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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.8.08





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I, Robot

Robert Downey Jr. proves the man makes the suit

BY JASON BLAIR

IRON MAN: Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. Cinematography, Matthew Libatique. Music, Ramin Djawadi. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow. Paramount Pictures, 2008.PG-13. 126 minutes.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man

I'm always amused how, following the mutation of another Marvel comic into the Hollywood gene pool, celebrity fans stride forth to adopt it as their own. Iron Man counts among its notable worshippers Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges, two stars of the current film, not to mention Buffy director Joss Whedon and the rapper Ghostface Killah, who at least gets rewarded for his lifelong devotion with a cameo in the film. The genuflection seems almost obligatory. It's enough to leave someone unfamiliar with the comic — say, someone such as myself, who only recently discovered the Tony Stark saga — feeling a little left out. Perhaps sensing a lack of awareness, director Jon Favreau lingers a little too long on Stark's pre-suit period in the otherwise outstanding Iron Man, a fact that produced a loud rebuke from a child seated near me in the theater. As Iron Man labored through the creation of the suit's prototype, a young boy cried out in the silent auditorium: "You said this was IRON MAN!" Poor child, I mused. You're destined to be a film critic.

Rich, brilliant and morally wayward, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is the owner of Stark Industries, the world's leading weapons manufacturer. Given his penchant for alcohol and one-night stands, Stark is one of the more distracted — which is to say flawed — heroes in the Marvel warehouse, which makes the casting of Downey Jr. the best move since Daniel Craig got the Bond role. Downey Jr. plays Stark as a wickedly perverse playboy, but not a vapid one: After a series of difficult questions from a Vanity Fair reporter, Stark brings his MIT degree to bear on the clearly overmatched vixen. The film immediately cuts to them in a bedroom scene, which gives you a pretty good sense of the easygoing early chapters of Iron Man, in which Stark comes off as a fun-loving hedonist for whom weapons are a serious business and women are serious fun. His closest friends are two employees: Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), an executive at Stark Industries, and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony's personal secretary.

Following a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark's armored cavalry is ambushed, after which Stark is forced to build a deadly device by his captors. A gradual change of perspective ensues, partly due to the waterboarding he suffers, and partly due to the fact that the terrorists are in possession of brand-name munitions: Stark munitions, in fact. Somehow, under the watchful eye of his captors, Stark constructs a suit of armor — keep in mind, he's in a cave all this time — in which he is finally able to escape. It stretches credibility, not to mention the patience of children, who want to see Iron Man clearing the world of evil robots, but what elevates Iron Man are Downey Jr.'s performance and a screenplay, partly scripted by the writers of Children of Men, that is smart, snappy and thoughtful throughout. If Stark's facility with handtools seems far-fetched, his crisis of conscience does not.

Naturally, Stark's change of heart doesn't suit the weapons community, turning both Obadiah and Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark's military contact, against him. Bridges, in Lex Luthor mode, is in fine form here, although Howard isn't called upon to do very much other than reject Stark's transformation. Paltrow can do so much with so little; one hopes that during the sequels, her role as Stark's potential soul mate will grow. If Iron Man lacks the overall purity of Batman Begins in both style and execution, it's in part because the Iron Man is all bulk where Batman is sleek. But Iron Man is still the best summer action film this year — at least until the release of The Dark Knight.

Iron Man is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.