Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review - Iron Man

At the start of Jon Favreau's
Iron Man, Tony Stark hasn't yet become the titular hero, and his behaviour is more in line with that of a traditional villain than a figure who'll save the day. Stark is a billionaire who has made his fortune from the arms trade, spending much of his time inventing ever more ingenious and explosive ways for American troops to secure victory in war zones across the world. Snappily dressed, with a tight goatee and supercilious sneer playing across his lips, Stark lives the playboy lifestyle his wealth allows, absently buying up priceless works of art, just so he'll have them, and flying across the world in a private jet with stewardesses who double up as pole dancers. He seems blithely unconcerned about the consequences of his product, smiling smugly when a reporter asks him how he feels about the nickname "Merchant of Death". Naturally, he ends up bedding that particular reporter, an encounter he describes as "doing a piece for Vanity Fair".

This guy is our hero? Well, yes he is; and to be honest it's hard not to forgive Stark his indulgences because he's played by Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has gradually developed over the past decade into one of the most charismatic, likable and irresistibly watchable stars in American movies. He may have seemed an unlikely choice to headline a £150 million summer blockbuster, but he wears the part of Tony Stark like a second skin, giving a leading performance that ranks among the best yet seen in a comic book picture. From the minute he appears on screen – cracking wise in the back of a Humvee with awestruck American troops – we can relax in the knowledge that we're in safe hands. That vehicle is making its way through Afghanistan where Stark has just shown off his latest hi-tech missile The Jericho, when his group is suddenly ambushed by unseen assailants and Stark himself is almost blown to kingdom come by a bomb that bears his name. He awakes in a dingy cave, where his life has been saved by a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) who installed a small motor in his chest to keep pieces of shrapnel away from his heart. The incident has also caused Stark to undergo a change of heart in other ways, and he decides it's time to use his expertise to help the people his weapons have put in jeopardy.

So, when the bruised and battered Stark is ordered to build a bomb for his captors, he decides to build something else instead. With the help of Yinsen, his saviour, he quickly constructs a ramshackle metal suit, somehow managing to keep the whole thing under wraps until the very last minute from the men who have him under constant surveillance. When the time comes to reveal his creation, Stark bursts out of his prison and mows down the insurgents who run screaming from this terrifying apparition, before hitting the boosters and propelling himself to safety. After some time wandering around in the desert, Stark is spotted by a rescue team led, coincidentally, by his best pal Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard).

Back in America, we meet the two other significant figures in Stark's life, both of whom have been blessed with the silliest names imaginable. Obadiah Stane is the top executive at Stark Industries, and he's none too happy with Stark's public declaration decrying their company's product. His assistant, meanwhile, is just happy to have him back; her name is – seriously – Pepper Potts (did her parents lose a bet?), and she's played by Gwyneth Paltrow, which at least confirms
Iron Man's cast list as one of the classiest in this genre. With three Oscar-nominated actors and one winner contributing their best efforts, the performances are intelligent and sharp, and each actor manages to bring something interesting to their roles. Bridges is an alarming sight – with his head shaven bald and complemented by a big, bushy beard – and it's no surprise when he's revealed as the true villain of the piece, but his natural affable charm does a good job of masking his character's malevolence. Paltrow brings warmth and a light comic touch to her role as the assistant with a soft spot for her boss, and while Howard's part is a little less well-defined, his banter with Downey Jr. is fun.

In fact,
Iron Man's best scenes are the ones in which these fine actors are given a chance to act, and Favreau is a smart enough director to know that this cast is his trump card, so he makes sure the amount of time his leading man is inside the suit is kept to a minimum. There's a long, funny sequence in which Stark starts building his new and improved suit back in the lab, and Downey Jr. gets plenty of mileage from the comic opportunities this scenario affords. Favreau is a smart filmmaker who has been responsible for one of the best family films of recent years (2003's Elf) and one severely underrated effort (2005's Zathura), and the strong emphasis on story and character that could be found in both of those films is evident here. Everything in Iron Man plays out on a pleasingly human level, with the smaller, more intimate moments – Pepper helping Stark change his chest battery, or the pair dancing at a charity ball – being the most memorable in the picture, far more so than the action set-pieces we expect from a picture like this.

Of course,
Iron Man does eventually get round to delivering the CGI money shots, and some of it is well handled. An encounter between the hero and a couple of jets is terrific, but the final battle between Downey Jr. and Bridges – both tooled up inside iron suits – is a sorry mess. Hectically staged and frantically edited, the showdown is mostly incoherent, and I still haven't quite figured out how Stark managed to prevail. Actually, the whole climactic section of Iron Man does show signs of strain and perhaps it's simply a case of too many cooks, with two pairs of screenwriters contributing to the finished script. Those niggles aside, Iron Man is a grandly entertaining piece of work, slick and polished but full of clever touches and humorous asides. It's a solid base on which to build a sequel – something that the final scenes in this film all but guarantee – and all the ingredients are already in place. Iron Man has a good director, an excellent cast, and a story with promise; and above all, it has Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has found a role perfectly attuned to his particular gifts. It gives him the chance to show a large audience just how funny, cool and entertaining he can be, and he's the man who can make this franchise fly.