Poor Robert Downey, Jr. never gets any respect; for years he was always getting thrown in jail, or shoved into another rehab program. Apart from getting kicked off “Ally McBeal” he did some good work in some movies most people never saw: a real comedown for the talented actor who got an Oscar nomination in 1992 for playing Charlie Chaplin.
    All the more pleasing that he now seems to have licked the substance abuse and found a really big, flashy role, with built-in respect, that he can play the bejabbers out of and be hugely entertaining.
    Those of you who follow this space (hellooo?) know that I have small tolerance for big, noisy, gadget-and-effects-crammed thrillers. That's mostly because the producers/directors usually let the gadgets carry the movie and forget about the human beings.
    But Jon Favreau's “Iron Man,” currently at the Narrow Gauge, starts with an engagingly-written script (based on Stan Lee's Marvel comic from the 60s) that crackles with zippy one-liners and amusing dialogue in the William Powell and Myrna Loy mode, while updating the story to the current War on Terror. It goes on to delineate a credible turn of heart, and to say some interesting things about guilt and responsibility.
    Downey plays Tony Stark, a gazillionaire genius weapons manufacturer who lives in a show-off mansion in Malibu that has the basement lab/toy room you would expect. But we first see him in Afghanistan, demonstrating his new weapon, a puny-looking missile that can level mountain ranges. On the way back to the base the convoy is attacked and Stark is taken prisoner; locked into a makeshift lab in a cave, he's ordered to reproduce his new weapon.
    His captors, though they look like the popular image of the Taliban, are refreshingly free of religious or political cant. Their leader, played with much presence by Faran Tahir, just wants to rule the world, as who doesn't?
    While Stark is busy fooling his captors by forging a suit of armor and a tiny nuclear reactor to go where his heart used to be (I won't even try) we flash back to recent scenes in Vegas and Malibu, where we meet his best friend Rhodes (Terrence Howard); his business partner/father figure played by Jeff Bridges; and his Gal Friday, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who provides the other half of the Powell-Loy equation.
    Downey's way with a one-liner is so breezy and insouciant that he slips them past you before you realize they're funny. “Give me a scotch,” he subvocals to a bartender, “I'm starving.” And his scene with Paltrow at a fancy reception is so natural that you think it must be improvised, and so charming you think it must have been VERY cleverly scripted. (Can it really have been a decade since Gwyneth was radiant in “Shakespeare In Love”? Well, she's just as radiant here.) The expected hook-up between Stark and his all-business aide keeps not happening, even though Stark is a playboy whose flight attendants double as pole dancers on his private jet.
    What Downey also slips past you is the subtle change of heart that overtakes him after his escape from captivity. Having seen first-hand the misery his weapons cause, he resolves to do something about it, and spends a long stretch of the movie in his basement constructing his new aerial RoboCop suit. (This is one way we know the movie is the first in an Iron Man franchise – if it were a one-off, the construction would take about 90 seconds.)
    It's also the funniest sustained joke in the film. Stark keeps up a running patter with his mechanical aides and they answer back, the computer in a calm voice like HAL in “2001,” and the robot arm with R2D2-like parps and whootles. There are two pieces of slapstick that bounced me right out of my seat with uncontrolled guffaws; I won't decribe them, but keep an eye on the grand piano.
    I also won't spoil the plot twists that bring the movie to its climax, but it will surprize nobody in these double-dealing days that the real enemies are not a small band of peasants hiding in a cave in Central Asia.
    Alas, it's that bucket-of-bolts climactic battle in the stratosphere that brings us back to earth. Once Downey climbs into his shining armor, and the bad guy into his even bigger tin suit, it becomes a predictable, noisy slug-fest that resembles every other CGI techno-thriller; it even has the requisite car crashes on Wilshire Boulevard. I have to admit, though, that the final edition of the Iron Man suit is as cool as the other side of the pillow.
    Every now and then I mutter about the Technology Trap in which the movies are currently struggling: since computers can show us absolutely anything on screen, the race to find something New and Exciting is spiraling out of control. Soon, I fear, if they haven't already, the effects are going to go beyond exciting and into the realm of the ludicrous.
    “Iron Man” may be a step back in the direction of proportion and humanity, because when you think of a sequel you find yourself hoping for more cool scenes between Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow.