Iron into gold

A star-packed, CGI-rich Iron Man 2 makes the most of its hype

Robert Downey Jr. was born to play the “recklessly nonchalant” Tony Stark, the man inside the Iron Man.

Robert Downey Jr. was born to play the “recklessly nonchalant” Tony Stark, the man inside the Iron Man.

Iron Man 2
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson. Directed by John Favreau. Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7 and Tinseltown. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

The Iron Man franchise has a lot going for it—plenty of commercial assets, that is. And Iron Man 2 ups the ante with a cast considerably more stellar than that of the first installment. But the only asset in the actual event that really pays off in full is Robert Downey Jr.

The other notable assets—quirky superhero, comic-book back story, special effects and CGI, a half dozen piquant co-stars—all work nicely enough in this big, expensive-looking entertainment (and ticket-selling) machine. But Downey’s performance is really the only part of it that brings an extra spark of life—and movie-zing—into play.

Downey of course plays the title character, but it’s the Tony Stark part of the role—when he’s out of that robotic suit of high-tech armor—that provides the liveliest fun while the story routines work their way into, around, and beyond the various obligatory character antics, motivational set-ups, CGI set-pieces, and plot twists. And Tony Stark more or less combines the most appealing aspects of Downey’s public persona, in the movies and elsewhere—flaky, defiant, undefeated, recklessly nonchalant.

That persona provides both comedic and dramatic relief amid the industrial clatter the franchise machinery makes while trotting out all those assets for display. All well and good, as far as it goes, and anyway, those variously cosseted assets count for a little something as well. The CGI stuff and storytelling are spectacular and instantly forgettable, but the co-stars impress lastingly enough to make you wish the movie (directed again by Jon Favreau, who also reprises a small supporting role) had done more with them and the characters they play.

Curiously, the best of the CGI sequences features Stark’s deranged Russian nemesis/arch rival (Mickey Rourke) making a hash of the Grand Prix in Monaco with a pair of illuminated laser-whips. Rourke is otherwise limited to a swaggering sort of self-parody (the Wrestler as space-age gladiator?), which apparently leaves only an even more limited play-space for Sam Rockwell (vain and nerdy nemesis/arch rival), Garry Shandling (lampoon-cute U.S. senator), and Samuel L. Jackson (Morpheus with an eye-patch).

The largely unacknowledged romance of Stark with his breathlessly officious assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) dabbles amiably in the banter of classic screwball comedy, but only for a moment or two, and not far enough to confirm hopes of a build-up toward something more between these two. Scarlett Johansson fares only a little better as a provocative assistant/secret agent/ninja whose name changes from Natalie Rushman to Natasha Romanoff in the course of the action.

Don Cheadle plays Lt. Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard in the first one) and does a nice termite-style job of maintaining emotional neutrality in the otherwise near-impossible role of an authority figure/sidekick who has to carry on being helpful to Stark and the plot while trying to balance the radically mismatched claims of duty, law and friendship. There’s a very different kind of movie hovering behind Cheadle, just out of view except for the glimpse you may catch in his deadpan gaze.