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Man of steel: Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2.

Seconds

By Laura Leon

Iron Man 2

Directed by Jon Favreau

Iron Man 2 starts with the engaging premise that its protagonist, former arms dealer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) turned superhero title character, is giddily enjoying his notoriety, admitting to an avid press that, yes, he sure is Iron Man! Then he’s brought up short by the realization that the mechanical devices that have allowed him to survive are filling his body with poison, ultimately threatening his very existence. What’s a guy to do but engage in a series of drunken escapades, each one ratcheting up the tension between Stark and his erstwhile gal Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The appearance of a new staffer, the darkly mysterious Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), further ruffles Pepper’s feathers, while Tony simmers over everytime he asks her where’s she from (“legal,” she purrs).

Of course, a superhero sequel can’t rest solely on the idea of a man’s fate, so cue the villain, here a Russian Tony, minus the savoir faire and snazzy accessories, named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Seems that Vanko’s dad had defected to the United States and worked with Tony’s dad, before the partnership went bad. Ivan dutifully sets out to destroy Iron Man.

Ironically, what’s best about Iron Man 2 is the breezy interplay between its human characters. Downey could probably make Charlie McCarthy spring to Cole Porter perfection, he’s so mesmerizing. His back-and-forth with Army pal Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is the stuff of great buddy movies, and his obvious interest in the sphinxlike Natalie carries with it a lot of erotic portent. Director Jon Favreau appears again as Stark’s chauffeur, which allows for a sidesplitting scene in which he attempts to help Natalie, aka Black Widow, thwart some bad guys. Samuel L. Jackson has a small yet engaging role as Nick Fury, head of the espionage agency SHIELD, and Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as an obnoxious arms dealer hell bent on besting Tony in the ultimate corporate pissing match. Somehow, Paltrow’s Potts fails to engage, as she did so winningly in the first installment. Here her constant verbal fits and starts, meant to be the underpinnings of a sort of screwball romance with Stark, seem defensive and whiny. She spends a great deal of the movie stalking off on 4 inch heels, her ponytail twitching rhythmically in time with her hips and her lower lip quivering under a ridiculously curled bang.

The action scenes, always the draw in such movies, are decidedly lacking in oomph and pizzazz, being as they are momentary engagements between the big-screen equivalents of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. About the best the movie can do is have Tony and Rhodes high-fiving each other to create a human shish kabob of one nemesis—really, it’s not that exciting. Rourke’s Vanko seems dirty and dangerous, and you get the feeling the actor had a great time sounding like Boris in the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Indeed, the way Vanko talks is far scarier and threatening than any of the special-effects moments. While the filmmakers try to add some extra drama courtesy of Stark’s fear of dying, much of this falls flat. Do we really want to see Iron Man disco and then fall, dead drunk, on the dance floor, or illogically alienate Rhodey in the process? Worse, do we really want to learn that Tony has daddy issues that can only be resolved by finding proof that the elder Stark really, really liked him? Iron Man 2 is fun enough, but it’s a pale imitation of its precursor.


Cold as Ice

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

For a cold-case crime drama, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one hell of a slow burner. This Swedish adaptation of the international best sellers by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (it covers the first half of his Millennium trilogy) starts out intriguingly low-key and then builds in complexity as it encompasses financial, sexual, religious, and, finally, psychopathic wrongdoing. Though much of Dragon Tattoo follows standard noir plotting, the film’s psychology and characterization are as far from Hollywood clichés as the forbiddingly beautiful Swedish countryside in which it’s set.

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a business reporter for a left-leaning magazine called Millennium. He’s sued by a powerful financier, and is convicted of libel. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the patriarch of a prominent financial group, still obsesses over his niece’s disappearance 40 years ago. Lisabeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is a black-clad, biker-chick parolee who works as a “researcher” (translation: hacker) for a respected law firm. These three are brought together by strands of backstory that unravel amid the fascist undercurrents in Scandinavian society. Some of the older Vangers are former Nazis, and Lisabeth is brutally raped by her court-appointed guardian, one of several scenes of explicit—and wincingly realistic—violence.

While hacking Mikael’s laptop, Lisabeth discovers bias in the libel case. Later, after Mikael is hired by Henrik to investigate his extended family, she anonymously assists him. Henrik suspects that his beloved niece was victimized by a relative, and since Mikael has nothing to lose—he’s bound for jail—he’s uniquely qualified to devote himself to the case. But what makes the film especially involving are the personalities. Mikael has a rakish charm that he’s not entirely unaware of, but he’s also surprisingly tender for someone in a cutthroat profession. Stern and stoical Lisabeth—who toughens her sexiness to no avail—is obviously troubled, but her cool professionalism and sense of justice are admirable. Played with smoldering intensity by Rapace (who won a Swedish Oscar for her performance), Lisabeth is a memorable interpretation of the femme fatale with a horrific past, and her uneasy teamwork with Mikael gives the script’s casually expository style (a faithful and effective reflection of Larsson’s writing style) more suspense than a hard drive’s worth of red herrings. In the Vanger empire, motivations are not what they seem.

A Hollywood adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is in the works, but don’t wait for David Fincher’s commercialized version. See this chilling potboiler in all its original Swedishness and unhurried suspensefulness.

—Ann Morrow


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