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Man of steel plates: Downey Jr. in Iron Man.

Bullet-Proof Wit

By Shawn Stone

Iron Man

Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, birds are singing . . . and the multiplexes of America are packed with people who want to see shit blown up good. And you know what? There’s probably no higher praise (aside from the millions spent so far on theater tickets) for Marvel’s Iron Man than this: Director Jon Favreau and his army of special-effects pros blow shit up good—real good.

There are battles in the desert, replete with spectacular explosions; there are breathless, death-defying flights over downtown Los Angeles; and there is a climactic battle between flying men in giant-freaking-metal robot machines! What more could a moviegoer want?

The story is simple: Jerk suffers for his past sins, decides to reform, defeats the bad guy and begins an exciting career as a metal-clad semi-robot superhero. This is a different breed of super-enhanced cinematic thrill ride, though. There were long, long stretches in Iron Man when I forgot I was watching a superhero movie. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is the film’s acerbic star, Robert Downey Jr.

For one thing, Downey takes his character, billionaire arms dealer and scientific super-genius Tony Stark, seriously. This is absolutely essential. Compare Alan Rickman’s entertainingly scenery-chewing performance in the original Die Hard with Jeremy Irons’ dreadfully hammy work in that film’s second sequel. (Their characters, you may recall, were supposed to be brothers.) Rickman took his cartoony villain seriously with excellent results, while Irons disdained the material and ended up being a weak nemesis for Bruce Willis. The lesson? Just because the picture ain’t Hamlet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it with respect.

The “hero,” Stark, is an alcoholic playboy who needs his heart broken before he manages to give a damn about someone else—but he never loses his sense of humor. And Downey is hilarious. (He can probably thank himself, as he reportedly rewrote most of the dialogue.) Whether offhandedly describing an encounter with a starfucking journalist (“I got caught doing a piece for Vanity Fair”) or bantering with the robots in his lab, he’s never at a loss for words.

Director Favreau (Elf, Swingers) has an equally light touch, keeping potentially mawkish scenes (Iron Man saves the poor people of Afghanistan, Iron Man saves a car full of kiddies) straightforward. The supporting cast—Gwyneth Paltrow as the secretary with a heart of gold, Terrence Howard as the best friend, Jeff Bridges as the malevolent mentor—is first class.

It’s Downey’s triumph, though. And that of all those special-effects drones, of course.


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