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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

Review: “Dead Presidents” (1995)

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
~~Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

Years after its end, the Vietnam War continues to be an endless source of fascination, perhaps because it created an entire culture of traumatized and neglected soldiers. The decades-long conflict led to the creation of unnerving films like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Taxi Driver,” among others, all of which tackled the subject of the war and the way it sneaks into men’s souls like a parasite, to be discovered only when the damage becomes too extensive to contain any longer. Albert and Allen Hughes’ gritty and realistic “Dead Presidents” deserves billing with these films for the way it depicts the disenfranchisement of a whole other culture: the African-American men who fought what everyone told them was “the white man’s war.”

Despite the trailers touting “Dead Presidents” as a heist film, the Hughes brothers’ second production is without question a film about the Vietnam War and its effect on the three childhood friends who end up fighting it. Anthony (Larenz Tate), who does occasional runs for Bronx dealer Kirby (Keith David) but generally plays it straight, sees the service as a way to “do something different” and avoid college. The people in Anthony’s life, from his mother (Jenifer Lewis) to his girlfriend Juanita (Rose Jackson) to Cowboy (Terrence Howard), a short-tempered thug, aren’t sure how to react, though Cowboy isn’t shy about telling Anthony he has “no business” joining up. But he ends up in Vietnam with his friends Skip (pre-“Rush Hour” Chris Tucker, when he could act a little and not just make funnies) and Jose (Freddy Rodríguez), who loses his hand and gets an early trip home. All three see hideous things, like bodies blown in half, disembowelment and numerous beheadings by a nightmarish fellow soldier named Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), who keeps the gruesome treasures as “souvenirs.” Albert and Allen Hughes don’t blink or back away from the wartime violence, and they don’t try to censor the brutality. These scenes make “Dead Presidents” a legitimate war film. They take up little running time, but they feel epic.

The blossoming directors also display a talent for capturing war’s aftermath, evident in the deterioration of Anthony, Skip and Jose when they return to the Bronx and in Kirby, a Korean War veteran forced to turn to crime for money. Again, contrary to promos, this part of “Dead Presidents” is more than a build-up to the promised heist. (The heist, though action-heavy enough to satisfy fans, is the least interesting part of the film.) Tate does admirable work in letting Anthony unravel slowly, turning more to alcohol to quiet his mind and finds himself unable to do what he promised he would during his days at war: engage in the world he left behind. The stress of finding a good job to provide for Juanita and their daughter — born while Anthony was in service — forces him perilously close to the edge. Rodríguez’s Jose didn’t come back right in the head and passes the time doing speed and fantasizing about putting his knowledge of explosives to good use. The motor-mouthed Tucker is effective as Skip, who started a love affair with heroin in Vietnam he can’t stop. And why would he want to? Overseas he saw things that burned into his brain. Shooting up is as close as he gets to unseeing. All three aren’t merely close to the breaking point, they’re on top of it.

In following these characters’ lives, we come to grasp their motivations for deciding to rob an armored car. “Dead Presidents,” like the Hughes brothers’ debut film “Menace II Society,” is something of a character study, not another film where a heist happens because a heist happens. This stellar second outing also functions as a study of how war changes people. War creates men that poet Wilfred Owen, in “Greater Love,” describes as lost to the world outside the battlefield: “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.” Anthony, Skip and Jose came back from the war, but they came back unreachable.

Grade: A-

It’s hard out there … for a sidekick

“I’m here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime, and I ain’t even got a cent, man.”

Oh, how I do love a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems that actor Terrence Howard, who rapped this very line in his Oscar-nominated performance as DJay in “Hustle & Flow,” has been scrapped as Jim Rhodes in the sequel to this summer’s wildly “Iron Man.” The reason? According to Marvel Studios, it’s all about a disagreement over — you guessed it — the Benjamins. Or lack thereof.

But there is a slight glimmer of hope. (Just how slight depends on whether you can appreciate so-understated-they-get-stuck-in-tiny-secondary-parts actors.) Marvel has tapped Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle (a.k.a. Basher Tarr in all, oh, 17 “Ocean’s” films) as Howard’s replacement.

Wait. Stop. Rewind. Don CHEADLE? As an ACTION HERO? Have we slipped into a parallel universe? Will Lindsay Lohan portray Madeline Albright in a future biopic?

I thinketh not. I am jumping on the Don Cheadle-as-Jim Rhodes bandwagon. Why? For starters, Cheadle’s an actor who gives performances that are layered, where the meaning is there but viewers have to work to find it. He’s understated, subtle even; he never chews up the scenery. Howard did much the same thing in “Iron Man”; he was yin to Robert Downey Jr.’s yang. The role calls for someone capable of delivering one-liners without stealing the entire spotlight. That’s something Cheadle can do in his sleep. Plus, Cheadle’s done everything from political dramas (“Hotel Rwanda”) to indie flicks (“Manic”) to spy thrillers (the recent “Traitor”). The guy’s got range that’s ridiculous, and he’s got talent to burn.

So here’s to hoping Cheadle lights it up in the sequel. If I’m wrong? Well, everybody’s gotta have a dream, right?