Monday, May 10, 2010
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau); Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn)
Prefer this sequel over the original and here's why: it's soapier. All that nonsense about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) self-destructing, and Pepper Pott (Gwyneth Paltrow) worrying like a mother hen over him, and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over from Terence Howard) glowering from the sidelines like some forgotten authority figure--all that lingers in the head much longer than the mecha figurines flying around and shooting up the landscape. Metal junk bashing each other? That's so Mazinger Z. That's old, man, and the last time I enjoyed it was when Neon Genesis Evangelion was replaying on Cartoon Network.
Evangelion--now there's an interesting mecha storyline for you. Not just mere soap, or who gets which girl or how the country (or world) will be saved, but serious psychodrama, with Freudian images and the Kabbalah thrown in for good measure. Wrote somewhat extensively on the series here, if anyone's interested.
That all said, Favreau does seem to know enough to borrow from Eva--during the battle sequences he cuts away from boring shots of metal smashing to Downey's or Cheadle's face, the better to give us a sense of their growing anxiety. As for movie villain Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Favreau leaves him largely bare-chested and helmet-free, which makes no sense from a tactical standpoint but plenty from a dramatic standpoint. It's a technique Hideaki Anno perfected when directing Eva, only he pushed it much further--with Anno, you developed this growing suspicion that the giant robots were more than just robots, the link between robot and rider more than just the standard-issue telepathic link found in every other Japanese mecha animated TV series. Favreau keeps it on a simple battle sequence/reaction shot/battle sequence level, but it does keep one awake while all that heavy metal is crashing about.
Filipino film critic Oggs Cruz in his blog post notes that there's plenty of dialogue here, much more than in the first one, and the dialogue comes off as Altmanesque--overlapping, casual, often freewheeling and funny. This hit both of us differently--Oggs bemoaned the less-than-pure entertainment provided, I thought the movie at least distinguished itself from most other summer blockbusters (it's not even officially summer yet--what's going on here?), appreciated the attempt, however half-cocked, to be different.
I have to give it to Favreau--being an actor himself, he knows how to make his actors shine. A bit of Downey struggling with a spinning desk sculpture is funnier and more inventive than all the CGI effects crammed into the picture; actors Sam Rockwell and Gary Shandling (who's been missing in action for years, apparently, except when he released his boxed set of It's Gary Shandling's Show) consistently steal the scenes they're in (Shandling pinning a medal deep into Downey's chest: "funny how annoying a little prick can be").
Mickey Rourke should have made a bigger impression--word has it he improvised much of his business, even researched the tattooes printed all over his massive body--but his role is much too sketchy. He was a far more memorable villain when he confronted Jean-Claude Van Damme in Tsui Hark's Double Team, back in 1997; even his background was more fascinating (he was an American operative turned renegade, and Van Damme had inadvertently caused the death of his only son).
It's only a popcorn movie, a fairly well-made one (at least when nothing's being digitally manipulated), but one has to take the picture to task when it takes, however unintentionally, a questionable stance. Like Stark before the Senate committee, claiming "I have privatized world peace!" All that arrogance sounds suspiciously like Bernie Madoff caught on a wiretap recording--which might be the point, only the movie goes on to validate Stark's pronouncement. Sure he may have self-desructive tendencies and sure he likes to drink and suit up, but he's Tony Stark, the industrialist billionaire genius; he deserves a break, the picture seems to plead, from government scrutiny (any attempt to do otherwise is probably part of a supervillain's master plan). If a movie on Madoff's life ever gets made, the man might do the smart thing and funnel a few million of his ill-gotten dollars into making sure Favreau gets the assignment to direct.
I'd mentioned preferring Iron Man 2 to Iron Man; frankly Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass has them both beat, so badly you can see Vaughn's toes wiggling from deep inside Favreau's throat. The film's leaner, more violent, hungrier; it has something to prove, and doesn't care how it proves it.
Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s graphic novels, Kick-Ass is possibly the best comic-book adaptation since Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy 2 (You heard me. I didn't say The Dark Knight, for two reasons: unlike Nolan, Vaughn 1) has no pretensions, and 2) actually knows how to shoot and put together a coherent action sequence).
I'd noted earlier how Favreau's scenes devoted to dialogue and character were much better than his scenes devoted to action; with Vaughn (for all we know channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald), action is character. So Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is a superhero wannabe: when he moves, he moves with the wild energy of a youth imitating his comic-book idols; when confronted with the real world however--in the form of a pair of thugs, or the gap between two rooftops--he is hesitant, constantly second-guessing himself.
Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) is different; when she moves, it's to the choreographed beat of "The Tra La La Song" as performed by The Dickies. The tune is perfect--it's energetic with a hurtling beat, and it drowns out any sense of awareness that she's murdering a roomful of men.
Kick-Ass is well-made, even if it cribs some of its best moves from John Woo (Hit Girl running down a hallway with guns blazing bears an uncanny resemblance to Chow Yun Fat in a purple fright wig); it's also irresponsible. The character of David/Kick Ass is our emotional and moral compass--our POV, so to speak; we enter the world of masked vigilantism through his eyes. He then proceeds to be pummeled, stabbed, humiliated and tortured in all sorts of colorful ways. When he changes his methods and thinking to reflect this world we go with him, without question or any uneasy qualms--our compass has just gone off the rails, and no one comments on this or even notes it. Oh, there's a moment when he's with his girl and makes the sensible observation that most people don't become masked heroes because they have too much to lose--but otherwise, he pretty much follows the program.
Hit Girl is the most problematical, and a great opportunity wasted. She's by common audience consensus the coolest character and the picture's true monster--she kills without remorse, without even thinking twice, Big Daddy's great masterpiece. If, say, Big Daddy went on to grow back the conscience those years of prison scoured out of him--if he at least had some awareness of exactly what he's created in her--I can say to myself that the filmmakers know what they're doing...but he doesn't, and I suspect they haven't an inkling of their failure. It's as I've said before well-made (derivative and wildly out-of-control it may be), and between it and the bloated piece of Hollywood pop that is Iron Man 2 I'd pick it in a second, but there ought to be a better selection out there.