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
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
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