Ann Hornaday on 'Iron Man 2' and 'Casino Jack and the United States of Money'

A scene from "Iron Man 2."
A scene from "Iron Man 2." (Industrial Light & Magic - Marvel)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010

In "Iron Man 2," Robert Downey Jr. reprises the role of billionaire Tony Stark, the tipsy, irrepressible technology magnate who in the first installment acquired a heart of pure palladium and superpowers to go with it. As "Iron Man 2" opens, Stark and his alter ego have earned international acclaim and scads of headlines for keeping the world free and safe; "Iron Man Stabilizes East-West Relations," one newspaper blares.

The movie, a frenetic jumble of fast cuts, unintelligible cross talk, fireballs and clanking metal, too often sacrifices the refreshing cheek and irreverence of the first one; Tony is still a scoundrel with some provocative shadow material (he's still drinking), but "Iron Man 2" crams in too much too fast, leaving some particularly tantalizing supporting players -- such as Mickey Rourke's Russian nemesis Ivan Vanko and Scarlett Johansson's kitten-with-a-roundhouse Natasha Romanoff -- all pumped up with nowhere to go.

As a placeholder for the myriad spinoffs still to come, "Iron Man 2" acquits its duties, if not with mind-blowing style, with workmanlike competence. And as another chapter in the life of the movies' most likable capitalist vigilante (sorry, Bruce Wayne), it offers a particularly resonant portrait of rapaciousness and responsibility for its times.

At the beginning of the movie, Stark is called to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, headed by a smarmy politician played by Garry Shandling. After answering with a contemptuous "Yes, dear" when the senator calls his name, Stark cockily announces that he's effectively "privatized world peace"; when the committee demands that he share the formula for Iron Man's weaponized metal sheath, he comes back with the classic libertarian argument that the suit is really his self, and that to turn it over to the government would be tantamount either to "indentured servitude or prostitution." (Later he complains to his love interest, Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, that's he's "tired of the liberal agenda. It's boring.")

As a freelancer righteously filling the vacuum created by a venal, apathetic public on the one hand and failed institutions on the other, Iron Man joins this season's trendlet of vigilante fantasies, from the comic book adaptations "Kick-Ass" and "The Losers" to "Harry Brown," which is scheduled to open next week and stars Michael Caine as a British pensioner who takes on the thugs who have overrun his housing estate. Considering daily reports of banks, oil companies and politicians routinely breaking faith with their stakeholders, it's easy to understand the attraction of these rituals of Sticking it to The Man. The bigger, louder, more profane the stick, the louder the howls of approval from an audience jacked up on populist rage and Jujubes.

But, watching "Iron Man 2" earlier this week, it became soberingly clear that the film protagonist whom Tony Stark most resembles isn't fictional, but the star of a documentary that also opens Friday. In "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney threads viewers through the corrupt, cynical machinations of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who after coming of age as a college Republican in the Reagan years (and briefly flirting with his own Hollywood career) became Washington's most powerful influence-peddler when Republicans came to power in Congress in 1994 and initiated the "K Street Project." With the support of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, early Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and associate Michael Scanlon, Abramoff -- and others named and unnamed -- formed a mini-empire of power-brokering under the guise of preserving God, country and the free market.

Abramoff was eventually sent to prison for bilking Indian tribes out of millions of dollars -- the "gimme five" scheme he hatched in e-mail correspondence with Scanlon is given a hilarious dramatic reading in "Casino Jack" by Stanley Tucci and Paul Rudd -- but most of what he did was business as usual in Washington. Whether he was organizing a "freedom fighter" summit with the ruthless Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, producing the testosterone-fueled anti-communist allegory "Red Scorpion," funneling money from sweatshops on the Northern Mariana Islands or cheating Native Americans, Abramoff was a true believer in the superiority of his cause. He no doubt believed, like Tony Stark, that his methods were sound because they were his methods.

Come to think of it, Abramoff could be an amalgamation of Stark and his arch-competitor in "Iron Man 2," the weaselly defense contractor Justin Hammer, played with scenery-chewing oiliness by Sam Rockwell. In that early Senate scene, Hammer takes the microphone and works the hearing room like a nightclub, inveighing that Stark has gone rogue and insisting that the Iron Man technology be shared for the public good.

It comes to pass that Hammer isn't coming from a place of public good as much as private greed. But when you put "Iron Man 2" and "Casino Jack" side by side, you see that Stark, Hammer and Abramoff share the same brand of moral arrogance that creates mayhem out of single-minded, by-any-means-necessary expediency. Of course, "Iron Man 2" dutifully obeys the strictures of its genre: Like all good comic book narratives, order is restored, with Stark's belief in his superiority intact, if a tad chipped with dim self-awareness.

But, like all classic comic books, "Iron Man 2" also allows for enough ambiguity to bring a diabolically delicious bad guy back for another go-round. And that, it turns out, is a lot like real life.

Although Abramoff and a few of his cohorts went to prison, an appalling number of politicians and staffers who partook of his largess wind up unaccountable in "Casino Jack," with Congress turning a blind eye to his multi-tentacled operation to influence its members.

Abramoff is due to be released from prison later this year. With his trial for breaking Texas campaign finance laws still pending, DeLay went dancing on TV, presumably until he's either convicted or free to make his political comeback. Scanlon has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced, evidently in order to testify against anyone who might still be indicted. As every decent comic book villain knows, if the good guys don't succeed in completely killing you off, you can be counted on to show up again in the sequel.

Iron Man 2


(126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and profanity.

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