May 3, 2008

Movie Review: Ironman

The Wife sometimes surprises me with her movie choices; yesterday she decided that Iron Man looked good and I didn't hesitate to suggest we catch a matinée. I wasn't at all unhappy with her agreement to my plan, it was just a little bit surprising because when we first saw a preview for it, she was unfamiliar with the character and thought it looked kind of cheesy. Fortunately, there were good reviews to back me up.

: Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the genius playboy CEO of a weapons-manufacturing conglomerate. When he is captured by terrorists, he builds himself a high-powered suit of armor that he uses to escape. Realizing that his company has been selling advanced weaponry to the bad guys as well as the good guys, he later improves on the idea and uses his new device to personally go back and destroy his weapons that have fallen into the hands of America's enemies. But not everyone is happy with his plans, and once again Stark is forced to confront the fact that technology, once loosed into the world, is a genie that will not go back into its bottle.

Script: The intent of the writers was clearly to produce a tongue-in-cheek action flick. The superhero action parts are just right; the irony sometimes crosses the line into preciousness. But having dispensed with the heavy, moody approach of (for instance) Batman Begins, the script provides just enough opportunities for gratuitous screen time for attractive women -- this is a popcorn flick aimed at young men, after all. In terms of moving the plot of the movie forward, it's a little bit clunky and predictable, but again, it's not trying to be subtle in the first place, so it was more than sufficient to get the job done. One serious complaint: Downey seems to spend a great deal of time in his laboratory mumbling to his robotic assistants about building the Iron Man suit, and not so much time out in the real world kicking bad-guy butt. It also seems a bit unusual to see the script toy with the idea of evil lurking within the government (a common enough theme) and then resolve that tension the way it does.

Cast: Very enjoyable. Robert Downey, Jr. was an inspired choice for this version of Tony Stark. Never taking himself too seriously as either the dissolute playboy or the bent-on-vindication Iron Man, Downey instead brings a light, sarcastic touch to the character. He is also talented enough of an actor to convey some of the character's motivations with facial expressions and blocking, so he can leave a lot of things unspoken but still effectively conveyed. It's hard to tell whether he's mugging for the camera or really playing with the role, though, and he doesn't break the fourth wall at any point. Jeff Bridges is nearly unrecognizable as Obidiah Stane, and he threatens to, but does not quite, steal the show. Both The Wife and I mistook Terrence Howard for Cuba Gooding, Jr., so light was his performance as sidekick Jim Rhodes. Gwynneth Paltrow gets strawberry blonde hair for her role -- count me in! Stan Lee's cameo is quite funny, too.

Cinematography: If you've ever been in that part of California, it's fairly easy to identify the portions of southern Inyo County that double for Afghanistan in the movie, but hey, it's not like you were expecting them to really go to Afghanistan to film a movie like this in the first place. And there were plenty of good action scenes and good jokes that were not used in the previews, so it's worth your time to see the movie. One of the problems with the Iron Man costume is that you can't see the actor's face as he's working the suit. This problem is solved nicely with a close-up shot of Downey's face with reflections of his heads-up display glowing off of it as he uses voice commands to control the armor suit.

Costumes: As with most superhero movies, the legacy of 1950's style depictions of their central characters in a modern setting can seem silly. There is no reason to think that the bright red-and-gold color scheme of the comic book would be the right choice for Iron Man in today's setting, and you would imagine that a guy like Downey's character would have known that. Most of the rest of the costuming is pretty much just putting the characters in either business or military dress, and the terrorists look like terrorists that we see on TV news. One scene reveals the hero's weakness, which is obviously an old effect trick, but creates an opportunity for good character building between Downey and Paltrow.

Effects: Iron Man is heavy on the CGI, as you might imagine; if there was a real full suit of armor built for a stuntman (or even Downey) to walk around in on camera it must have been exceptionally light and later enhanced by the graphics guys. Having already made the decision to be light in their approach to the story and characters, the directors wisely dispensed with gritty realism in the effects and action sequences and deliver comic-book action instead, which is the reason you go see a comic book movie in the first place.

Music: One theory of scoring a movie is that the audience should rarely be conscious of the score, that the music should support the action in a subtle way. This is the school of thought underlying Iron Man; except for incidental music and the loud rock music (including a pleasing use of Suicidal Tendencies' brilliant "Institutionalized") whatever instrumental score was used for background music is kept in the background. So not much to report here other than the overt incidentals, which are all hook-heavy, power-chord rock classics.

Comments: Enough with the gritty realism already, this is the first big action movie of the summer and at least it's an original franchise in a world of sequels. (There will be sequels to this movie, too; make no mistake about that.) Don't go into this movie expecting anything other than boyish fun; in that respect, it delivers. Wry in its self-consciousness as a movie version of a somewhat silly comic book idea, the movie keeps things light and fun despite its love affair with the hero's laboratory and the CSI-like sequences of the power armor suit being built and tested. Go see it already, it's a fun flick.

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