Tuesday, May 6, 2008
REVIEW: IRON MAN (***1/2)
IRON MAN (***1/2), as directed by Jon Favreau (MADE, ELF, ZATHURA), is about as good as a superhero origin movie is gonna get at this point. By now, audiences have been introduced to a multitude of big-screen superheroes and crime fighters, and by and large, the first installments in any of these franchises are very similar. Introduce you to the superhero, learn a little background info on him or her, watch the character have a crisis of conscience or develop super powers, watch the superhero train with or adjust to their powers/abilities, and then conclude with some sort of climactic battle with an insane villain. The story trajectory of IRON MAN, which was written by two separate teams of writers (Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) who's scripts were then merged together by Favreau and Marvel Comics execs, follows that rough outline but adds enough fresh juice to the proceedings to make the film soar. Favreau, a filmmaker who's interested in character first and action sequences second, here tackles his largest and most ambitious project to date, and aside from a few minor shortcomings, has provided audiences with the first blockbuster of 2008's summer movie season (the film earned roughly $103 million in its opening weekend).
IRON MAN works as well as it does primarily due to its wonderful cast of character actors getting a chance to shine in a big budget popcorn flick. The excellently smug Robert Downey Jr. gives a live-wire performance as Tony Stark, a genius, billionaire weapons manufacturer by day and booze-schwilling, womanizing playboy by night. He's got a hot assistant with a cute name (Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts), a noble best friend in the military (Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes), and a shady business partner with an ominous name (Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane). While in Afghanistan giving a demonstration to U.S. troops of his latest and greatest weapon (a missile that separates in mid-air giving way to lots and lots of mini-missiles), Stark is captured by Arab terrorists who force him to build them a weapon of mass destruction. Holed up in a cave and with the help of another scientist, Stark gets to work, but not on a weapon for the jihadists; rather, he builds a suit or armor in an effort to escape from the baddies. He's also got a heart condition to worry about. Some shrapnel has found its way into his chest, but thanks to a radically redesigned chest cavity and heart device, Stark is able to live on. After blasting his way out of captivity in a rock 'n roll flavored action sequence, Stark is rescued by U.S. troops and heads back for his compound in Malibu, CA.
Once back, he decides that he's done with weapons manufacturing; seeing his products in the hands of evil-doers has given him a change of heart (no pun intended). He hunkers down in his laboratory-basement and begins constructing a new suit of armor, one that he hopes will give him the ability to be a one-man crime-fighting force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, his greedy business partner Stane, has no use for the company's new moral direction; he's the kind of guy who'd sell a pistol to an eight year old for lunch money. Bridges, getting a chance to be a maniacal bad guy for the first time, rips into his role with glee. But as much fun as it was to see him in a film like this, it will forever be impossible for me to separate him from his legendary role as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka "The Dude," in the Coen brothers' masterpiece THE BIG LEBOWSKI. But I digress...back to comic-book world. Stark completes his suit or armor, and Iron Man is officially born. The scenes of Stark testing out his suit are some of the best the movie has to offer, and the child-like enthusiasm that Downey Jr. brings to the role is positively infectious. Stark/Iron Man heads back over to the middle-east to exact some patriotic terrorist ass-kickings in another one of the film's stand out set-pieces, has a wild encounter with two F-18 fighter jets, and then has a one-on-one smack down with Stane, who has created his own suit of armor that may or may not equal that of Stark's.
The script is mostly predictable but that's fine; I don't go to these types of films for award winning screenplays and ingenious plotting. However, it would have been nice to have one big surprise. Favreau isn't an action stylist in the vein of a Michael Bay or Sam Raimi just yet, and he doesn't have the directorial grace or elegance that Christopher Nolan brought to BATMAN BEGINS (which for me, is the best superhero movie ever made). But what he does have is an enthusiastic sense of the characters, Iron Man's comic mythology, and a relaxed yet stylish aesthetic which seamlessly bridges CGI and practical effects into a cohesive whole. He also clearly enjoys a great, big, old-fashioned explosion, which always puts a smile on my face; there are some huge fire-balls in this movie. The battle at the finale is a little rushed and would have been more effective had it taken place during the day, but it's still solid geeky fun to see Iron Man battling Iron Monger with sparks flying everywhere. One nifty bit glimpsed in the trailer has an occupied SUV being thrown back and forth like a basketball; how do they do this stuff?!
I do wish that there had been a better musical theme incorporated into the score; every superhero needs a rousing theme and surprisingly, Ramin Dajawadi's music is extremely forgettable. The music that Danny Elfman composed for Tim Burton's BATMAN films and Sam Raimi's first two SPIDERMAN films as well as John Williams' breathless original score to Dick Donner's SUPERMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE and Hans Zimmer and James Newtown Howard's brooding music in BATMAN BEGINS all helped solidify those pictures' dramatic intentions. Favreau turns up some AC/DC in one sequence and generally works in a rough-and-tumble fashion; he should have gone all out and given IRON MAN a kick-ass hard-rock anthem. Maybe next time.
But overall, IRON MAN works splendidly thanks to the terrific cast and the zippy pace maintained by Favreau and editor Dan Lebental, who worked with Favreau on ELF and ZATHURA. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, INSIDE MAN) doesn't over-do anything or needlessly complicate his visual palette; the film has a strong, vibrant look which comes off as a cross between the candy-colored images of the SPIDERMAN series and a little bit of the doom and gloom from the BATMAN films. But the one edgy thing that really stood out in IRON MAN was the fact that Iron Man is a superhero who actually kills the bad guys. I mean clear-cut kills people. Not apprehend them and take them to jail like Superman or subdue them and wait for the cops to grab them like Batman or Spiderman. Stark is a man who can't escape death (his bombs and weapons have been killing people and now his suit allows him the ability to take out the trash -- permanently) and that should make for juicy character shadings in the upcoming sequels. Also, in the comics, Stark's alcoholism is a major character trait/flaw that got explored and I hope that the filmmakers delve into that in the next film.
IRON MAN is the kind of smart-enough blockbuster that will satisfy people of all ages. The kiddies will love the fights, the women will love the buffed-up Downey Jr. and his lavish house, and the guys will love just about everything that the film has to offer. Well written, well produced, and well directed, IRON MAN is a great start to this new franchise. I have a feeling that the sequel, now that all of the introductions have been made, will be absolutely spectacular.