Iron Man 2(5/11/2010)

5-11-2010IronMan2

John Favreau’s Iron Man was a good movie, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as a lot of people.  Sure it was a fun movie and after the overlong movies that populated the summer of 2007 it felt like a breath of fresh air, but a lot of people quickly began to lose their sense of perspective about it.  By the end of the year there were actually people under the delusion that Iron Man was anywhere close to the level of The Dark Knight, and that’s just ridiculous.  Still, most second installments in comic book franchises seem to improve on the originals recently (E.G. Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, The Dark Knight, etc.), so there was definitely room for potential in Iron Man 2.  Unfortunately, this sequel hasn’t brought this franchise to new levels, but it also hasn’t dropped it to the depths of the average threequel either.  If anything, I expect that what this movie is going to do is give people the same experience of mild respect that I had with the first film.

Set six months after Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealed his identity at the end of the first film, this sequel finds Stark debating a concerned senator (Garry Shandling) that wants Stark to turn over the suit to the military.  Starks friend, Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has mixed feelings about this but tries to stand by his friend.  Ultimately Stark is able to keep his suit because he insists that no other country or company is anywhere near replicating his accomplish, something that his industrial rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) disputes.  Little does he know that in Russia a man named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is actually very close to making just such a suit and plans to use it to get revenge on the Stark family.

Iron Man 2 starts out pretty well.  Robert Downey Jr. is still really fun in the title role and John Favreau hasn’t given up on mixing in Swingers-style banter with this effects extravaganza.  We also get a pretty cool action scene where Rourke’s character attacks Stark while he’s driving a Formula One Racer.  That’s all good stuff, but it isn’t long after that when the movie gets bogged down in what can only be called the second act from hell.  It’s in this section that Tony Stark turns from being a somewhat loveable prick into being an insufferable whiner.  It’s also where we bear witness to a ridiculous slapstick fight scene that will almost certainly draw comparisons to the infamous dance scene in Spider-Man 3.

Perhaps the most troubling misstep during this middle section is the way it brings the story to a screeching halt in order to formally introduce a character named Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson.  It’s been public knowledge that Marvel Films’ intention is to insert this character into a number of its films in order to eventually lead up to a film called The Avengers which will bring together all of these heroes into a team.  The idea of an Avengers film has potential but it is not worth stopping all their movies in their tracks for twenty minutes in order to introduce it.  Jackson himself is pretty cool, but all this material is completely superfluous to the business at hand, they should have just kept this silliness contained in post-credit stingers.

I don’t want to dwell on this movie’s weaknesses however, because well, there’s something about it that seems to make you want to view the glass as half full.  Much like the original, the film usually moves at a pretty nice pace and it’s constantly being alleviated by some nice dialogue.  The action scenes are really nice while they’re there and they’re always short and sweet, not overstaying their welcome.  The special effects are once again really nice but they also blend into the film really well, this never feels like a glorified effects reel and that’s one of this series’ biggest strengths.

I also rather liked Mickey Rourke in the film although there were issues with his character.  Whiplash is ultimately a pretty simplistic villain, his motivation ultimately boils down to little more than “my name is Ivan Vanko, you killed my father, prepare to die,” and his costume (he’s a dude with electro whips) is kind of lame.  Still, Rourke is appropriately grizzled and he delivers his minimalist dialogue in a very amusing fake Russian accent.  I wish they’d done more with the character, but a lot of his screen time is stolen by Sam Rockwell’s character, who would have been a lot more amusing in small doses as a side character than as a prominent part of the film’s storyline.

Maybe I just needed a decent action movie this week, or maybe I just had really low expectations going into it, but I was mostly satisfied with Iron Man 2 and probably enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed the first film (and, again, I wasn’t that first film’s biggest fan).  That said, this movie can be a bit of a mess at times and it was real close to pushing itself off the cliff.  It’s only because of some really enjoyable performances and some good action that this movie is saved from being a disaster and somehow turned into a pretty decent summer action movie.

*** out of Four

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Kick-Ass(4/16/2010)

4-16-2010Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass is a movie that’s come to theaters after its garnered a substantial amount of internet hype following an impressive panel at Comic-Con which wowed the bloggers in attendance with its irreverent tone and violence.  This tone would be pretty familiar to anyone who knows the work of comic book writer Mark Millar, who’s probably best known for his work with Marvel, but who also has a variety of hyper-violent side projects to his name.  The 2008 Timur Bekmambetov film Wanted (which was very loosely based on Millar’s six-issue miniseries of the same name) gave audiences a taste of Millar’s satirical sensibilities before it turned into a significantly more mainstream action movie in its second and third acts.  Kick-Ass was made with a slightly lower budget than Wanted, and with unapologetically comedic goals, making it a more inherently Millar-esque production.  However, Millar is not the master of the Comic Book form that someone like Alan Moore or Frank Miller is, in fact he’s rather prone to obnoxious excess and it looked like there was a good chance that these traits would rub off onto the latest film based on his work.

The film is about a teenage comic book enthusiast named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who suddenly decides one day that it would be cool if he bought a costume and started patrolling the streets as a superhero named Kick-Ass.  Lizewski’s amateur heroics are eventually noticed and he finds himself becoming an internet celebrity.  Meanwhile, his actions are inspiring other people to don costumes and fight crime as well, most notably a pair called Hit-Girl and Big Daddy.  Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) is a deeply paranoid man who has somehow bought millions of dollars worth of weaponry (that he’s somehow bought despite being a pension-less disgraced cop) and has trained his ten year old daughter to be a vicious vigilante called Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) for the purposes of taking down a mafia head named Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) that he has a personal vendetta against.  D’Amico, however, does not know about Big Daddy and assumes the masked hero causing all of his troubles is the very public Kick-Ass, so he enlists his teenage son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to become a hero named Red Mist in order to befriend and trap that inept amateur.

The initial thesis of Kick-Ass seems to be that comic book superheroes are ridiculous and that if someone tried to be one in the real world they’d be quickly killed by the criminals they’re supposedly planning to fight.  This is what mostly plays out in the early parts of the film, Kick-Ass’ initial foray into the world of costumed crime fighting ends in him being promptly stabbed in the chest by a pair of thugs and being hit by a car he stumbles into.  However, this sense of realism quickly dissolves in the second half of the film, when it becomes an incredibly over the top action film in which the heroes become significantly more ridiculous than the ones that the film had initially ridiculed.  This tonal inconsistency is the film’s biggest weakness, if the film’s mission was to show what would happen to heroes in the real world it failed miserably after its first act.  This isn’t helped by the fact that its been set in a completely heightened world that never even began to resemble “reality” in the first place.  In fact I’d say that the “fake” New York depicted in the Spider-Man series was a lot closer to the “real world” than anything in Kick-Ass.

Probably the most talked about aspect of the film is the Hit-Girl character, a ten year old girl who fights multiple adult criminals and murders them without hesitation.  Some have found this character to be in completely bad taste, and on this count I’ll disagree.  The film is such an over the top satire that there’s really no way to take this character as any kind of seriousness.  I don’t believe that a ten year old killer is going to be any more appealing to children viewers than an adult killer, nor do I believe the filmmakers have any responsibility to raise other people’s children in the first place.  However, I’m not one hundred percent behind the character either, because frankly I don’t think this concept is nearly as funny or interesting as the filmmakers seem to think it is.  The novelty of seeing a kid killing people wears off after about twenty minutes and the character mostly turns into a distraction in what could be a fairly interesting action scene towards the end.

The film is also strapped with some weak performances.  In particular, I was not impressed at all with Aaron Johnson.  Let’s face it, this kid is just a poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg and all he really brings to the role is a broad parody of Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man performance.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse fairs a little bit better in a more limited role, but he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table either.  Nicholas Cage is his usual strange self, which I suppose fits in a little better here than in some other films.  Many people have praised Chloë Grace Moretz for her work as Hit-Girl, but I’m not going to jump on that bandwagon either.  I don’t want to nitpick on the abilities of a twelve year old girl, but simple acting like a little girl while doing violent things is not great acting, it’s just basic child acting mixed with an irreverent concept.  There’s no real sense of how disturbed this kid is in her performance, and it doesn’t really hold a candle to Natalie Portman’s work in Léon, a performance that this has been repeatedly compared to.

What Kick-Ass does succeed at, is being a fairly enjoyable action movie with a somewhat original tone.  There are a handful of action set-pieces that succeed and the movie is a fun on some levels.  What it does not manage to be is good satire.  This is an ultimately shallow movie that isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  The movie is worth seeing, it has some quality laughs through its runtime and some sequences do live up to the premise, but it didn’t begin to live up to all the internet hype that surrounded it.

*** out of Four