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Iron Man 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 

IRON MAN 2

**1/2

Iron Man 2 doesn't quite degenerate into Transformers 3, but those of us who thought the weakest part of the vastly enjoyable original was the title hero's climactic showdown with Iron Monger will doubly wince upon seeing the battle royale chosen to end this second installment. In a variation of the axiom about too many chefs spoiling the broth, this culminates in a heavy-metal act that almost spoils the sequel.

Even before this supersized slugfest, this follow-up to the 2008 blockbuster has its fair share of problems. Recommended with major reservations, Iron Man 2 serves up the larger-than-life fun we expect from our summer flicks without ever quite coming into its own. Whereas its predecessor kept its eye on the narrative ball, this one ends up all over the place, impatiently cramming in extraneous subplots and supporting characters that might have been better served by being placed in a holding pattern until the next film.

Set six months after the conclusion of the first film -- the moment when billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) announces to the world that "I am Iron Man" -- this opens with the government (repped by Garry Shandling's Senator Stern) trying to get its hands on Stark's design for the Iron Man suit so the U.S. military can use it as a weapon against its enemies. Stark flat-out refuses, noting with no trace of modesty that he has basically instigated an era of world peace via his role as global enforcer.

Yet not long after the narcissistic playboy has made his claim, he finds himself nearly defeated by a newcomer to the scene: Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian ex-con whose own body armor -- nearly identical to Stark's -- allows him to confront Iron Man in the guise of the supervillain Whiplash. Stark's near-fatal encounter with Vanko places him in a precarious position -- even his right-hand woman Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) begin to question the decisions he makes -- and a rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), decides to secretly employ Vanko in an attempt to stick it to both Tony Stark and his alter ego.

This is enough plot to propel the film, but wait! There's more! Stark ends up hiring a personal assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), but there might be more to this bombshell than meets the lusting eye. Meanwhile, secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), briefly seen in the first picture (after the end credits, to be exact), returns to offer Stark some career advice. On top of this, Tony also has some daddy issues to sort out.

And as if all this isn't enough, it also turns out that the power source in his chest that's keeping him alive is also, paradoxically enough, killing him, and he has to work against the clock to find a cure. Oh, and did I mention that another
ironclad superhero ends up stealing some of Iron Man's thunder?

That's a lot for one film to chew, and Iron Man 2 only manages to digest parts of it. The story strand involving Stark's efforts to locate a cure for what ails him proves to be the deadliest, leading to tedious tinkering-in-the-lab moments. And even some of what's carried over from the first film doesn't work as well: For example, the bantering between Tony and Pepper, so delightful in the original, here comes across as forced rather than playful, thereby stripping their burgeoning romance of much of its charm.

On the other hand, Rourke makes for a spectacular villain, and the film really hums whenever he's on screen. Also memorable is Rockwell, who adds some salty humor as the high-powered nerd who believes himself to be as cool as Stark.

Mainly, though, there's Downey, who once again invests himself completely in his character. Not afraid to embrace Stark's less appealing qualities, the actor repeatedly tests the limits of how much ill behavior audiences will accept from their heroes -- his Stark is at times a drunken lout, an egotistical prick and a poor friend. Downey takes the role to the edge before snapping him back into place, a high-wire act that's thrilling to behold.

In fact, Downey's so good as Tony Stark that we miss him whenever he becomes the man in the iron mask. Then again, it wouldn't be a superhero movie if the superhero never bothered to show up, would it?

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

*

Lamentably, it's probably not a stretch to say that any movie at least 15 years old that's vaguely remembered by the general public is now called a "classic" whenever it comes up in conversation or print (Howard the Duck excepted). But make no mistake: The original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street is hardly a classic -- it wasn't even the best entry in the never-ending Freddy Krueger franchise (that honor goes to 1987's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). But it did contain an interesting premise as well as a new horror icon in Robert Englund's demonic dream weaver, a boogeyman who could kill people as they snoozed.

This new Nightmare, in contrast, doesn't boast of a single thing it can call its own. The latest soulless horror remake from Michael Bay (who's already pillaged and plundered the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and Friday the 13th by producing needless rehashes), this film is the ultimate example of making movies on autopilot, with everyone going through the paces merely to plop something on the screen, the sole goal being to siphon lots of money from impressionable moviegoers responding to the brand-name recognition.

That's the name of the game, of course -- aside from Max Bialystock in The Producers, nobody sets out to make a flop -- but couldn't somebody have had a little fun with this project? As it stands, the movie is dull more than anything, furthered hampered by unappealing teen protagonists (at least the original had a memorable heroine in Heather Langenkamp and a future star in Johnny Depp), clumsy direction by Samuel Bayer (there's nothing even remotely resembling a scare in this thing), a slack script full of risible moments (such as the clod who somehow falls asleep while swimming laps in the school pool!), cheesy CGI effects and, most disappointing of all, a letdown performance by the talented Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy (he possesses neither Englund's enervating energy nor his way with a quip).

The bottom line is that it isn't just Elm Street that's affected; you'll find a nightmare on any street that's housing a theater with the misfortune to be playing this monstrosity.

 

 

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