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Review: “Iron Man” (2008)

Truth likes to hide in triteness; great responsibility does trail on the heels of great power. Along the way, people tried to tell billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that. With all that ice clinking in his lowball of Scotch, he had trouble hearing them — and that’s not counting the times Tony was embarking on his mission to do the horizontal mambo with all 12 Maxim cover models (pity about Miss March). Whatever honorable qualities comic books have taught us to expect in superheroes, they don’t exist in Tony Stark. He’s a horndog with a smart mouth.

Hallelujah! After years of do-gooder types (even the tortured Batman abided a moral), Downey fashions a different hero: a likable jackass who gives his id full control; who flaunts his wealth instead of hiding it; who gives new meaning to the phrase “doing a piece for Vanity Fair.” And if just any old actor played him, that’s all the character would amount to. Because Downey has a Ph.D. in likable jackassery, he goes beyond the surface and dredges up pathos that catches us unaware. The end result is a hero who reinvents himself because he has to, then lets that new persona slowly change his heart. That’s no novel concept, but in a comic book movie it feels like one.

Unforseen circumstances necessitate the reinvention, and director Jon Favreau wastes no time setting up the expected superhero origin story. “Iron Man” hints the ground running: Tony makes an appearance before the U.S. military — including friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard) — in Afghanistan to test out the Jericho, the latest Stark Industries-manufactured weapon. (The expectedly laconic Tony describes it as “the weapon you only have to fire once.”) Afterward, insurgents attack the humvee, igniting an explosion that embeds shrapnel in Tony’s chest and dragging him off to a cave in the desert. Fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub, compelling in a small role) saves his life by implanting an electromagnet in his chest to draw the shrapnel away from his organs. The attack’s mastermind, Raza (Faran Tahir), charges the pair with creating a new missile. Knowing they won’t leave the cave alive, they construct an iron suit that paves the way for escape. The experience leaves Tony with emotional scars that alter his perceptions about war, and he shuts down Stark Industries — to the dismay of his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

None of the remaining action sequences in “Iron Man” — all credibly done, with seams-hidden CGI — match the taut, nerve-snapping tension of Tony’s capture/escape. Since Favreau is shrewd enough to let Downey advance Tony as he sees fit, it barely matters. If anything, the precisely dispersed action helps because it allows for a degree of humor normally not found in the standard bells-and-whistles superhero film. For much of “Iron Man,” the action is played for chuckles, with Downey slinging one-liners only to take crazy pratfalls during disastrous test runs of his suit. (He warns his fire-control robot, called “Dummy,” not to douse him again or he’ll donate him to a city college.) His wit, bemused smirk and impeccable comic timing keep the momentum high and supply a surprisingly in-depth look into Stark’s personality, quirks and all. There’s a line between “witty” and “talky,” and Robert Downey Jr. is an actor who knows how to tease both sides of the tape without ever overstepping.

So Downey is money; this soil has been tilled before. What else makes “Iron Man” a horse of different color? Favreau. He handles the timely backstory with a welcome level of maturity, giving “Iron Man” the feel of a grown-up superhero movie. He doesn’t bully the chemistry between Paltrow and Downey into the obligatory sex scene, nor does Favreau give up the major villain within the first half hour. Favreau also has a script that gives the supporting characters more to do than be props, particularly Obadiah. Bridges would seem a strange choice for a supervillain — until you see him in action. He imbues a question about a newspaper with more menace than Hannibal Lecter’s “Hello, Clarice.” His presence in “Iron Man” is all we need to know that subtlety goes farther than an exploding missile.

Grade: A

Downey, Rourke power second “Iron Man” installment

Only a true friend (Don Cheadle) would stick around for an army drone smackdown.

Self-effacing superheroes are so 20th century, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man who belongs firmly to the 21st. The “just doing my job” routine isn’t in his repertoire. Tony’s a megalomaniac who rockets onto the Stark Expo stage with fireworks, blaring arena rock and scantily clad dancers. There’s a dire shortage of superheroes who stare up the skirts of their own cheerleaders, if you ask me. 

The Downey we love does not do humble. He does do cocky, self-destructive and sarcastic. Because he does them better than any actor working today, “Iron Man 2” soars when it should falter. Downey’s rakish charm has carried smaller ventures than this, but the fact that they can prop up a gigantic comic book franchise movie like this is astounding. Two years after Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the more fully-rounded film, “Iron Man 2” falls into the same trap “Spider-Man 3” did. Think of it as the Lure of Too Muchness: too much plot, too many explosions and villains (note: both are unassailably cool). Any actor could be forgiven for getting lost in the smoke. Downey knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s mostly all the fuel “Iron Man 2” needs.

Where “Iron Man” ended in 2008 is where “Iron Man 2” begins. The opening credits belong to Mickey Rourke (terrifying in his “Russian villain suit”) as Ivan Vanko, an ex-con physicist who watches Tony Stark strut like a peacock at the expo. Grief over his father’s death turns to rage as Ivan watches Tony don the suit Ivan believes his father helped create. But Ivan isn’t the only foe Iron Man faces. On his case are the head of a congressional committee (Gary Shandling, funny as ever), who’s pressuring Tony — and confidante Lt. Col. Rhodes 2.0 (Don Cheadle) — to relinquish his Iron Man suit to the government, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), keen to design a suit to “make Iron Man look like an antique.” There’s a new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), too mysterious to be legit. And there’s something else: The electromagnet in Tony’s chest is poisoning his blood. He tells no one, not even colleague-or-lover? Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), convinced he has to keep up what Rhodey calls his “lone gunslinger act.” It may be this act, not his blood toxicity, that really gets him.

Speaking of “getting,” let’s declare Mickey Rourke’s comeback a flaming success. True, in “Iron Man 2” Ivan sometimes comes across as a caricature. The Russian accent (it makes Cate Blanchett’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” brogue seem tame), the 44-karat smile, the hair — it all hollers supervillain in Big Capital Letters, the opposite of what Jeff Bridges did with Obadiah Stane. Still, that was another movie, and Rourke puts his own menacing stamp on Ivan (that sinister chuckle was made for supervillainy). His showdown with Iron Man at the Grand Prix in Monaco is thrilling, a superb combination of great CGI and great acting. Another reason this scene resonates is because the parts are tailored for the actors; both have lived the histories, to some extent, that their characters have: beaten down by circumstance or bad choices, then resurrected through sheer force of will. Rourke and Downey bring a raw, bruised humanity to their parts few other actors could. Who better to rise from the ashes than these two?

Remaining cast members are all over the map. Despite Sam Rockwell’s inherent coolness, Hammer is less interesting. He feels thrown in for comic relief. Johansson fills out that zippered bodysuit fetchingly … and that’s all. Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, is suave personified; only a pirate could wear the eye patch better. Paltrow’s part is whittled down to nothing, though her chemistry with Downey doesn’t suffer for it. I was unsure of Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but a rewatch of “Iron Man” sold me. Never showy, the new Rhodey brings a quieter energy to the part that makes the character more nuanced, so some might mistake his performance as bland. And while “Iron Man 2” as a film has the opposite problem, it’s still the kind of ride you want to take more than once.

Grade: B+

Iron Man as Sherlock Holmes? Elementary (and brilliant)

Law and Downey Jr. make like a couple of old marrieds (er, detectives) in Guy Ritchie's explosive "Sherlock Holmes."

Whatever you think about Robert Downey Jr., you can’t accuse the actor of being a phone-it-in performer. He brings an edgy vulnerability to every character he plays. That goes triple for Sherlock Holmes, transformed in Guy Ritchie’s brutish but talkily charming “Sherlock Holmes” as a British Tyler Durden with wilder eyes, artfully disheveled hair and mind-boggling deductive powers. The bone-dry wit and the probing gazes, though, are vintage Downey, and yet they feel like something ripped from the pages of any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories. 

Just as Downey — who at first seemed an odd pick (and a Yank, no less) to play the world’s most famous detective — puts his own stamp on the character, so too does Ritchie muscle in with his reinvisioning of Holmes and Watson. He’s out to recreate not just the detective and his obliging assistant but the entire world they inhabit. Though he’s not entirely successful (the dialogue isn’t period-specific; the special effects are anything but subtle), there’s one thing Ritchie has that keeps “Sherlock Holmes” bobbing and weaving like a boxer dodging the knockout blow: energy.

What “Sherlock Holmes” the film lacks in brains it makes up for in zeal; this much is clear in the first 10 minutes, where Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) interrupt Lord Blackwood (the inherently menacing Mark Strong, who makes a first-rate villain), an occultist, in the midst of a human sacrifice. The scene involves Holmes unleashing a “Fight Club”-meets-blitzkrieg attack on the unsuspecting guard, but it’s an attack that’s planned with clinical precision and executed with supernatural calm. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is like that — an odd mix of brute strength (note his bulked-up physique) and spectacular observational powers. He’s an idiot savant with fists of fury. Not surprisingly, Holmes has zero social skills and cannot cope with change, which comes in form of Watson’s decision to leave 221B Baker Street and settle into marriage with Mary (Kelly Reilly). He’s tired, the good doctor insists, of Holmes’ poor hygiene, the grubby conditions of his study (Roger Ebert calls this an out-of-character misstep; I’d have to agree), his medical experiments on Watson’s dog. Quibbles aside, could Watson leave behind such a life of volatility? Is a lifetime of quietly retiring with a brandy before the study fireplace, pooch at his feet, really better than explosions and gunfights?

Of course not, and the remainder of “Sherlock Holmes” proceeds to pummel us with the here’s why. There’s a plot thread involving thief Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, criminally underused), that rare bird who has managed to outfox Holmes and steal his heart. She becomes entangled with Holmes and Watson’s mission to uncover what happened to Lord Blackwood. Properly hung, his body’s disappeared from its tomb (Holmes, naturally, won’t shrug that off as “black magic”) and the people connected to him suffer otherworldly deaths. Action sequences begat action sequences. And so on. While the fight sequences are expertly choreographed, even graceful, the special effects are disappointing — particularly the standoff on London’s Tower Bridge, which is … substandard. In these scenes, it’s as if Ritchie couldn’t find effects to match the vision in his head. The disparity is jarring.

Other aspects of “Sherlock Holmes” feel the same way. McAdams, an extraordinarly versatile actress, is reduced to a few scenes that leave us wanting more (and not in a good way). Holmes and Watson, as Ritchie sees them, aren’t trusted colleagues so much as roommates who sort of have the hots for each other. The tweak makes the relationship seem phony, a bit cutesy and a little too bromance-circa-1891-London. Where’s the professionalism, the mannered decorum? Law and Downey Jr. work hard to make this update agreeable, and mostly they succeed. Their banter is amusing, but Law, ably playing the bemused straight man here, seems to understand he’s the opening act. As the headliner, Downey Jr. brings enough sarcasm and shrewd intellect to Sherlock Holmes to offset the washboard abs. He doesn’t merely play the character, he owns him, and that whole-hearted commitment nearly covers the film’s numerous shortcomings.

Grade: B+

Quick Pick: “The Soloist”

THE SOLOISTStarring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener

“The Soloist” is a common tale of a decidedly uncommon friendship — that of homeless schizophrenic/brilliant cellist Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and the L.A. Times columnist, Stephen Lopez (Downey Jr.), who plucked him from slumdog obscurity. Ready to run screaming from the theater? Fight the urge, settle in and prepare to be wowed by two of the strongest performances captured on film in 2009 (and it’s only April). Where Susannah Grant’s screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction demand molasses, Downey and Foxx serve up weary self-awareness infused with much-needed bittersweet humor. Downey gets it right with Lopez, playing him as a glib opportunist who uses Ayers as fodder, then decides he’ll save him by moving him to LAMP, a nearby homeless shelter. Watch Downey closely as he drives up to LAMP’s outskirts and you can see those sanctimonious notions get crunched under the wheels of a skid-row crackhead’s shopping cart. That’s fitting, especially considering Downey doesn’t do warm and fuzzy; even when Lopez strikes a real bond with Ayers, there’s no schmaltz. Hooray for small miracles. That goes double for Foxx, who knows better than to re-enact “Rain Main” (perhaps he followed Col. Lincoln Osiris’ advice?). Here, he goes for understatement, which seems like a miracle in a movie helmed by a director hell-bent on drowning us in tragic-sounding symphonies paired with technicolor, self-consciously “artsy” cuts. Boo to that. There’s a meaty story here, and the real miracle is that Downey and Foxx find the rhythm to make that story as tart as it is believable.

Grade: B-