Monday, April 28, 2008

Iron Man reviewed!

From AICN, yes, IRON MAN is everything you were hoping for.

To qualify that statement, I should point out that it will only be what you were hoping for if, in fact, you were hoping for one of the most enjoyable superhero movies ever made, with no weak spots and brilliant characterisation. Fanboys with impossibly high standards who are only happy when they're poking holes in things are going to have their work cut out for them.

I'm not going to delve into the plot at all -- one of the reasons I studiously avoided most of the marketing for this film is so I could have some surprises when I actually watched it, and I'm glad I did -- but I will say that this film should help put to bed the argument that origin stories are getting tired. I've always felt that complaining about seeing an origin story in a superhero movie is like complaining about every romantic comedy featuring a guy and a girl hooking up. Isn't the origin half the fun? Taking something patently ridiculous and trying to have it make sense for a cynical 21st century audience? IRON MAN's origin story actually has its cake and eats it too; somehow, the film blends a relatively grounded trial-and-error process with moments of glorious ridiculousness. Watching Tony Stark go from self-centred weapons manufacturer to noble superhero is the
best part of this film, and it quite rightly focuses most of its energies on this transformation.

Now, to the directorial stylings of Jon Favreau... Reading interviews with him early on in the process, I was convinced of his passion and understanding for the genre, but what impressed me in the film itself was his handling of the action scenes. Action scenes are typically considered the most exciting part of any film (which is why you hear so many stories about studios reshooting films to cram in more tedious car chases), but they're actually the thing that bores me most. They're usually so workmanlike and standard, that I find myself looking at my watch more than the screen. Of course, I've begun to notice that only happens with directors who are generally considered "action directors". I think recent trends against the typical action film bear this out. Genuine action scene excitement is, these days, typically generated by guys like Paul Greengrass and Peter Jackson; not the names people used to associate this sort of movie. And that's why it works. Following in that tradition, Favreau appears to understand why action is supposed to be exciting, and delivers scenes that are, upon close inspection, constructed in a very unconventional way.

On to the cast... Robert Downey Jnr is on screen for practically the entire film, which in itself is enough to recommend it. I honestly believe this is some of his best work... and I'd say more about him, but I'm actually trying to tone down the gushing. Needless to say, he's perfectly suited to the role; his casting is almost certainly the film's biggest masterstroke.

I'm afraid I can't fault the supporting cast, either. Jeff Bridges is predictably great, Terrence Howard continues to prove he's the one of the best character actors around, and Gwyneth Paltrow matches Downey Jnr in every scene they share. We hear this claim a lot in press notes for comic book films, but this time it's true: Pepper Potts is not a standard damsel-in-distress. She's an active foil to Stark, and an actual key participant in the climactic battle. I'm a huge fan of SPIDER-MAN 2 and BATMAN BEGINS, but neither of those films really knew what to do with their love interest. IRON MAN does. Paltrow tends to cop a lot of flack, but I've always been a fan. When she's in the right movie (SE7EN, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS), she's perfect. Oh, and very glad to see Clark Gregg getting a lot of screen time. I love Clark Gregg.

I haven't mentioned special effects yet, mostly because I didn't notice them. And that's actually a compliment. I couldn't tell the difference between the practical effects and the CGI because I wasn't sitting there thinking "Oh, isn't that clever how they rendered those flames"; I was instead watching Iron Man fly. It's not often that you can immerse yourself completely in a film so wall-to-wall with effects, which makes the achievement all the more impressive.

This is usually the part of the review where I'd talk about the moments where the film dropped the ball, in order to maintain (or manufacture) my reputation as an objective critic. Sadly for me, I can't find such a moment, so I'll have to risk your scorn and derision and claims of plantiness until you see the film this weekend and discover that I was telling the truth all along.

I still consider SPIDER-MAN 2 to be the greatest superhero movie to date, but IRON MAN firmly secures its place as an automatic name-check when we speak about the highlights of the genre. They can't make the sequel fast enough.

(PS: As a side note, don't hold your breath for the Samuel L Jackson cameo. The scene they notoriously filmed with Stark and Nick Fury is, it now seems, undoubtedly for INCREDIBLE HULK. But there are some great S.H.I.E.L.D. references that will no doubt pay off in future Marvel movies.)


JPX said...

From darkhorizons, After running its brand into the ground with its recent half-baked 'three-quels' and other vacuous nonsense ("Ghost Rider," "Fantastic Four"), Marvel's first independently-produced feature "Iron Man" signals a welcome return to form for the prodigious comic label.

Making full use of its mega-budget, the film's technical specs and production values are solid across the board, and often excel. As this is as much about the gadgets as it is about stopping villains, the designers and effects team step up to the plate with impressive sets and mechanics that combine smoothly with relatively seamless CG. From the titular character soaring through the skies, to various computer display screens that will make any technogeek drool (you'll want those bedroom windows for your own house), the film puts every dollar up on screen.

However it's star Robert Downey Jr., along with director Jon Favreau, who help this rise above formula. The result is something that, whilst hardly original or ground breaking, is nevertheless refreshing in its earnestness to avoid dark dramatic stylings in favor of an easy-going, crowd-pleasing action movie with a sprinkle of anti-war and redemption themes.

Downey's usual panache for slightly manic but droll delivery is the real backbone of the film - without him this simply would not work. The character of Tony Stark after all is a smarmy arms-dealing playboy who changes his mind after being held hostage by Afghan extremists whom he unwittingly helped arm. Treating the role too seriously or lightly would completely undermine everything else. Yet Downey and the rest of the cast find just the right balance to keep things believable enough to add suspense, but incorporates a touch of sci-fi to avoid certain real world credibility issues and obstacle that keep popping up.

Gwyneth Paltrow also surprises as Stark's assertive personal assistant Pepper Potts. Not only does she get a great line to kick off with, but her scenes with Downey are amongst the best as they bring an interesting dynamic to the otherwise familiar scenario of a secretary enamored with her boss. They also give the film its few scant moments of emotional depth amongst the more straight forward easy thrills and stock origin story narrative.

Stuck in generic archetypes as the friend and villain respectively, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges provide more solid footing to their roles than they deserve. The film showcases Stark, so the other characters are generally underwritten and serve more as plot devices. The gratuitous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents seem to be there only to serve as the basis of one of the film's few failed running gags, whilst Stark's voice-less aperture robots have more personality than some of the human supporting characters.

For all its little moments of inspired creativity, the script by four separate writers falls back on some tired and dubious material for the meat of the story. The Afghan terrorists who play a key role are pointedly vague about their identities and cause (they want to start up their own version of the Mongol Empire), yet the comparisons to what happened with the Mujahideen could not get any more blatant. The tone, though mostly quite teen-safe, goes some dark places that don't seem to comfortably fit the rest of the film. Looking back it is often surprising how much of the film works in spite of the script rather than because of it.

Likewise the pacing hits the odd speed bump, notably a second act that spends just a little too much time developing the armor, to a third act which definitely drags out with a useless twist, and a robot vs. robot fight that's visually impressive but not terribly exciting. It's the one time the CG becomes too blatant, and isn't helped by a deus ex machina explosion that conveniently covers plot holes and robs us of a truly satisfying conclusion. No shame though, 'last act slippage' is a pesky condition that plagues all superhero origin movies from X-Men's mutant radiation wave, ro Spider-Man's Power Rangers-style fights with the Green Goblin. Even "Batman Begins", the new standard that sits above all other recent superhero flicks, finds its deftly tight narrative marred by a dubious microwave-triggered panic-inducing steam scheme.

By all counts though Favreau has done a stellar job - the more sedate scenes are superbly edited, and the other big action scenes (the jet dogfight, the test rocket runs, the breakout of the cave) are exceedingly well filmed with jaw-droppingly massive fireballs, high-octane thrills and off-the-wall comedic touches. This is also one of the few superhero films where the humor is well-placed. Even the few more over the top moments like Stark's private plane nightclub to an impromptu bit of surgery on Pepper's part, generate solid laughs.

Perfectly positioned in early May, the film has just the right tone for its release - think of it as a cooler and more tech-heavy "Spider-Man" without all that wallowing in nauseating teen angst or speeches of responsibility, but concurrently having less emotional heft to push it beyond popcorn blockbuster territory. Its cast, principally Downey Jr., and some solid direction breathe a lot of life and energy into an otherwise run-of-the-mill comic book origin movie. Much like the first "X-Men", this is a well-made and perfectly serviceable action film that begs for the same team to put together a meatier and more exciting tale in the inevitable and welcome sequel.

DCD said...

I'm psyched! Have to get out to see this.

Robert Downey Jr is a big crush of mine...right up there w/John Cusack. Not that that is the reason I will go to see the flick, it just helps!

Octopunk said...

Great! I'm looking forward to this.

It's true, origin stories don't have to suck, it's just that so often they do. Usually because they're lame and/or act as a stumbling block or tedious obligation stuck on the front of the real story.

Anonymous said...

Not true about Samuel L Jackson. He is in Iron Man. Just not in the print you saw. Check for details.