Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau, 124 mins (12A)
Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn, 89 mins (15)

Robert Downey Jr's hi-tech anti-hero hardly lets Mickey Rourke's Russian villain get a word in edgeways in this noisy, brash yet entertaining comic-book sequel

Don't be fooled: Iron Man 2 isn't the sequel to the film you think. In theory it's a further adventure of Marvel Comics' man-in-a-can.

But really it's a follow-up to The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke played a once-famous bruiser on the skids. That film was essentially a portrait of Rourke himself and the damage he had inflicted on his own body, soul and career in his misguided determination to be a fighter rather than an actor. Rourke impressed the world with this poignant self-exposure, and now that he's a star again (at least, a bona fide sacred monster), Iron Man 2 is about what happens next.

Jon Favreau's film takes the strangeness of the real-life incredible hulk that Rourke has become, then pushes it into the realm of comic-strip magnification. Rourke plays Russian physicist Ivan Vanko, who wants revenge on American playboy industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). He intends to get it by the use of a strap-on dynamo and a pair of electrified whips that shower sparks, slice cars in half and, above all, allow the wearer to make a memorable entrance – especially if loping on in insouciant slo-mo. The most striking image in Iron Man 2 has Stark and Vanko going head to head while the illuminated whips twine around them.

Iron Man 2 is entertaining and furiously brash, with super-sheened digital effects. But it often seems as if the whole film, like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, is constructed around Robert Downey Jr's manic speech patterns. His (literally) wired narcissist hero is such a gabbler that everyone else has to raise their game to talk around or over him – notably Sam Rockwell, playing a rival whose thoroughgoing obnoxiousness is designed to make Stark look slightly less of a blowhard. What's at stake is a battle not between good and evil but between those who keep their counsel and those who can't shut up – including Gwyneth Paltrow, unfairly pitched against Downey in some agitated mouth-offs in Hepburn-Tracy style.

By contrast, Rourke's Vanko is a man of few words, and those barely audible. He grunts occasionally or mutters in a wildly approximate Russian accent; mostly he just smirks, clamping a toothpick between lips as bloated as the rest of him. It's barely an acting role, yet Rourke is unmistakably the film's star – so tough that he can even get away with wearing dainty glasses à la Tina Fey. Also in the taciturn camp is Scarlett Johansson as a sultry spy in black leather who knows that a kick is worth a thousand words, and a pout two thousand.

Early on, there's some argument about whether the Iron Man suit classifies as a weapon or, as Stark claims, a "hi-tech prosthetic". It's hi-tech, all right, unfolding automatically over its wearer, as if Downey's body were merely a hanger for a CGI wardrobe (this season's look: Transformers chic). Vanko, however, needs no armour. When he takes his shirt off, what we're apparently seeing is Mickey Rourke's actual minotaur-like body, battered and bulked up and battered again, swollen and shined till it belongs in the leather department of World of Sofas. Rourke's body is its own prosthetic, as lo-tech as they come.

Iron Man 2 is flashy, trashy, strident – which means that like the first two Spider-Man episodes, it's a comic-strip movie in good faith. Justin Theroux's script has dashes of authentic screwball wit: there's a nice line about a bazooka "capable of busting the bunker under the bunker you just busted".

But boy, so much dialogue. Sometimes you yearn for a real man's action movie – the sort where there's hardly any talk and not too much action either, but plenty of stormy-browed glowering. Valhalla Rising takes the strong, silent act to the next level. It's a Viking epic – which, at a time when centurions and Spartans are filling our screens, is not as ludicrous as it once might have seemed.

The director is Danish prodigy Nicolas Winding Refn, a career specialist in tortured machismo, most recently in British-made prison film Bronson. That film's real-life anti-hero could take a beating, but he pales beside Mads Mikkelsen's barbarian, captive of a hairy horde wandering a blasted mountain landscape. This silent scowler is occasionally let loose to garrotte opponents with his chains – and soon realises that he might as well do the same to his captors.

Taking a timid boy along as his mascot-cum-interpreter, One-Eye (so called, the lad explains, because he has one eye) tags along with a band of Crusader Vikings bound for the Holy Land. They embark on a boat trip that matches the ancient mariner's voyage for duff navigation. Becoming the troop's de facto leader and messiah, One-Eye explores a strange new landscape, and I trust I'm not spoiling the story to say that it doesn't end well. (You'll have noticed there aren't many Vikings left around these days.)

Valhalla Rising risks alienating both its potential audiences: art-housers may consider the very idea of a Viking odyssey just too corny, while anyone expecting action will be stymied by the mystic longueurs. But the film is bold and genuinely strange, a landscape epic with touches of Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, Sergio Leone and late-Sixties "head" cinema in its dreamy abstraction. There are moments when the film's aggressive strangeness grabs you by the throat: sudden inserts in which Mikkelsen's head appears at the edges of the screen, a totem pole in blood red.

Desolately beautiful, the film was shot by Morten Soborg in the Scottish Highlands – which explains its largely Scottish cast, including Ewan Stewart and Gary Lewis. The effect can be jarring – "Where the fuck are we?" asks one Glaswegian Norseman. Among the Vikings, incidentally, is an actor named Gordon Brown: neat casting, you might think, for a film about a one-eyed man leading his party towards an uncertain future.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney sees how far Chris Morris is sticking his neck out with his terrorism satire Four Lions

‘Iron Man 2’ - What do you think of the long-awaited sequel? Email your reviews (40 words plus) to cultureclub@indepedent.co.uk or post them in the comments section below.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence