' Cinema Romantico: Iron Man

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man

I've mentioned time and again my refusal to read reviews of movies I want to see prior to seeing them. The thing is I had no intention of seeing "Iron Man" due to my usual distaste for films of this ilk and so on Friday I delved into several of its reviews. Lo and behold, they were glowing. And the raves weren't just coming from, say, Gene Shalit or the Akron Beacon Journal. No, we're talkin' raves from A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Dana Stevens of Slate and Richard Corliss of Time. Therefore I scrapped my plans to see Helen Hunt's directorial debut and checked out this special-effects laden blockbuster instead.

I've been wracking my brain since exiting the theater and I cannot for the life of me come up with another actor who could possibly have offered such a fantastic portrayal of the title character as Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, a billionare playboy in charge of a family company that manufactures first class (dare I say it?) weapons of mass destruction. He is sarcastic and cynical and deliverer of many quips and somewhat of a womanizer and an ardent fan of scotch. But once he undergoes his transformation into Iron Man he must become heroic while still maintaining that previous disposition. This is not an easy task. And I can't come up with anyone who could have pulled it off so skillfully. Maybe Clooney? But no, because once he became the hero his quips would have been too heroic. It's Downey that made the character work and, in turn, the whole movie work.

The movie begins immediately with Stark in Afghanistan relishing in one of his beloved scotches in the back of a "fun-vee" while American soldiers ask if they can have a picture taken with him. The merriment doesn't last long, though! The group of army personnel with which Stark rides is attacked, Stark himself is taken away to a cave by a group of guerilla fighters who want him to construct a weapon of mass destruction for their use, only to have Stark turn the proverbial tables by constructing an Iron Man suit and using it as his means for escape.

Once in the U.S. Stark schedules a press conference, though he needs a "cheeseburger first", and explains his company will be shutting down his weapons division until they find a way to do more good then bad. Not surprisingly, this chagrins Stark's partner, the very bald Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges). Stark then hides out in his Malibu basement and sets about constructing a new & improved Iron Man suit with a occassional aid of his assistant and our requisite damsel (though she's too tough to ever be in distress) Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who's utterly perfect in a role that requires more spunkiness then sexiness, though she's got plenty of both).

In a landscape of summer movies that usually have problems realizing their own best qualities here's one that does know. Yes, there's plenty of action and, yes, Pepper finds herself sweating out a download on a computer in someone else's office and, yes, there's a scenery-chewing villain, whose identity I will not reveal, per se, and instead offer up what A.O. Scott referred to in his review as "the Law of the Bald Villain". But director Jon Favreau (and when he was Eric the Clown way back when on "Seinfeld" did you ever think he'd be helming a Marvel comic brought to the big screen?) ensures this is a movie in which the action is never the sole point. In fact, I found the least entertaining passages of the movie to be the ones in which Downey Jr. is hidden behind that Iron Man mask. It finds its real qualities in Downey Jr. out front and in the open, whether he's interacting with his co-stars or with nothing more than a inept robot trying to assist him in building his precious suit ("I'll donate you to a city college"). The screenplay serves up good, meaty, sometimes unusual and unexpected, sometimes hilarious dialogue. And most importantly it's a movie that never seems to take a misstep, it never veers in a direction that does not feel natural. It never betrays who and what its lead character is.

Even at the very end, right before the credits roll, it still won't allow Tony Stark to break character. I don't mind saying that for a summer action pic that is more than a wee bit refreshing.

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