Finally, someone’s found a sure-fire way to make money with a modern Middle East war movie: Just send a Marvel superhero into the fray to kick some insurgent butt. The powerhouse comicbook-inspired actioner “Iron Man” isn’t principally about this fantasy, but it won’t hurt at least American audiences’ enjoyment of this expansively entertaining special effects extravaganza. Having an actor as supercharged as Robert Downey Jr. at the center of such a tech-oriented enterprise reps a huge plus, and Paramount should reap big B.O. rewards by getting out ahead of the summer tentpole pack with such a classy refitting of an overworked format.
It’s refreshing, for a start, that the character suddenly endowed with superpowers isn’t a dweeby teen, but rather a pushing-middle-age genius who is himself entirely responsible for the advanced means he acquires to combat his adversaries; even more than the latest incarnation of Batman, he’s a self-made superman. And while we’ve seen plenty of masks and gravity-resistant heroes before, the outfit sported by the main man here, which looks as though it was made by a top ski boot manufacturer, is striking and capable of great things.
Half-hour setup neatly dovetails essential character background with the flawed hero’s extreme imperilment. Imperious, sarcastic and arrogant, Tony Stark (Downey) creates the world’s most sophisticated weapons for the U.S. Army. A boozer and brash ladies’ man, the gazillionaire (originally based to a great extent on Howard Hughes) inherited Stark Industries from his late father and runs the company with his dad’s partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Praised as a technological Da Vinci and reviled as “the merchant of death,” this is a man who always gets what he wants.
On a demonstration trip to Afghanistan, however, Tony is ambushed and kidnapped by swarthy insurgent types who take him to a cave, connect him to a bomb and command him to make them his latest and greatest weapon. Despite being closely watched, the devious dude surreptitiously creates a sort of high-tech armor suit that turns him into “a destructive Robbie the Robot” and enables him to thwart his captors and fly off into the desert, where he promptly crashes before being rescued by Yanks.
Tony arrives back home a changed man. Revealing that during captivity he “realized I have more to offer the world than making things that blow up,” Tony announces his exit from the arms business, which sends his huge firm’s stock plummeting and pits the ruthless Obadiah against him.
Trying to settle on what to do with his life, Tony begins fashioning a more sophisticated version of his jerry-rigged suit, and one of the film’s most delightful scenes has him making a trial run in his warehouse; seamless visual effects allow an encased Tony to hover and rocket around via boot and glove jets. In a memorable maiden voyage, he zooms out of his Malibu h.q. and shoots above Santa Monica on his way to testing the outer atmospheric limits of his marvelous invention.
At the same time, the bad boys back in Afghanistan are patching together the broken remains of Tony’s original improvised suit and wreaking havoc on the local populace with a cache of stolen Stark weapons. It’s easy to see where this is headed, and it isn’t long before Tony is high-flying it back for a little precision target practice at the expense of the nasties. (Only the snide will wonder why he doesn’t stop off in Iraq on the way home to put things in order there.)
Foreign kidnap-and-revenge format actually recycles the initial “Iron Man” storyline from the April 1963 Marvel comic, in which the heavies were Vietcong. Current villains do not espouse any particular religion or ideology, although their leader, the bald-headed Raza (Faran Tahir), professes a desire to become the new Genghis Khan.
Tony’s self-appointed role as international enforcer doesn’t go down well with U.S. officials, including his Pentagon pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard), and another action highlight has supersonic Iron Man in a wild dogfight with a couple of American fighter jets.
With foreign devils out of the way, at least for the moment, the final act’s dynamic pits Tony against turncoat Obadiah. Although kids will probably like it, the climactic giant suit vs. giant suit battle, which, with its machines’ multitude of moving parts and resultant clanging metal smacks all too much of “Transformers,” is the pic’s only disappointment.
Talent lineup on both sides of the camera injects familiar conceits with fresh energy and stylistic polish. The work of two screenwriting teams — Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (“Children of Men”) and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway — have been blended effectively to keep the plot moving and provide motor-mouthed Downey with plenty of snappy dialogue. Ever-eclectic director Jon Favreau, who briefly pops up onscreen as a Stark minion, maintains a brisk but not frantic pace, and, in concert with lenser Matthew Libatique, production designer J. Michael Riva and the first-rate visual effects team, has made an unusually elegant looking film for the genre.
Snapping off lines as crisply as Bugs Bunny might bite into a carrot, the sculpture-bearded Downey invigorates the entire proceedings in a way no other actor ever has in this field. Initially conveying Tony’s Matt Helm lifestyle as if it’s second nature, Downey possesses a one-of-a-kind intensity that perfectly serves the character’s second-act drive and obstinacy. His Achilles’ heel is his heart, at first threatened by shrapnel and later central to his superpower and his submerged romantic relationship with ever-loyal assistant Pepper Potts, who Gwyneth Paltrow, in an unexpected casting move, endows with smarts and appeal.
Shaven-headed and sporting a bushy beard in a way that makes him rather resemble Bruce Willis, Bridges is an imposing antagonist. Other roles, including Howard’s second-billed Army officer, are one-dimensional.
All tech credits are tops.