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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Film Review: Downey Puts The Irony in Iron Man

The ingredients of Iron Man , Jon Favreau's new popcorn flick for fledgling Marvel studios, seem like standard issue superhero stew. On paper it sounds exactly like Batman Begins, or Spider-Man. Big budget film with a quirky cast of over-talented actors explore the origins of a superhero as they discover their hidden powers, learn to harness them and then take on a villain who used to be a mentor. Ho-hum. Except Iron Man proves that as Mick Jagger once warbled, "It's the singer, not the song." The movie is a delightful romp with almost every element perfectly judged, not least of which is tone.

The secret weapon is Robert Downey Jr. who brings his sardonic knowing line readings and wounded eyes to bear on every scene he's in (at least sans maak, which thankfully is a good chunk of them). After winning (CORRECTION: as a commenter pointed out Downey was nominated but did not win) an Oscar for Chaplin, the well documented substance struggles, starring in unsung films like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and A Scanner Darkly and being the only thing worth watching in dreck like The Shaggy Dog Downey, like his character Tony Stark, finds redemption here. He's ably joined by a surprisingly likable Gwyneth Paltrow, who brings way more than necessary to the character sketch that is Pepper Potts (!). Her chemistry with Downey is terrific and their scenes crackle with energy. Jeff Bridges shows up bald of pate and hirsute of chin. He seems to be a distant cousin of William Hurt's character in A History of Violence but where Hurt chomps on the scenery and the catering truck for good measure Bridges underplays with a glint in his eyes. Terrence Howard doesn't have a lot to do but he does it all well.

Favraeu imports some political commentary into the genre though it's jumbled by the needs of plot and action. Will the idea that the United States armed the very same Afghans who we are fighting sink in for Americans who have tuned out the string of po-faced Iraq and Afghanistan flicks that have come out over the past two years? Does it matter? When Downey's water-boarded by the Afghan bad guys, are we supposed to connect to our own actions in the so-called War on Terror?

Who cares when Iron Man shows up to show us what a peacekeeping mission is supposed to look like. Save the villagers from the warlords! It's a flashback to when some of us thought that using NATO to quell the fighting and genocide in Bosnia was a blueprint to responsible superpowerdom in the 21st century. But enough politics, I've already given them more thought then the movie does. It hardly matters when you see Downey's chiseled goatee and delightfully louche delivery, or the suited up Iron Man going up against a couple of fighter jets.

The effects are very good and believable for the most part. I had a nice contrast with Marvel's other big film this summer when we were treated to a preview for Ed Norton in The Incredible Hulk. Everything went swimmingly and looked intriguing until the big green guy shows up and he looks just as phony and computer generated (if not more so) as he did in Ang Lee's try at the franchise. Possible mitigating factor: Tim Roth's in it.

Back to Iron Man, it's a hoot to watch Downey live out every man's mid-life crisis fantasy -- car porn galore, supermodel arm candy, a high-tech modern bachelor pad, Gwynyth Paltrow pining for you, and a neat suit that lets you kick ass while doing good. It's a grown-up's regressive playpen and boy, is it fun.


Anonymous said...

Nice read but RD,Jr. was only NOMINATED for an oscar.

Slothrop said...

Good point! He was robbed...

Mike Lorah said...

Nice review. Iron Man gets a clear thumbs up, though I'm less charitably inclined when it comes to pitting our hero against his larger, evil doppelganger. The big finale felt like the filmmakers were going through the motions, which was a letdown after the excellent work done up until that point.

Downey has definitely turned in one of the finest superhero performances ever.