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.
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