Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man: Plenty of mettle

Iron Man (2008) • View trailer for Iron Man
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.2.08
Buy DVD: Iron Man • Buy Blu-Ray: Iron Man (Ultimate Two-Disc Edition + BD Live) [Blu-ray]

On his deathbed, British actor and director Donald Wolfit is said to have joked, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

I'd have to add that superhero movies are harder still.
Trapped somewhere in Afghanistan by gun-toting insurgents who've ordered him
to build them a super-missile system, the badly wounded Tony Stark (Robert
Downey Jr., left), assisted by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub), tries to fool
their captors long enough to design something entirely different ... something
that might help them escape.

Achieving the crucial balance of elements frequently eludes filmmakers. Too dour and grim, and you wind up with a Daredevil that isn't much fun to watch. Overcompensate in the other direction, by allowing the material to become a parody of itself, and you wind up with the stupidity of The Fantastic Four. In both cases, the mainstream public couldn't care less, while genre fans get cranky.

Spider-Man 2 gets the mix right; its predecessor is almost as good. Batman Begins comes close. All three of the X-Men films navigate the territory pretty well. Back in the day, the first bit of Christopher Reeve's first Superman film really caught it.

Iron Man belongs in their company.

Director Jon Favreau achieves just the proper tone, and the script — credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, but no doubt sweetened by diverse other hands — is surprisingly intelligent, while allowing its characters to loosen up and unleash an occasional well-timed one- liner. Indeed, some scenes are genuinely funny ... but never at the expense of the material.

Mostly, though, the credit goes to Robert Downey Jr., a serious and extremely talented actor who knows precisely how to play the role of multi-gazillionaire industrialist and electronic/engineering whiz kid Tony Stark, who falls into the hero gig out of necessity and conscience, rather than accident or freakish biology.

Although never one of Marvel Comics' front-line stars, Iron Man always has been one of the most interesting. Like Bruce Wayne, Stark is a regular guy — admittedly, a very smart one — who utilizes technology to become a champion of the oppressed. Such characters more easily satisfy wish fulfillment: We can imagine, granted access to the same gadgets, that we, too, could right wrongs with a clandestine alter-ego.

And because this script is savvy enough to exploit contemporary real-world issues, Stark's epiphany — and his unorthodox solution to a problem of his own creation — plays quite successfully to our desire for good-guy closure to ghastly events in hot spots such as Afghanistan.

We're introduced to Stark at his worst, which is to say his most venal, self-indulgent and self-absorbed. Unrepentant playboy by night and the ruthlessly amoral face of Stark Industries by day, Tony has just unveiled his Jericho missile — capable of leveling small mountains — to appreciative members of the U.S. military. This nasty little toy follows various amped-up automatic weapons, not to mention a few cloak-and-dagger-style gadgets undoubtedly not permitted by the Geneva Convention.

Stark's attitudes about women and alcohol are as casual as his willingness to be known as a merchant of death; but while these early scenes are shaded for male-fantasy laughter, Downey modulates his performance in an entirely different direction. It's not hard to see the self-loathing in Stark's eyes, even if he'd never admit to such pangs of decency. Indeed, he's probably not even aware of them.

Tony's inner circle includes his late father's former business partner, and co-head of Stark Industries, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); his trusted military liaison and good friend, Rhodey (Terrence Howard); and longtime assistant and true friend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who of course carries a torch for her boss, and never complains about having to pick up after him ... literally and metaphorically.

Pepper belongs firmly to the Iron Man mythos, as set back in the 1960s by Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee and his stable of writers, and Paltrow nails the part. Although treated as a doormat by Tony — in these early scenes — and taken for granted, Pepper is a 21st century woman who knows damn well that her boss would cease to function without her ... and she plays her cards accordingly.

Then, crisis: While on a routine military mission in Afghanistan, Tony is badly injured and captured by insurgents who, he is dismayed to discover, are heavily armed with his own lethal hardware ... items that absolutely should not be in any but American hands. These weapons are being used to terrify, torment and kill the very locals they were designed to protect; worse yet, the scowling leader of these insurgents, Raza (Faran Tahir), orders our hero to build him a Jericho missile system.

That aside, Tony has a more pressing problem. The attack on his convoy left him mortally wounded, with bits of shrapnel embedded near his heart and poised to work their way farther into his body, eventually killing him. He's alive only thanks to the quick thinking of fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a medical doctor who rigs up an unlikely device, powered by a car battery, that prevents the shrapnel from moving.

But this is, at best, a temporary solution; Tony needs something more permanent ... and he also needs to get them out of there.

Downey and Toub have a great rapport, the latter so quietly dignified and gallant that we can't help thinking him a sacrificial lamb.

Forced to construct something under Raza's watchful eye, Tony goes to work. Events take ... an interesting turn.

Later, back in the comforts of his cliff-hugging Malibu home, Tony commits stock-market suicide by calling a press conference and insisting that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business. But while finding a conscience is well and good, even Tony Stark answers to a board of directors, and Obadiah has his hands full, trying to placate powerful people who don't like seeing their quarterly earnings plunging southward.

Tony, meanwhile, locks himself in his lab and sets about refining and improving the tech that got him out of Raza's clutches ... but did not (no surprise here) kill this baddie in the process.

As befits its necessary status as an origin story, Iron Man minimizes mindless action in favor of spending considerable time with Tony, as he puzzles his way through both his emotional epiphany, and the frustration with new tech that simply won't perform up to his expectations. He's assisted in the latter by various robots that receive the brunt of his stream-of- consciousness complaints.

One in particular, an oddly articulated construct that looks like it belongs on an automobile assembly line, has a helluva personality for something that never makes a sound. It is, no question, the best robot critter we've seen since R2D2 or (going back a long ways) the "drones" — Huey, Dewey and Louie — from 1971's Silent Running.

And the film's payoff scene with this particular robot is sheer genius.

That scene, like so many others leading up to it, works because of the persuasive conviction Downey brings to his role. He doesn't just sell Tony's change of heart and mind; he lives it ... as, in fact, Downey did in real life. He knows what it's like to be on top, fall to the bottom and then, recognizing the error of one's behavior, change for the good. He puts it into his part and gives this superhero fantasy flick far more emotional heft than it deserves, while also uncorking some wry and wickedly amusing asides.

Tony's return to civilization includes a new appreciation for Pepper, and this new dimension to their relationship gives Downey and Paltrow ample opportunity to indulge in the tentative courtship dance that Hollywood loves so much.

I wish we could spend more time with Rhodey; Howard is too fine an actor to be shunted to the sidelines.

The special effects are credible and smoothly integrated into the live action; to borrow the promotional blurb from Reeve's debut in the red-and-blue suit, all those years ago, we really do believe Tony can fly. And even if the climactic finale is inevitable by comic book standards — a battle royale involving an even bigger and nastier "iron man" (how same old, same old) — the film has built up so much good will by then, that audiences will cheerfully go along for the ride.

If a summer movie season can be defined by its opening salvo, then we can expect great things in the months to come, because this Iron Man is guaranteed to soar for quite some time.

I only hope they can get Downey back for another round.

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