May 6 2010 12:00 AM

'Iron Man 2' is essentially a mid-life crisis movie, augmented with explosions, high-tech brawls and a couple of awesome electric whips.


Make it bigger, louder and longer: That’s the typical
blueprint for action-movie sequels. Yet “Iron Man 2” is not a completely
formulaic follow-up. Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux have
created something that’s closer to a comedy-drama than it is to a traditional
summer-movie spectacular.

The often loopy, non sequitur-riddled dialogue is
reminiscent of Favreau’s earlier movies, such as “Swingers” and “Made,” and,
thankfully, the storyline does not slide into the old
evil-genius-threatens-to-take-over-the-universe groove. The primary villain in
“Iron Man 2” is a slick but slimy industrialist who is more concerned with
stealing the technology of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) than he is with
global domination. The secondary bad-guy, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), is only
interested in avenging the wrongs done to his father by Stark’s dad some 40
years earlier.

“Iron Man 2” is essentially a mid-life crisis movie,
augmented with explosions, high-tech brawls and a couple of awesome electric

The novelty value of the original is gone, of course. We
recognize Stark’s off-the-wall bravado and expect the playful friction between
him and his devoted, long-suffering assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
The capabilities of the Iron Man suit are also well-known by now. So Theroux is
saddled with the always tricky task of enhancing familiar personalities without
damaging their appeal and introducing new ones without completely stealing the
spotlight away from the stars.

Hammer.jpgAs second installments go, “Iron Man 2” doesn’t belong in a
class with “Spider-Man 2” or “The Dark Knight,” but it’s a capably crafted,
generally enjoyable adventure that even works in a subtle warning about the
madness of the military-industrial complex. The late President Dwight D.
Eisenhower would probably give it his seal of approval.

“2” picks up not long after the first chapter’s finale, with
Stark flying high, both figuratively and — thanks to the Iron Man suit —
literally. His irrepressible ego is in full bloom (“I’m your nuclear deterrent;
I’ve successfully privatized world peace”) as he faces an annoying senator
(Garry Shandling) who’s holding hearings to pressure Stark into turning over
the Iron Man equipment to the government.

Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Stark’s arch-nemesis in the
weapons world, also wants to secure those secrets for his own money-making
means, and he rescues Vanko from prison to press him into a sort of indentured
servitude; Vanko’s late father was a scientist who engineered many of the
gizmos Stark has built into the Iron Man outfits, and Ivan is no slouch in the
lab himself.

Rockwell packs an astounding amount of wackiness into
Hammer’s gratingly glib self-aggrandizement (both he and Downey seem to have
been given leeway to improvise many of their lines). Describing a missile his
company has manufactured, he notes, “If it were any smarter, it would write a
book, and that book would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon —
and it would read it to you!”

Rourke.jpgAlthough almost as narcissistic as Stark, Hammer is also the
quintessential nerd who continually tries to crack the popular clique and fails
miserably. When Tony parades around on stage to the tune of AC/DC’s “Shoot to
Thrill,” with a bunch of adoring chorus girls in Iron Man-inspired bikinis, he
drives the crowd wild; when Hammer struts his stuff — quite badly — to Average
White Band’s “Pick Up the Pieces,” the audience looks on in embarrassed

Vanko is also an exhibitionist, although he’s more
interested in destruction than he is dancing. Brandishing two crackling
live-wire lashes, he single-handedly turns the Grand Prix into a grand
free-for-all and nearly thrashes Stark to death in the process. “If you can
make God bleed, people will stop believing in him,” Vanko tells Hammer. “And
there will be blood in the water — and the sharks will come.”

With his stiff, stringy hair streaked with gray and his body
covered in murky tattoos, Vanko is as greasy as Hammer is stylishly sleazy, and
they’re a perfect mismatch.

Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) is less successfully
introduced. Playing a mysterious beauty who may or may not be a threat to
Stark’s slow-boiling relationship with Pepper, Johansson initially seems
uncomfortable and starchy. Happily, when Johansson finally does find her
footing and her performance comes to life, it turns out to have been worth the

Don Cheadle, placing Terrence Howard in the role of Lt. Col.
James “Rhodey” Rhodes, also has to bide his time — approximately half the
movie, in fact — before getting a chance to make an impression, while the
snappy Paltrow is disappointingly afforded less time to joust with Downey than
she had in the original.

Scarlett.jpgThat’s because Theroux becomes so busy juggling subplots
that telling the story becomes a challenge. Perhaps it’s the producers’ desire
to include a little something for everyone, or just the screenwriter’s
determination to make sure there’s always something happening — at any rate,
“Iron Man 2” sometimes seems overly busy and congested with characters. For the
most part, it’s fun, but it would have been even more enjoyable if its focus
had been sharpened a bit.

Of course, this is finally Downey’s show, and he’s
determined to make the most of it. His raised eyebrows and smarmy/sweet smile
both get extreme workouts, as does his gift for rapid-fire patter (which he’s
being doing so skillfully since the days of “The Pick-Up Artist”) and wicked
wisecracks. Approached by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about a possible
position in the superhero society The Avengers, Stark sneers, “I told you
before, I don’t want to join your super-secret boy-band.”

Iron Man may cut down his enemies with lasers and artillery,
but Stark does a very respectable job of beating down everyone around him with
his razor-sharp tongue.