The 2008 blockbuster established Downey as one of Hollywood's most bankable and engaging leading men, and opened the floodgates to a vast library of Marvel Comics titles and characters.

"Iron Man 2" is as much setup for future films as it is its own story—there are obvious allusions to "Captain America" and "Thor," both of which will hit theaters next year—yet it's so much fun that it's not to its detriment.

Downey is golden once again, owning every frame even when he's not onscreen. In the best superhero movies, the man behind the mask—or indestructible mechanical suit, in this case—is more compelling than his crime-fighting alter ego. Think Peter Parker and Spiderman, Bruce Wayne and Batman. Tony Stark and Iron Man deserve a place next to them on that list.

"Iron Man 2" is a little light on action, but I didn't notice until I thought about it afterward. Downey nails the character so well that I'd line up to watch Tony Stark in any genre of film.

To the world, Stark shows a face as arrogant as ever, whether it's at the extravagant opening gala of the year-long Stark Expo in New York City or in Washington, D.C., where he openly defies a senator (Garry Shandling) who demands that he turn the Iron Man technology over to the U.S. government.

But Stark has a secret. The arc reactor, the doohickey implanted in his chest to keep him alive, is poisoning him at a quickening rate. He hides this even from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his assistant and most trusted confidante.

On the good guys' side are Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard) as Stark's buddy, Lt. Col. James Rhodes, and members of the mysterious organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., including Samuel L. Jackson, his role beefed up from a post-credits cameo in the first "Iron Man," as Nick Fury, and Scarlett Johansson as a spy sent to Stark as a new assistant.

Every comic book story needs a good villain, and this one has Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, in his first post-"Wrestler" role), a Russian physicist who believes Stark's father stole the arc reactor technology from his own old man. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a weaselly rival of Stark, recruits Vanko to create his own version of the Iron Man suit.

The movie's most thrilling sequence occurs when Vanko attacks Stark during an auto race in Monaco—it might be the best action sequence in either film. The other set pieces are effective, too—competently staged and directed by Jon Favreau and brought to convincing life with generous CGI aid—but it is the character moments and humor that linger longest. It's hard to remember a better visual gag than a hungover, despondent Stark in full Iron Man gear sitting in a booth at a donut shop, having coffee with an eyepatch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson.

"Iron Man 2" doesn't deepen its story in the manner of a "Spider-Man 2," "X2" or "The Dark Knight," but it simply does not need to. The "Iron Man" formula is alive and well. The bar has been set for the 2010 summer blockbusters.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language. 124 minutes.)

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