Friday, May 2, 2008

Robert Downey's heavy metal hit

Summary: In a comic-book culture (that would be ours), it's hardly surprising that comic books provide the basis for some of Hollywood's most successful films. The latest comic book hero to enter the fray is Iron Man, a creation of the folks at Marvel Comics, who also gave us Spider Man. "Iron Man" probably does a better job of introducing its tarnished hero than in figuring out what to do with him. Still, the groundwork has been laid for another mega-buck franchise. On top of that, the movie provides a vehicle that Robert Downey Jr. -- once one of Hollywood's baddest of bad boys -- can ride to redemption.

"Iron Man" has a gripping beginning. Arms manufacturer, technical genius and party animal Tony Stark (Downey) rides in a Humvee with soldiers in Afghanistan. He's making jokes and being amusingly flip when an explosion upsets the apple cart of a life in which nothing -- even weapons of mass destruction -- seems to have been taken seriously.

Suddenly, Stark finds himself a prisoner of an unidentified group of insurgents. These are life-changing circumstances to say the least, and they quickly transform Stark from a glib genius to a man with a single-minded mission. Stark, who escapes from his captors by cobbling together a metal suit that protects him from bullets and launches missiles and flames, vows to destroy the weapons that he has created, which not only are wielded by American soldiers but by their enemies.

"Iron Man" owes much of its success to Downey, an actor who, at first blush, seems an unlikely candidate for a franchise movie. Intense with a darting intelligence that can't quite find a resting spot, Downey seems more suited to cynicism than heroism. But he pulls off this super-heroic big-screen feat, probably because -- for all his armor -- Iron Man has feet of clay. His weapons-dealing past and party-boy personality have kept him from committing to anything.

Once he returns to the U.S., Downey's Stark sets about perfecting his Iron Man suit, a task that gives director Jon Favreau, an actor who has directed pictures such as "Elf," an opportunity to blend special effects with Downey's irony-prone personality. Scenes in which Stark tries to master jet-propelled flying offer an amusing mixture of trial-and-error experimentation.

In addition to the expected, high-tech marvels -- most of them housed in Stark's cliff-hugging Malibu home -- a supporting cast accessorizes the proceedings. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Pepper Potts, the loyal assistant who loves Stark but tries to keep her distance. Terrence Howard, looking a bit bored, appears as Rhodey, a high-ranking military man who specializes in weapons procurement. A bald, bearded and initially unrecognizable Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, an executive who works for Stark and who opposes Stark's plan to shift the company's focus from wanton destruction to the selective elimination of evil.

The movie's various themes probably fall a bit short of mythic, but the key to Iron Man involves his heart. Wounds acquired in the explosive opening scene require that Stark's life be maintained by an artificial device that keeps shrapnel from penetrating his heart. This glowing bit of advanced technology makes him look like a modern day Tin Man, assuming -- of course -- that the Tin Man could have made Oz look like a Tater Tot that had had the misfortune of tangling with a flame thrower.

A booming, end-of-picture battle allows sound to trump sense, but that's the way of these pictures. The clangorous battle between two men in iron suits feels a bit generic, almost as if it were something we might expect to see on the ride home from work. I found myself asking -- ungratefully I suppose -- "You mean this is it?"

Truth is I'd rather watch Downey than a special effect that conceals his body inside carefully articulated heavy metal, but Downey's a strong enough actor not to vanish amid the high tech bric-a-brac. That could be the movie's saving grace. You remember the man more than his brilliantly engineered suit.

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