Saturday, May 3, 2008

Iron Man (***)

Directed by Jon Favreau


The new Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man is many things. For one, it is the official beginning of the summer movie season, where millions of theaters will be filled with seat-clinching action pictures that would make Michael Bay drool. Also, this film marks the official resurrection of Robert Downey Jr.'s career, with this film being a companion piece to his other summer blockbuster Tropic Thunder, which is coming out in August. Overall, though, the film is a successful hero picture, that succeeds in not taking itself so seriously, and relishing in it's own escapism.

The film is another in an endless line of comic book films, this one concerning a boozing, womanizing weapons manufacturer named Tony Stark (Downey Jr.). He's a mechanical genius, who makes the world's greatest and most powerful weapons. Son of Howard Stark--one of the contributors to the Manhattan project--Tony takes over the manufacturing business, and with the help of his father's close associate Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), successfully sells his weapons for millions upon millions of dollars to anyone around the world who can afford them.

Things go sour for Stark, though, when he is captured and nearly killed by a group of middle eastern terrorists who want him to build a powerful weapon. Instead, Stark decides to build a super-technological suit to help him escape. The plan works, and Stark is able to return home to meet his beautiful, but obedient assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his military officer buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard). Dealing with the terrorists, though, makes Stark realize the lack of responsibility he has taken for the havoc his product has created all over the world.

Of coarse, the Stark Industries doesn't agree with Tony's plans to stop making dangerous weapons, so they--particularly Obadiah--try to push Tony out, as they continue to cash in on selling off missiles and M-80 machine guns. The only way Tony's conscience can be cleared is if he fights fire with fire, perfecting his powerful iron suit into a weapon that can fly, shoot, and trigger numerous bombs. As the movie continues, Tony redeems himself by taking care of the terrorists who held him captive earlier in the film, but we find that the capture may have had more than meets the eye. And, of coarse, there is always room for romantic sparks to fly between Tony and Pepper.

The film is a classic superhero movie: charismatic hero, beautiful lady on his arm, gullible friend, and the villain who is closer than the hero realizes. It's by the books, but it is the show put on by Downey Jr. that gives the film most of it's great energy. The last few years, we've seen Robert Downey Jr. slowly bringing himself out of Hollywood obscurity: he was great as the lead in the vastly under appreciated satire Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and then brilliant in his supporting role in David Fincher's serial killer epic Zodiac. But in Iron Man, he is headlining what is possibly a very successful franchise, and his talent doesn't cease.

He has always been an actor of uncanny comedic ability, but has always had that virtuoso aspect, allowing him to rely on his sincerity. Take for instance, the extended montage of Stark building his suit within his own basement. He has the help from a super-smart, talking computer. The relationship between the two could have been played with shtick, like David Hasselhoff talking to Kit in "Knight Rider", but instead, Downey Jr. and Stark's genius machine have some of the best computer-human chemistry I've ever seen in the movies.

The entire show belongs to Robert Downey Jr., if only because he seems like an unlikely candidate to headline a superhero franchise, yet flourishes so. It's a character taylor-made for his skills. But it should be mentioned, part of his charm is aided by a surprisingly inspired performance by Paltrow. The two have vibrant chemistry, and Paltrow gives one of her freshest performances in years. For the first time since The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow's award-winning self-absorption was put in the corner, and she allows herself to have fun with the character.

The film has its generic moments, and there are definitely no big unsuspected surprises throughout the picture, but it meets the requirement for a summer action movie: it's fun. It relishes in being a chaotic popcorn film, and never tries to insult the audience by insinuating that you are watching anything profound (**cough**Spider-Man 3**cough**). I can see many, bloated sequels following Iron Man, and that can be more of a curse than a treasure, and to be honest, I find the character of Tony Stark a lot more interesting when he isn't pounding around in an Iron Man suit, but as long as those CGI effects don't become overbearing, it will always be a successful action prospect.

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