I do like this sequel. I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out. Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it. They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long. It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.
Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy. That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner. Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost. But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500. All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.
Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots. The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it. Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor. What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea. I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept. Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.
I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent. It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2. While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition. Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew. Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark. Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass. You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.
Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle. He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently. That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role. Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor. We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military. Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.
Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow. She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey. Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character. When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully. She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.
On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious. He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing. I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character. Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance. The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical. No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke. Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much. He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie. At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.
It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke. While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme. It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy. Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one. There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident. Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie. Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence. With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.
The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted. The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film. This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited. Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me. If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.
Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent. Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime. Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting. The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it. The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy. That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge. It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film. The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me. It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain. This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it. Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary. Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting. Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.
Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem. Frankly, that is barely part of the movie. Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film. They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones. They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie. They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man. It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.
On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences. They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones. It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent. There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences. I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit. This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion. Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.
Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character. I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order. You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot. He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story. In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible. I know others disagree. It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.
Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time. It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it. It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man). The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value. However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.
In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm. After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal. Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold. However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts. The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing. The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky. This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones. Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving. They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.
The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig. He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene. Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him. Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion. Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in. Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher. The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion. Things such as you have to earn God’s presence. You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune. Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.
Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts. Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive. Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited. To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel. In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him. That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth. He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character. He just exists in the film. Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.
Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her. It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be. However, it’s not bad. Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great. Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum. Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters. His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him. The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal. However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.
The supporting cast is a little mixed. Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves. Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde. He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly. However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly. It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto. He seems like a plain supporting cast member. Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything. Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way. He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome. To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute. So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot. It’s terribly by the numbers.
As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens. I just felt like everything was held back. That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens. While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before. The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting. It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies. Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all. It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them. It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species. They just want it because it has monetary value. That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further. The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people. Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around. Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something. Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through. Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them. Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.
I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept. Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality. That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it. CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this. One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity. They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.
The visual effects are about mid-grade. They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards. They service the story, and that’s about it. They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all. They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.
Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals. The sound design and score are really solid. I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes. However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got. Those such scenes are handled excellently. They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien. However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them. Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them. It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones. The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film. It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie. It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways. Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.
Favreau does handle the action scenes very well. They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement. The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone. Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension. Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens. I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.
Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles. Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad. It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors. What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point. Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters. It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.