Thursday, May 08, 2008

Downey is the 'man' in summer's first blockbuster

In 1983 Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did a TV show on what made “Star Wars” special. They concluded one of the key factors was quality control. “Star Wars” was the first film to do a space adventure with first rate writing, directing, acting, special effects, sound, score and so on. It proved that even a seemingly silly or standard story could be raised to greatness if given the proper treatment.

This idea of quality control is also what makes “Iron Man” such a smashing success. Everything about it is top tier. It may be based on a comic book and be the story of a man who builds a suit of metal to battle evil, but “Iron Man” takes itself serious. There are plenty of laughs, but actor turned director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) and his team know that to make material like this work you can’t succumb to campiness.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a billionaire playboy, who made his fortune manufacturing weapons. The film opens in Afghanistan with Stark showcasing his latest weapon. He is kidnapped by a Taliban-esque group and told he now makes weapons for them. Instead Stark and his fellow captive (Shaun Toub) build a metal suit to escape. And all this in the first half hour.

The opening of the film has a roughness and bite that recalls 2005's little seen, but completely worthy “Lord of War.” That film featured Nicolas Cage as a snarky weapons dealer, but the difference here is that Stark grows a conscience and wants out of the business.

The film’s edge likely comes from Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the screenwriters behind the brilliant “Children of Men.” The writing team was brought into beef up a screenplay by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. You can sense their presence in the early scenes, which have an immediacy and a base in reality that permeates forward and keeps the film grounded.

Above all else, this is Downey’s film. Not enough can be said about how good Downey is here. Like a master chef, he perfectly blends the cynicism that marks his character at the beginning of the film with a burgeoning heart and a sense of purpose as he fine tunes his suit. With sarcasm, wit and intellect, you never doubt him for a second. He even makes you believe lines like “I just finally know what I have to do.”

Downey has always been a great actor, but unfortunately he became a punch-line when his drug use landed him in jail for a year. But since getting out and getting clean he has been delivering one knock-out performance after another in films like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Zodiac” and “A Scanner Darkly.” The problem was most of mainstream America wasn’t seeing his work. “Iron Man” will change all that. Just as “Pirates of the Caribbean” took Johnny Depp to a whole new level, “Iron Man” should do the same for Downey.

The film wouldn’t work nearly as well if Downey’s strong central performance wasn’t surrounded by a cast who equaled his work and luckily everyone here is stellar. Given the material, it would be easy for any of the cast to ham it up, but they don’t. They play the film straight and that’s key.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s loyal assistant is in good form. It may seem like a throwaway role, but the dialogue between Paltrow and Downey has a rat-a-tat-tat spark that recalls classic screwball comedy.

Jeff Bridges with a shaved head that makes him look like Lex Luthor plays Stark’s shady business partner. Again, what seems like a nothing role is more than what it first appears and Bridges enriches his character with a quiet menace. Terrance Howard (“The Brave One,” “Hustle and Flow”) gets the short straw in terms of characters as Stark’s closest thing to a friend, but he plays the role well.

“Iron Man” is more than just a comic book movie. The film is more about character and internal conflict than it is about big action scenes. There are large stretches between the elaborate special effects sequences. In fact the final confrontation between Iron Man and his first nemesis is not nearly as interesting as what preceded it, but teens should lap it up regardless.

So often comic book films end anti-climatically or tease for a sequel in a manner that frustrates or angers an audience. “Iron Man” has a final moment that is so unexpected and that gets a laugh so big that you are left wanting more in the best way possible.

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