REVIEW: Toy Story 3

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Toy Story 3 is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time, and is possibly the best in the trilogy.

We’ve all known for years that Pixar made good movies. But with this, their eleventh release in fifteen years I think it’s perhaps not uncalled for to declare them one of if not the most successful film company of all time. Eleven films may not seem like much, but when you consider that not one of them has performed poorly (Finding Nemo alone has raked in over eight hundred million dollars) and that they pretty much pioneered the computer-animated movie, and then pile on top of that their twenty-four Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, and three Grammys, you realize how incredible this studio is. I can say with all certainty at this point that if Pixar makes a movie, I will indefinitely be there to see it… multiple times.

But if I could now remove my lips from Pixar’s collective ass (they’re not paying me, I swear), maybe I could get around to telling you about this particular theatrical triumph.

Toy Story 3 makes you fall in love with it from literally the first few seconds of the film. With two successful installments before this one, it’s one of those rare moments where you feel like standing up and cheering when you see the familiar characters make their entrance, and oh what an entrance they make. I won’t say too much, because I really do believe that this movie is too special for me to say much of anything about any one particular moment; you honestly do need to see it for yourself. And while that will make my job of demonstrating my love of it a bit harder, I’ll do my best. Just for you. Feel grateful, darnit.

“Back in Black” seems simultaneously very appropriate and very out of place

While the first movie dealt with themes such as jealousy and friendship, and the second movie was a lesson in self-worth with a not-so-subtle jab at the collectible toy market, the third film is a story of loyalty and enduring love. Andy has grown up, and he’s leaving for college in a matter of days. With most of his old toys gone, those that remain are faced with a crisis: will they earn the attention of their owner again, be banished to the attic, or cast out as trash? As the toys grapple with their emotions over their uncertain fate, they are unceremoniously thrust into the first plot point, which sees them donated to a local daycare center, where everyone but Woody believes they can make a new life for themselves.

Of course, if it were as simple as that, we wouldn’t have a movie, now would we? Of course, the daycare center soon sheds its joyful façade and is revealed for the dystopia that it is. Now, younger children probably won’t get the same kind of fulfillment that myself and my friends got from this section, but from the time they enter the daycare the entire thing began to feel very much like The Great Escape, with a purple fuzzy bear (who reminds me very much of a conglomeration of the pigs from George Orwell’s Animal Farm) serving as the warden. It’s another prime example of how Pixar is able to make a children’s movie that appeals just as much to adults. If I may reiterate: these people are bloody brilliant.

However, this also presents what might be my only gripe with the movie, and it wasn’t even one that would affect me personally. The fact is, I’m not sure that I would show kids Toy Story 3 at the same age I would show them Toy Story 1 or even Toy Story 2. While it is still acceptable on the whole for children, there are definitely a few segments that give the film a decidedly darker feel than its predecessors. Yes, perhaps Sid and his army of mangled and tortured toys from the first movie was a bit bizarre, but several scenes in this movie, including one with a very, VERY disturbing cymbal-monkey (I can’t make this stuff up) perhaps would have been a bit extreme for me when I was four.

Holy crap, I was four when Toy Story came out?

Proof that you can build an ensemble cast out of CG characters

But apart from that, I honestly can’t think of much that I didn’t like about this movie. Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff that I could pick apart if I tried hard enough, but this is a kid’s movie, so it doesn’t really need to hold up to the same standards as films aimed at thoroughly-educated adults. It just happens to be a fantastic bonus that it does. There was one scene in particular (which I still can’t talk about to you that haven’t seen it and its driving me a little bit crazy) where I felt deeply moved by the actions of the characters onscreen. This was immediately followed by a moment where myself and the rest of the theater felt compelled to actually break into applause. I have not done this since I saw Return of the King. Just think about that for a moment. This movie made us respond to it in a manner that can be compared to the Lord of the Rings movies: which pretty much swept the Academy Awards at the time of their release. And to badly paraphrase Woody: THESE! ARE! JUST! TOYS!

Attention Hollywood: you now have to compete with children’s entertainment to gain my adoration. I don’t know if that’s a testament to Pixar’s genius, or a horrible insult to the rest of the industry. Probably a bit of both.

At any rate, there is really no excuse not to see this movie. You can watch it in 3D if you want, but while it’s probably the best use of it I’ve seen (simply using it for depth of field techniques and not cheesy “jump out of screen at face” kind of garbage) it’s not really necessary. But however you choose to view it, you will walk away satisfied.

Unless you have no soul.

REVIEW: The A-Team

Remember the A-Team? The action TV show that embodied the 80s in our minds… and Mr. T in our hearts? Well, it’s back, and like just about everything else from childhoods past it’s getting its own movie marketed towards the adolescent hyperactive in all of us… as well as actual adolescent hyperactives. And in that appeal, it very much succeeds.

Make no mistake, when you walk into the theater to watch The A-Team, then you will do well you leave your brain at the door. Don’t worry, with the stuff Hollywood has been putting out in recent years they have special bins for that kind of thing now; your brain will be safe. So while your cerebral cortex is enjoying some down time, you can be free to bask in the all-out absurdity that is this movie. And oh what a plethora of absurdity there is to bask in. If you’ve seen one of the trailers for this movie, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s in store for you: guns, explosions, Mohawks, more explosions, and a freaking flying tank. This stuff is crazy, and we all know it. The next step is to relish in it.

The only problem with these sequences is that we saw a pretty good amount of them in the trailers already. This isn’t a dig at the movie, this is just a problem that sometimes presents itself through advertising. Look, I know that the scene where you drop an armored vehicle out of an exploding C-130 and start using the guns in mid-fall is a major selling point; heck, it was one of the biggest factors that got me in the theater to see it. But the novelty of it is tarnished when you see it on the big screen, simply because you’ve already seen it on TV dozens of times. Luckily, there’s enough stuff we haven’t witnessed ad tedium before to keep you entertained, if not completely surprised. One of the earlier segments in Iraq involving a high-speed chase, a V-22 Osprey, and B.A. Baracus punching fools in the face stands out as a very passable action sequence, which even manages to throw in a few laughs for good measure… actually, the whole movie does a pretty good job of throwing in some laughs for good measure.

Admit it, you’re humming the theme song right now.

However, beyond those points the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as satisfying. While the actors on the actual A-Team do a pretty decent job, you get the impression that they weren’t necessarily implemented right. While Hannibal, B.A., Face, and Murdock (especially Murdock) are all characterized appropriately, it feels as if the writers didn’t know what to do with them. B.A. becomes a pacifist halfway through the movie, which basically screams “we’re only doing this so we can reverse it for a dramatic kill shot in the finale”, Hannibal completely fails to come up with a plan to finish out the movie, and Face takes over all the planning for the last 45 minutes of the film.

Just… what?

I understand completely that they have about four years worth of episodes to try and address in the space of 2 hours, and I also understand that there were certainly moments where Hannibal couldn’t always come up with the plan and others had to have their moment of glory on our living room television. But in something as short as a Hollywood movie, we don’t have quite as much time to cement the norms of these characters in our minds. And so by the end of this film, the audience is left with the distinct impression that Hannibal is washed up; that he can no longer be the planner, and that Face has now taken over as a new leader of the team. Keep in mind now, that this is supposed to be an origin story, and that Hannibal still very much has years of being the competent boss ahead of him. Combine this ending with the fact that Face was much more thoroughly explored than the other members of the team, and you get the idea that the whole thing was just a way for the producers to capitalize on the fact that Bradley Cooper has been in the spotlight recently thanks to The Hangover. Though why on earth they would play that up when you’ve got Liam Freaking Neeson on the cast is beyond me. Though I suppose movies about booze do go over better with this kind of audience than Schindler’s List. Regardless, Cooper still does a decent job as Face, so it’s not all bad, just a bit odd.

Don’t be too intimidated by the guns: they never hit anything

The rest of the cast, however, did not have nearly the same charm. Jessica Biel plays a prominent role, but really only feels like she’s there to provide incredibly boring sexual tension for Face. One of the main villains is characterized only by his trigger finger and who exists for the sole purpose of making what might be the least subtle stab towards Blackwater I’ve ever seen. The real villain (who’s motivations never seem to be very clearly outlined) is better characterized… but only as an incredibly obnoxious tool. Look, I understand the necessity of presenting an antagonist who we may not necessarily like, but you’ve crossed a line when I actually start becoming personally annoyed with his portrayal. It gets to the point that you’re not just happy the good guys succeed when he gets his at the end, but you’re just relieved that he won’t be getting more screen time.

There are various other issues with horribly convoluted plot, sub-par CGI, and the ever-annoying shaky cam, but I think I’m actually just going to cut this review short. Let’s face it: I already told you everything you need to know about the movie in the opening paragraph. However distorted the story may be, there is enough A-Team here to keep most people happy. Hannibal is still a genius, Face is still funny, B.A. is still pitying fools, and Murdock is still delightfully insane. The elaborate plans and improbable builds make an appearance, and yes, the iconic van makes at least one jump. Regardless of how little I enjoyed some of the elements of this movie, that is ultimately my problem. I fear that I’m beginning to lose some of the enjoyment I once had in these summer action flicks, and that’s depressing to me. But as I discussed with a good friend of mine on the way to the theater, there is a divide between “good film” and “simple, enjoyable film”. My problem is that I have difficulty telling my mind to sit down and shut up during movies, but I can still recognize the value of a movie that goes “boom”. If you like explosions and balls-to-the-wall action, go see this movie. It’s as simple as that.

REVIEW: Prince of Persia

Hollywood (and to a greater extent Wermelskirchen, Germany) have long been the culprits of butchering, belittling, and sometimes outright desecrating our beloved video games in their attempts to adapt them to the silver screen. These attempts have left us first heartbroken, then indignant, and now finally bitterly cynical about any game that we discover to be bound for theaters. Unlike comic books that have movies such as Spider-Man (1 and 2) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, video games have not been graced with a truly good film. So does the new Prince of Persia movie provide vindication for our virtually interactive pastime?

The short answer is no.

BUT don’t go away yet, there’s more to it than that.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is not a movie that will be taking home any awards. It will not be praised by critics for its deep and moving narrative. It probably will not even justify its 200 million dollar budget. But one thing it will do is keep you entertained. This is a fun movie; nothing more, nothing less.

Water healed you in the game. I don’t think it does the same thing here.

For those of you looking for a true-to-the-game adaptation, it’s difficult to say what your reaction may be. Some will be satisfied with its adherence to the source material, while others will nitpick that it didn’t follow precisely the same story line as the Sands of Time game did. For the sake of this writing, I’ll address the former with continued examples and tell the latter to get over it and go back to your fanfiction. Prince of Persia does not follow every step of the Sands of Time game; which it really shouldn’t, because 2 hours of climbing up walls and stabbing sand demons would get old really quickly. So instead they changed the plot structure, ditched the sand demons in their entirety, and gave everybody a new name and backstory. It’s a bit different, but that’s okay, seeing as how the plot for the original Sands of Time wasn’t really useful for anything besides establishing gameplay elements.

Of course, seeing as how this is a movie that has no gameplay elements, most of the plot bits from the game are used as Macguffins. All you really need to know is that there’s a prince, a princess, a dagger that can rewind time, and a power-grabbing villain who’s a bit too obvious simply because he’s played by Ben Kingsley. For the sake of simplicity you really shouldn’t care too much about the story here. This is a Bruckheimer film, after all, and the man excels at marketing very predictable stories in very enjoyable packages. Ultimately, this is no different: not a lot of substance, but masked by a good amount of well-presented flash.

The enjoyment you’ll get from this film is only attainable when you pretty much abandon all hope that you’ll be getting anything meaningful. Instead, you should sit back, not analyze, and just let yourself have fun with it. The parkour scenes are where the bulk of the entertainment comes from, and while they’re not as impressive as some of the large-scale foot chases we’ve seen in recent years, they’re still fun to watch, and they evoke some memories of our own wall-runs and ledge-grabs while playing the game. And while a great many of the environments and sets are obviously (sometimes painfully) computer-generated, most all of the actual running and jumping is done by actual stuntmen, which is nice. The sword fights intermingled with the running are entertaining enough, even if the quirks given to some of the combatants are a bit too generic, and the time-warping powers of the dagger are always fun to watch, even if they are implemented somewhat sparingly and not to their full potential .

Every good attack needs to be accompanied with a face-twisting battlecry.

Apart from the action-flick appeal, there’s a surprising amount of entertainment present in the characters themselves. Now, I realize that there’s been a lot of bullsh- er, that is controversy over the casting decisions for this film. But this isn’t about that. The point is that the cast did a pretty decent job with their respective roles. I will say that regardless of the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal was supposed to be the star of this picture, his performance is dwarfed by that of Alfred Molina, who’s character further undermines any hint of seriousness the film may have had… but is damned funny doing it. It’s a somewhat unusual performance for the generally more high-profile actor, but he certainly boosted my opinion of the film a significant degree. Apart from Molina there are some fun moments of interaction between Gyllenhaal’s character of the Prince and the Princess Tamina, which was plainly modeled after the relationship between the Prince and Farah in the game. There are a few amusing tidbits of humorous bickering between the two and a moment near the end which borders upon the genuinely touching, but a good deal of their interactions sound a little too much like the 1989 Zelda cartoon. It’s not terrible, it’s just not quite as good as the dynamic exhibited in the game.

It’s not what it looks li-
Okay, actually, it might be. 

When you get right down to it, Prince of Persia is not a fantastic movie. It’s not even a very good movie. It’s just passable summer entertainment that’ll give you a good time for the duration of its 116 minutes, but you probably won’t remember too much of it after that. It’s quickly forgettable, but given how notably bad so many of its video game movie predecessors have been, perhaps this is a good thing. High-profile names like Gyllenhaal and Bruckheimer contributing to this project also indicates some hope for the future of game movies. Will we get a truly good one next time? Maybe the long-debated and long fought-over Halo or Metal Gear movies will be our next best hope. But in the meantime, just go see Prince of Persia. It’s the best we’ve got so far.

REVIEW: Red Dead Redemption

To say that Red Dead Redemption has been on my radar for quite some time would be failing to illustrate exactly how much I have been anticipating this game. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that Red Dead Redemption has stood out like an Imperial Star Destroyer amidst a cloud of conventional aircraft on my radar. If I had sonar, I’m sure it would have shown up on that too, nevermind my seismic and infrared sensors. In short, once I heard that Rockstar Games was making an open-world western title, you couldn’t have kept me away from it.

Red Dead Redemption is a sort of spiritual successor to Rockstar San Diego’s 2004 game Red Dead Revolver. Though the similarities are few. The name is obviously a shared factor, as is the publisher, developer, and general setting. But apart from that, Redemption is a very different game. While Revolver focused on somewhat more linear environments, and functioned more or less as a simple third-person shooter, Redemption is an open-world game in the style of Rockstar’s flagship Grand Theft Auto franchise. While this has prompted many people to label the game as simply “GTA with horses”, this simply isn’t so. Obviously there are going to be common factors, but Redemption goes beyond a re-skinned version of Liberty City and becomes truly special its own right.

In Redempion, you play as John Marston: an outlaw turned family man who’s been enlisted by the US Government to hunt down and kill the members of his former gang. Marston is an interesting character, simply because he’s so different from Rockstar’s usual protagonist archetype. He’s not a crude, hyper-violent, self-serving street drifter like you usually see in the GTA games. He is simultaneously more complicated and simpler than that. Marston is perhaps the first character I’ve seen from Rockstar that can be classified as truly likeable. Marston is tough when he needs to be and violent when the situation calls for it, but on the whole he has one thing that almost no other character from Rockstar does: he has manners. Marston is not a “city man” of the upper class, but he has significantly more class and style than those who are. He has personal honor, respect for those who warrant it, and love for his family. He’s just a cool sort of guy, and you’ll find yourself liking his character within the first few minutes. Plus he looks like Clint Eastwood.

While an in-game crossover with The Outlaw Josey Wales might have been
fun, it also would have been very confusing. 

The gameplay is more or less what you would expect from Rockstar. Most of the controls are the same as what we saw in GTA IV in terms of movement, interaction, etc. The differences are in the details. Riding a horse is nothing like driving a car. You can’t just hold down a button and let the thing plow through streets and civilians without a second thought. Instead, these horses actually feel like living animals. You want it to go faster? You’ve gotta spur it a little to pick up the pace. Want to go flying across the terrain at breakneck speeds? You can, but push it too far and you’ll wind up either being bucked off by your aggravated steed or you’ll find the poor beast dead from over-taxing its physical abilities. You’ve got to keep in mind that what you’re riding is an animal, not a machine. You’ll spend a good portion of the game riding from place to place, so it’s best not to be too mean to your mount.

Gunplay obviously plays a major part in the game, so you’ll be happy to hear that shooting feels solid and rewarding all the way through. Revolvers, lever-action rifles, shotguns, and even throwing knives all feel satisfying to fire, and you’ll fire them a lot. A snap-to-target style of auto aim is implemented by holding the left trigger, which can make a marksman out of anybody, but you can still free-aim at whatever you’d like (which is handy for taking out the legs of fleeing bad guys). The bullet-time-esque feature of “Deadeye targeting” returns from the first game, which allows you to slow down time to a crawl while you paint multiple targets, allowing you to string together a series of kills in the blink of an eye once you pull the trigger. Nothing makes you feel like more of a hard-boiled cowboy than fanning the hammer on your Peacemaker, blasting a crowd of outlaws before they have time to reach for their guns. Bliss.

I used that gun all the way up until the ending. Why?
Because Jayne Cobb. That’s why.

Now, I’m not usually one to go on about sound design, simply because I don’t know too much about it. So when I say something about the sound in a game it’s either going to be really bad, or really, really good. I’m happy to say that in this particular instance, it’s the latter. For starters, the voice acting is top-notch. John Marston sounds thoroughly grizzled enough to match his frontier-man exterior, and the supporting cast is just as fitting. Every character’s voice matches their apparent personality, be they a world-weary but competent lawman, a sleazy snake-oil vendor, a crazed treasure hunter, or a self-righteous revolutionary. All the voice work is wonderful, and it stands out above some of the other example of sub-par acting seen in many games.

But it doesn’t stop there. Along with the superb voice acting comes a whole plethora of outstanding sound effects. Everything just *sounds* right in this game. Rifles shots echo off canyon walls with a sharp crack, horses hooves beat a rhythmic pattern into the dirt as they gallop, piano encompasses the interior of saloons, and the calls of wild elk drift over the pine trees of forests. This is impressive stuff. And then of course there’s the soundtrack. The music in this game fits perfectly with the setting. You’ll hear plenty of great tunes as you explore this game world, and all of it is appropriate for the time and place. Fight sequences are set at a somewhat faster pace and make good use of electric guitar in a way that still manages to jive with the western locales. But most of the time you’ll be listening to the sounds of an idly plucked acoustic guitar, or the lonely sounds of a harmonica. Then when you get your first taste of a mournful, tired-sounding vocal track as you make your way into Mexico for the first time, you’ll probably have your appreciation for the sound of this game firmly solidified in your mind. I know that was the defining moment for me, at any rate, and made me glad that my pre-order copy came with a free version of the soundtrack.

It’s dull, barren, uninhabited desert… and it’s beautiful.

But as great as all of the above mentioned features are, the single biggest factor that I enjoyed about the game was this: atmosphere. Red Dead Redemption is probably one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. Every last bit of it is dedicated in its entirety to making you feel like you’re in the Wild West. Go ride your horse out to the middle of the desert and stand on a nearby hill. Now look off into the distance and watch as a thunderstorm builds on the horizon. Then watch it wash over you and continue on into the distance. Get back on your horse and ride into the nearest town. Walk into a Saloon. Get a drink. Wander into a back room and join in a poker game. Lose. Get another drink. Go back and try to cheat in the poker game. Get caught. Duel the guy who saw you and blast the gun out of his hand. Then head back to the ranch and herd some cattle. Don’t like cattle? Go hunt a Grizzly Bear in the mountains then sell its fur at the nearest trading post for enough money to get that shiny new Winchester rifle you’ve had your eye on.

I think you get my point.

There is so much to do in Red Dead Redemption that it’s doubtful you’ll get tired of it even after you’ve finished the game and the credits roll. And even then you’ll probably want to go back and play through the story again just because it’s so darn fun. Redemption is unequivocally western, and the tale it tells as you progress through the game is engaging enough to stand on its own as if it were one of the famed Spaghetti Westerns of old, which makes sense as the game is essentially one massive love letter to Sergio Leone and others like him. In short, Red Dead Redemption is a great game, and its greatness is amplified if you’re a fan of westerns like myself. Its well worth checking out… per un pugno di dollari.

REVIEW: Iron Man 2

Two years after Iron Man got his big screen debut he’s back in a sequel that was all but inevitable. Luckily enough, this is one of those sequels that we actually wanted to see. And after seeing it once, I think I’ll be seeing it a few more times in the future.

As with the first Iron Man, the real attraction here is Robert Downey Jr’s delightfully amusing portrayal of eccentric billionaire/genius Tony Stark. RDJ fits into the role beautifully, probably more easily than he fit into the Iron Man armor itself. The witty sarcasm and playboy inventor personality shine through just as prominently here as they did in the original, but are at times overshadowed by a mid-life crisis of sorts. After storing a miniature arc reactor in his chest for a while, some rather dangerous side effects begin to show themselves, which drive Tony into an escalated state of alcoholism, as if his current abuses weren’t quite enough. His somewhat narcissistic personality is also somewhat enhanced from the first movie, which could be good or bad depending on what you thought of it at the time. When you get right down to it, it’s the same old Tony. Even though he might behave in a bit more of an exaggerated manner than he did before, you realize that these kinds of antics were in fact always present in his character, though they were initially lingering just barely below the surface.

Right from the start, Iron Man 2 does a pretty good job of getting you excited about what’s to come. From the opening scene of Iron Man leaping from a cargo plane through a bombardment of fireworks to the tune of AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” you get the impression that the people behind this movie were just as pumped to make it as we were to watch it. The first hour or so of the movie is probably the best. From the aforementioned awesome introduction sequence through a delightfully amusing government meeting which attempts to acquire the rights to build the Iron Man suit. The movie really shines in these scenes, showcasing Tony Stark’s self-glorifying and flippant personality to the fullest. They even manage to lampshade the fact that the character of Lt. Colonel Rhodes is portrayed by Don Cheadle instead of Terrance Howard who played the role in the first movie. These more light-hearted segments formed what I considered to be the best parts of the movie.

Sadly, it is once the real meat of the plot is set into motion that the movie starts to lose steam. The film’s advertised antagonist of Ivan Vanko (a combination of Iron Man enemies the Crimson Dynamo and Whiplash) doesn’t really do a whole lot to serve as a compelling villain. Mickey Rourke does a decent enough job as the half-criminal half-physicist Russian villain, it’s just that his motivation of “kill Iron Man because his dad was mean to my dad” doesn’t really draw you in all that much. Beyond that, both times that Vanko actually confronts Iron Man, he gets beaten in the space of about two minutes. Now granted, the first one of these fight sequences is actually pretty entertaining thanks to the haphazard rescue attempt by Tony’s staff of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, but it’s over so quickly that we’re not allowed to consider Vanko’s character as much of a threat to Iron Man in a combat encounter.

So, to compensate for this somewhat lackluster villain, we’re given another one. Rival weapons connoisseur Justin Hammer serves as a contemporary for Tony Stark and is depicted as one of the biggest advocates for Iron Man-style weaponry to be developed in bulk for the US Military. Hammer’s character is meant to be a foil of sorts, showing what a Tony Stark character would be like if he didn’t have the same moral fiber that Stark developed over the course of the first movie. Their personalities are meant to be comparable, with Hammer attempting to present the same sarcastic witticism as the protagonist. However while Tony Stark comes off as likably quirky, I found Hammer’s character to be an annoying jackass, almost (but not quite) venturing across the line that divides clear antagonist from frustratingly obnoxious actor. Though admittedly, Hammer does deliver more than a few funny lines of dialogue that make up for it all.

With the bad guys introduced, the rest of the movie essentially boils down to the pride-induced attempts of Vanko and Hammer to dethrone Iron Man and the angst-fest that is Tony Stark’s life. The somewhat awkward chemistry that existed between Tony and his assistant Pepper Potts (as portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to have diminished somewhat, instead presenting their relationship (or lack thereof) more akin to squabbling siblings as opposed to the restrained love interest dynamic they displayed in the first film. On top of his difficulties with Pepper, Tony also trades blows (literally) with his best friend Lt. Cololonel Rhodes, which is displayed in a hyper-destructive fight scene involving two of the Iron Man suits. This is a fun sequence because it not only shows the extent to which Tony has lost control, but also offers us the first look at Rhodes as War Machine, which was lovingly hinted at in the first movie.

Attempts to get Stark back in the game are led by S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that was named in the first film. At the forefront of this attempt is S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Now, if you’re like me then pretty much any appearance by Sammy is enough to instantly boost a movie’s fun factor, and that remains true here. Even though Jackson looks to be teetering on the edge of boredom in some scenes, his dry but forceful character does his job well, and seeing as how the Marvel Ultimate version of Nick Fury is in turn based off of Mr. Jackson it’s a good bit of fanservice.

This is cool, but if they throw in John Travolta as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s HR Director
then I’d say the joke’s gone far enough.

Aiding Fury (sort of) is the secret-agent persona of Black Widow, or Natalia Romanova, or Natalie Rushman, or Natalia Romanoff; seriously, this woman has so many names and so many identities that her entire character starts to feel a lot like the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. First she’s a member of Stark Industries, then she’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., then she’s a ju-jitsu artist in black spandex, then she’s a Stark Industries employee again, and for all I know by this point she could even be a Cylon. Now, I realize that the lack of clear direction for her character was probably meant to shroud her in mystery like the femme fatales of old; but all it really does is needlessly complicate the plot. You get the strong feeling that she’s there only to serve as fanservice and to provide an unnecessary point of sexual tension for Tony Stark, as if he needed any more. And besides that, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really play the character with a lot of feeling: she just looks kind of awkward throughout the whole thing, looking like she has even less of an idea of what she’s doing than we do.

Fortunately, despite the plot losing a lot of steam and direction we’re ultimately provided with what most of us were looking for when we walked into the theater: some kick-ass explosions. Most of the final battle sequence (as with all the other battle sequences) is done in CG, but what do you expect? He’s in a flying robot suit, after all, and if we could make those in the real world I’d be out renting one for a weekend instead of watching movies. Luckily, the special effects were handled by Industrial Light and Magic, meaning that you know they’re going to be of high quality. The high-speed aerial battle that tears through urban sprawl and the back-to-back, buddy-cop style battle with Iron Man and War Machine against a small army of Hammer Drones are both satisfying to watch, as most things that involve robots, miniguns, and exploding vehicles are. Unfortunately this segment is actually more enjoyable than the “climactic” final battle with Ivan Vanko, who has now donned a giant suit of armor to accompany his lightsaber-inspired whips. It really makes you wonder as a friend of mine pointed out: do you think Iron Man will ever get to fight somebody that isn’t just a bigger version of his own suit? Maybe we’ll find out when Iron Man 3 rolls around.

When you get right down to it, Iron Man 2 is not a great film. It’s not even as good as the first Iron Man movie. But it is a lot of fun. If you liked the first Iron Man movie, then you’ll certainly enjoy this one. If you didn’t like the first movie, then go back and watch it again until you get your head on straight and you start liking it. Then once you’ve done that, go on out and watch this one, it’s probably the first summer blockbuster of this year and it provides you with more than enough entertainment to make it worth it. Plus, if you’re at all familiar with the Marvel universe there’s more than a few good bits of fanservice that should get you excited about the upcoming Avengers movie, as if knowing that it’ll be directed by Joss Whedon wasn’t enough to get you excited in the first place. In short: Iron Man 2 is a good time, and it’s worth going to see it in the theater… so long as you don’t try to buy any food there.