Friday, May 02, 2008

Iron Man / ***½ (PG-13)

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey, Jr.
Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger: Jeff Bridges
Jim Rhodes: Terrence Howard
Pepper Potts: Gwyneth Paltrow

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway. Based on characters created by Stan Lee & Don Heck & Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of sci-fi violence, and brief suggestive content).

The summer blockbuster machine boots up this weekend with the release of yet another comic book hero brought from page to screen, and it is—quite literally—a blast! “Iron Man” marks Marvel Studio’s first self-financed movie, and it seems as if the controlling venture from the comic book’s publisher has paid off. This movie is a wonderful way to kick off the summer season.

Robert Downey, Jr. (“Zodiac”) is Tony Stark, a second-generation weapons manufacturer and playboy who lives life with lavish attitude. After a demonstration of his latest missile in Afghanistan, terrorists who want him to build his new missile for them ambush his convoy. Stark, an engineering genius, instead builds himself a suit of robotic armor to escape his captors. Once back in America, he realizes the errors of his war-mongering past and decides to dedicate his life to help those that his weapons have come to threaten.

The movie spends a great deal of time working out the logistics and functionality of the armor technology Stark creates. The original suit he designs to escape from the terrorists is very basic with a high impact purpose of destruction and an unexpected getaway. When he returns to the States, he upgrades his original design into a sleeker more, refined weapon with an emphasis on flight. There are some great moments of levity from Downey and director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) in a sequence where Stark tries to get the hang of the suit’s jet propulsion.

Stark’s decision to give up manufacturing weapons doesn’t sit well with his business partner, Obadiah Stane. Stane’s own interests in the company’s dealings are a little darker than Stark suspects, and so he becomes an adversary. Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”) might seem a strange casting choice for a comic book villain considering the laidback nature of most of his roles, but he is a rather large imposing man whose subtle acting makes for a great bad guy.

Stark’s change of heart also comes as surprise to his best—or rather only—friend, Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard, “The Brave One”). Head of the military’s weapons development division, Rhodes is able to help his friend avoid some undue military aggression after Iron Man shows up in Afghanistan to remove some Stark-produced weapons from terrorist hands. Stark’s heart also gets turned for his long-time assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”). But the filmmakers do good not to get carried away with their romance, which is never quite realized here.

Favreau’s direction isn’t flashy, but it’s sure and confident. The action sequences are tight, easy to follow and keep the audience involved. But the development between the action scenes never seems rushed and is equally involving. I never once wanted for the movie to get on with it, nor did I spend any time reflecting back on what had happened. The movie only has one direction—forward.

“Iron Man” lacks much of the pathos of many of the more successful comic book adaptations, such as “Batman Begins” or “Spider-Man 2”. But that is really fitting for the character of Tony Stark, who’s not really an introspective guy. Downey brings a matter-of-fact directness lacking in most superhero roles. He starts out all surface material here, and although his kidnapping changes him, he remains the goal-oriented character that could have built a multi-billion dollar company like Stark Enterprises.

This movie never missteps. “Iron Man” is popcorn entertainment, but it executes the material very well. All the developments fall into place logically and each character remains true. It is an efficient movie—despite a running time topping two hours—where everything that happens draws the story along and nothing seems extraneous. There are explosions and laughs and a good time to be had. What better way is there to kick off a summer blockbuster season?

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