Iron Man 2

I can remember a time when I was about 16 that I was at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. We were standing around after the game, trying to get autographs from players as they left the parking lot across the street from the firehouse on Waveland Avenue. I don’t remember much about the game; I don’t remember who the Cubs were playing, or what the score was, or who won (though, let’s be honest, it probably wasn’t the Cubs). What I do remember, though, was Mark Grace walking to his car. He was dressed in a pastel silk suit that Tony Montana would consider over the top, and had two women with him that looked like they had sprung fully-formed from the mind of someone with a dirtier imagination than an ancient Greek god’s. He got into a Porsche with the girls, and left without signing any autographs.

I knew at that moment that I’d never be Mark Grace.

Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man 2: Iron Harder, must have been at that same game, because he captures the essence of what it is to be on the outside looking in at the coolest guy in the room. Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark as the prototypical guy that other guys want to be, and women want to be with, and still other guys want to be with, and other, other women want to be, but probably don’t have the money for the hormone therapy. He’s the guy that, before he enters a room, the opening from Money For Nothing starts to play, cutting into the guitar riff just as he opens the door. Note: this occurs whether or not there is a sound system present. If Tony Stark were a real person, he’d be equal parts J. Robert Oppenheimer, Ayrton Senna, and Jim Morrison, only without all the “dead.”
Make no mistake, Favreau knows Tony Stark is the main attraction, and he exploits that to its fullest. This is not a short movie, though it doesn’t over-stay its welcome—were this porridge, it would be to Goldilocks' taste. Yet in its 128-minute length there isn’t a 5-minute stretch that it doesn’t check back in with Tony Stark, and Downey Jr. does not disappoint. His performance skirts the line between fearless and farcical, ultimately settling on something transcendental.
Initially, it seems this movie would suffer from sequel-itis: where the first movie had three main characters and two supporting characters, this has at least six characters that could be considered mains, and another three supporting. The reason it still works is that where Iron Man had a script that was made up as they went along, Iron Man 2 runs along like a well-tuned V-8, clicking off plot points with machine-like regularity. While some of the spontaneity is lost, it’s made up for by the performances of the non-Tony Stark cast. Chief among these is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Stark’s main business rival. He’s oily, irritable, self aggrandizing and delusional, and Rockwell plays every facet to the hilt. In another movie, this would be the performance that had people talking.
Favreau is not known for his action direction. His indie breakout, Swingers, was more cinéma vérité and less planned shot, and largely succeeded off the performances of its leads, Favreau himself being one of those. Here, as in the first Iron Man, Favreau is called on to move out of his comfort zone and produce the kind of action scenes that will blow up real purty and generate the visceral thrill that brings repeat business. He effectively intercuts first-person point-of-view shots with static wide angles, allowing the viewers to track the action of the scene while still giving the tip-of-the-arrow sense of speed that you want from a movie featuring The Golden Avenger. In the hand-to-hand combat scenes, of which there is one that is simply spectacular, he shows a feel for capturing kinetic energy that would be at home in one of the Bourne movies. He’s not Ridley Scott, or at least not yet, but with this movie he’s served notice that he’s a directing talent to watch.
The real test of a movie like this is what it plays like on a smaller screen. I can watch the first two Spider-Man movies over and over, ad nauseam, because they were not only true to the character, but were well made; they were “small” movies on a grand scale. The first Iron Man has some of that, but shows its frayed edges when shrunk down; it’s a big movie, and loses its grandiosity in proportion to the size of the screen. The most egregious examples of this are the Transformers movies; while I loved them in the theater, they deflate upon re-viewing, and the myriad issues of plot, character, and performance overshadow the size of the explosions. I have a feeling that Iron Man 2 will be a movie that will survive the shrinking of the screen. Favreau cut his teeth on character-driven stories that depended on performances to carry them, and, luckily for us, when push comes to shove he runs home to momma.
Really, that’s the joy of movies. Chances are, you’re not the cool guy. You’re not Tony Stark; heck, you’re not even Mark Grace. But for 128 minutes you can feel what it’s like. And the next time you walk into a room, you can swear you hear music.

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