Sunday, May 4, 2008
Hunk of Junk
The cunning behind Iron Man's appeal is evident right off the bat. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a cocky multimillionaire playboy arms manufacturer in Afghanistan for a demonstration of his latest weapon of mass destruction, rides in a convoy of American soldiers who at first appear to be sizing him up, only to then burst into grins and ask to have their pictures taken with him. Their fanboy seal of approval is cut short when the convoy is brutally attacked by Afghans armed with goodies from Stark's own company, who kill the soldiers, kidnap Stark and take him back to their mountain lair with orders to build them one of his superweapons. Wounded and chagrined, Stark instead constructs a special metal suit and jets out of there, newly determined to use his money and weaponry for good. It's like watching the head of Halliburton open a soup kitchen.
Within its opening twenty minutes, Iron Man casts its net for the widest demographic yet to grace a comic-book hero on the big screen: in addition to the built-in Marvel fan base (who probably know the character's history better than their own family trees) the antiwar types can admire the hero's change of heart and tut-tut at the sight of American hardware in the hands of the enemy, while the jingoists can thump their chests as stuff blows up real good. Then there are the critics, who seem to be thoroughly seduced by the unconventional casting of Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead. A middle-aged character actor cementing his comeback from the abyss in a blockbuster is an irresistible story, and to be sure, Downey gives Stark an eccentric charm that is normally lacking in this genre. I wish I could say that he elevates the movie as high as Johnny Depp did the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but Iron Man lands with a thud.
Start with the Afghans. I don't have a problem with a comic-book scenario addressing the contemporary political climate, provided it does so in a thoughtful manner. Yet from the moment the sneering brown faces -- fresh from a casting call for Executive Decision -- show up in Iron Man, hooding and torturing our hero in a manner that would reek with irony were there any context, it's clear that we are squarely in Hollywood's evil-darkie territory, a far cry from the complex, disquieting torture sequence that formed the centerpiece of Three Kings. (Naturally, the kindly Arab physician-scientist who saves Stark's life and helps him escape, is of the light-skinned Disney's Aladdin variety.)
An immensely appealing presence in front of the camera, Jon Favreau has yet to sell me on his talent behind it. He has a nice sense of humor, and he's attuned to Gwyneth Paltrow's freckles more than most. But overall his directing style, in both Elf and this film, feels ham-fisted to me; and his use of metaphors, like the image of Stark's glowing electromagnetic heart, don't resonate as strongly as they should, perhaps because all the stumblebum crap (such as Stark's cringe-worthy press conference after his escape) keeps getting in the way.
Favreau and his quartet of screenwriters attempt to offer up some American complicity by having Stark's literal comrade-in-arms Obadiah Stane (which sounds like something out of the Old Testament crossed with Philip Roth) become the archvillain in the picture, funneling arms to terrorists in order to take over Stark's company. As Stane, Jeff Bridges is also an idiosyncratic choice, and he wields his new girth and bald dome to good effect. But Stane's motives aren't enough to sustain interest in the story -- unlike Batman Begins, the film is strangely underpopulated -- and after the stereotypical Afghans are obliterated by Stark-as-Iron-Man, we're left with a pair of gifted actors duking it out in metal suits. If only John Wayne and Montgomery Clift had seen the day.