District 13: Ultimatum (2008) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language and drug material
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Philippe Torreton, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, <C Jean Gab'1, James Deano. Laouni Mouhid, Fabrice Feltzinger
Director: Patrick Alessandrin
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Robert Downey Jr. (The Soloist, A Scanner Darkly) reprises his role as narcissist hi-tech playboy billionaire Tony Stark, who finds his world popularity surgiing after his adopted superhero status has caused the longest era of peace on Earth in memory. It's not to last for much longer, as Ivan Vanko (Rourke, Stormbreaker), a Russian physicist and ex-con whose idle time is spent mostly plotting to take down Stark for what he and his late father have done to the Vanko family during the corporation's formative history. Not to mention that Tony is becoming weaker by the day from a blood toxicity problem caused by the device in his chest that has also kept him alive. Vanko makes a smashing (literally) introduction into Tony Stark's world by trying to kill him in a public spectacle, which draws the attention of a rival hi-tech industrialist Justin Hammer (Rockwell, Frost/Nixon), who has made it his mission to get Tony's suit in order to mass manufacture it as a militarized weapon.
Iron Man 2 is entertaining, but not quite as high in quality in this go around due to that thing that typically plagues superhero sequels: too many characters fighting for precious screen time. Part of the reason is that, while continuing the themes of Iron Man and taking on new villains, Favreau's (Zathura, Elf) film must also expend an abundance of energy in order to set plot up as a springboard for the character to appear in the upcoming Avengers film, which will cross over many of the Marvel Comics film franchise characters that have appeared, and are set to appear, on the big screen. This means that Black Widow (Johansson, The Spirit) is given a supporting role in a film where she normally would have no business, along with a small role for Samuel L. Jackson (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Jumper) to play SHIELD honcho Nick Fury, which was a post-credits teaser from the first film. In addition, War Machine, the sometimes-Iron Man fill-in from the comics, is fastracked to the forefront, ostensibly for the possibility that he, rather than Tony, could fill the iron shoes for the well-publicized crossover spin off. It often feels too much an Avengers prequel and not enough an Iron Man sequel.
But, on the other hand, given all of the things that Iron Man 2 must accomplish between its opening and closing credits, it's still an entertaining entry, delivering the action, humor, gadgets and special effects you pay your money to see. It's hard to say Favreau and screenwriter Theroux (Tropic Thunder) phone this one in, even if the story bogs down from the weight of all of the ambitious plotting. The seemingly effortless off-the-cuff style of Favreau still works its magic for Robert Downey to infect his character with hilarious observations and dry irony, even during the film's tenser moments. If the film isn't as funny as the first, it's only because Tony isn't on the screen as much. If the film isn't as plausible, it's due to more shortcuts in the storytelling to get check all of the boxes to satisfy the fans, while setting up for the future of not only the Iron Man franchise, but the Marvel Universe as a whole, in as close to 2 hours. One thing that may draw some complaints, though, is the long stretches, particularly in the film's middle third, between action sequences.
Mickey Rourke turns in another impressive performance as the villain known in the comics as Whiplash, charismatic and enigmatic enough to not mind if he's given as much screen time as Downey is sans-Iron Man mask. The curious thing, though, is why he is built up to this extent when his importance to the film overall, especially his utilization in the film's climax, doesn't feel weighty enough to justify. Rockwell is fine as Stark's true heavy, in more of a Lex Luthor-ish semi-comic evil mastermind role, though the part doesn't necessitate as much out of him as an actor other than to provide a big name and competent delivery. Cheadle (Ocean's Thirteen, Reign Over Me) is a credible thespian who replaces Terrence Howard, and though they don't really share a similar on-screen persona, he does work better in the part, if for no other reason that his physical build is more plausible than the beefier Howard in fitting in the old Iron Man suit that is contoured to Stark's body. Jackson and Johansson fare well in their respective roles, even if their characters, when dressed in their iconic garb, seem a little more "comic book" than the rest of the cast (an observance that even Stark himself makes when he asks if Fury's eye patch and trench coat look is for real).
I'd say Iron Man 2 is worth watching if you enjoyed the first film and also tend to enjoy other superhero blockbusters. If you liked Iron Man despite not liking most others of its ilk, you'll most likely come away disappointed that the storyline has devolved into typical comic book adaptation and plotting. If only Favreau weren't hamstrung by the need to make the movie make sense for that future crossover, perhaps he might not have needed to mold this film to fit into that universe, and could have allowed for a more organic entry that built solely on the story and characters of its simpler and more efficient predecessor. As it stands, it strikes enough right notes at right times to deliver the goods, but I truly hope once the Marvel crossover is done, the series can return to the basic building blocks that made the first film such a thorough pleasure.
©2010 Vince Leo