May 01, 2008

Iron Man

The latest in court-ordered GPS monitoring devices

Grade: B +
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Iron Man is the kettle corn counterpoint to the brooding psychoanalysis in Batman Begins, the Spider-Man trilogy, and even Superman Returns. It gamely balances character and plot development with the reasons most of us started going to movie houses in the first place: fun and funny. In so doing, slowly but surely improving director Jon Favreau flouts a string of insipid Marvel Comic-based films and a super-protagonist who is both unknown by the general public and venerated by a rabid core fan-base. He takes a Cold War relic, reconfigures it for current relevancy, and peppers it with a pitch-perfect cast, respect for the source material, and whiz-bang F/X. Iron Man is not a great movie, but frankly, it does not need to be.

For all those deserved hosannas, is real hero is Robert Downey, Jr., who in his world-weary forties seemed a dubious choice to play the role of an armored-plated, high-flying hulk. Favreau wisely recognized that today’s special effects could allow virtually anyone to don a CGI metal, rocket-propelled suit and save the world. Moreover, he realized that Downey was ideal to play wisecracking billionaire lothario Tony Stark, who parlays an M.I.T. education and a stake in his late daddy’s weapons manufacturing business into a worldwide conglomerate flooding the market with high-tech instruments of death and destruction.

While on a sales expedition in Afghanistan, Stark is injured, kidnapped, and tortured by a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Seeing them flush with weaponry produced by his own company that was in turn being used against American soldiers, Stark experiences his own Road to Kabul epiphany. Under the guise of building a new missile for his captors, Stark and his fellow prisoner Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) cobble together a crude suit-of-armor prototype that Stark uses to escape.

After returning home, Stark’s announcement that he is getting out of the weapons-building business sends his company’s stock price plummeting and puts him at odds with his mentor/partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Meanwhile, Stark secretly proceeds with perfecting his original suit design and building, from the ground up, his titular superhero alter ego.

Downey’s past personal travails continue to camouflage the fact that he remains one of Hollywood most underrated actors. His quirks, ticks, and wiseacre persona create the perfect Tony Stark, a jet-setter who owns a private plane outfitted with pole-dancing stewardesses, is not yet bedeviled with the same split personality or mental anguish of a Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker. Stark is narcissist never really changes – only his priorities.

Nicely complimenting Downey is Terrence Howard Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes, Starks’ friend and military liaison, and Gwyneth Paltrow – in one of her breeziest performances in years – as the alliteratively perky Pepper Potts, Stark’s girl Friday. Against the backdrop of super-villains and terrorism, the three (particularly Downey and Paltrow) carry on a repartee that lends the characters depth without transforming this comic book adaptation into a cartoonish farce along the lines of the dreadful Fantastic Four series.

The final clash between Stark and Stane emits a perfunctory air, a la the father-son brawl that concluded Ang Lee’s The Incredible Hulk. However, the rest of Iron Man is smartly written, from Stark’s meticulous backstory to narrative markers scattered throughout that point to Favreau and Co.’s planned trilogy – e.g., the continued involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Rhodes’ eventual stint as an alternate Iron Man and, later, the superhero War Machine. Emulating its comic book inspiration, Iron Man is a heady page-turner that, like the magnetized gadget surgically implanted in Stark’s chest, will get your summer movie-season heart palpitating.

Neil Morris


Anonymous said...

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are a classic combination... Charlie Wilson's War made me feel a little better about U.S. foreign intervention, it seemed to work out that time

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, although I assume you meant this under the "CW's War" review - MM