Iron Man 2, 2010.
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson.
An unmasked Tony Stark is pressured to relinquish the 'Iron Man weapon' to the US government, while Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer is developing rival weaponry. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) aka Whiplash arrives on the scene to battle Iron Man, teaming up with Hammer in the process.
The first Iron Man film was a rip-roaring, swaggering blockbuster, marking the first significant success for a newly independent Marvel Studios and setting the standard for its sequels. This follow-up begins with vodka-swilling Ivan Vanko's father dying, passing on both his knowledge and his ‘explained-later-on-hatred’ of Tony Stark. Ivan proceeds through montage number one to make his own core/suit/weapon thing. (Wait, wasn't Dolph Lundgren's Russian character in Rocky 4 called Ivan Drago? Some unimaginative Russian stereotype names knocking round Hollywood methinks...)
We then cut to Robert Downey Jr. having a riot playing Tony Stark, flying down from a plane to his opening speech at his own 'Stark Expo', backed by scantily clad dancers and the sounds of AC/DC. Its here that we can see why the first Iron Man really worked - Downey Jr. He slides into Stark's shoes with such smug likeability that (as is frequently the case) the whole feature is anchored around him. A hilarious scene later on features him at his own birthday party, drunk and dancing around in the Iron Man suit, blowing up wine bottles and watermelons as they are tossed into the air by adoring female fans. Tony Stark is little more than a boy with too many expensive toys, but Downey Jr. gives him real likeability, imbuing the character with razor sharp wit but many deeper emotional layers too. His performance alone is worth the two hours of your attention.
In fact all the acting is top notch, Scarlett Johansson sizzles as Stark's mysterious new secretary with ulterior motives, the ever-fantastic Sam Rockwell sleazes away as Tony's rival Justin Hammer and Samuel L. Jackson is on suitably entertaining form as Nick Fury. Even director Jon Favreau is enjoying himself with a much larger acting part than in the first film. Rourke, a newly re-crowned acting powerhouse after The Wrestler, is wonderfully menacing here, covered in gang tattoos and spitting out dialogue in a thick, convincing Russian accent.
One criticism I have to bring up is that there’s a bit of a cold-war sensibility to Rourke's character, the Russian murderous genius to Downey Jr's 'peace through weaponry' American hero. There’s a abundance of American flag waving and imagery associated with Iron Man throughout and when we later learn that Rourke's character was incarcerated for selling plutonium to Afghanistan you start to feel like you're being slapped in the face with the metaphor. I understand that in the comics Ivan Vanko was Russian but the stereotypes are glaring, and Stark's constant references to world peace start to take on a slightly sinister air of realism, with Iron Man standing in for the real US Government's nasty habit of literally 'policing' the world.
The main problem most blockbusters have today (or in the case of the Transformers franchise, one problem of many), is that the action scenes are so heavily reliant on gratuitous levels of CG effects, that you can get completely swept away into a kind of CG Information Overload. Watching Transformers 2 in IMAX for example was the visual equivalent of taking too much acid and going to Alton Towers - unpleasantly queasy at best. Iron Man 2 does slip into this undesirable realm, but only really in one scene, the rest of the action scenes (particularly the excellent F1 race at Monaco) are crisp and well shot, and the fight scene between Iron Man and War Machine has a fun, slapstick edge to it.
After all, Iron Man 2 is a popcorn sequel if ever there was one. That’s no criticism, it truly revels in itself as entertainment. The characters gleefully smirk and bounce off each other, the script is great and the action is married to the AC/DC soundtrack seamlessly. For sheer straight up, simple, on-the-surface entertainment, this leads the pack so far this year.