Friday, May 3, 2013

Heavy Metal: IRON MAN 3

Marvel has these Iron Man movies down to a formula that works for them. Going into one, we know we’ll meet Tony Stark, he’ll quip while introductions to this installment’s rouges’ gallery are made, and then things will get real serious for a time until everyone hops into metal suits, robots and weaponry activates, and the big showdown lasts until the pyrotechnics run out and the credits roll. After the overwhelming success of The Avengers, which put Stark in with a bunch of other Marvel heroes and let them rumble around for a while, there was some question if this old formula would still hold. To this I say, why not? Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, the sarcastic rich jerk jokester who can manage to hold that down long enough to save the day. He was instantly iconic when he first put on the armor back in 2008 and by now the role is inseparable from his inhabitation of it. He’s more than engaging enough to hold an entire movie, even one as perfunctory and mechanical as this one is.

The first Iron Man was an introduction, the second a total delight of a screwball actioner. In both cases, the charm came from the way director Jon Favreau pitched it all at the pace of a comedy, keeping the focus squarely on the performers and their interactions without letting the explosions weigh things down too heavily or distract from the personal stakes of it all. With Iron Man 3, Favreau handed the reigns to Shane Black, the screenwriter behind such muscular, sarcastic action efforts as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout and who made his directorial debut in 2005 with the Downey-starring meta-genre goof Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Black knows his way around a quip but, unlike Favreau, doesn’t keep things frothy. He brings the pain. The threat here isn’t as strictly personal, unlike the first two installments, which had baddies (Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell) out for Tony Stark more or less individually. Here, a theatrical international terrorist known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is broadcasting threatening messages and setting off explosions in public places. He’s not after Iron Man; he’s after us, or so it seems.

It’s Tony Stark who makes it personal, arrogantly giving the address of his Malibu beach house to news cameras, daring the villain to come to him. Bad move. He does. This sets off a chain of events that leaves Stark out of his suit fending for himself, giving Downey plenty of screen time before he's put back into his inexpressive digital cocoon. The plot soon involves two scientists from Stark’s past, one (Guy Pearce) who runs and one (Rebecca Hall) who works for a mysterious organization that’s clearly up to no good. There’s also a flammable, repairable thug (James Badge Dale) and a cute little boy (Ty Simpkins) who factor into the proceedings when convenient, as well as returning characters like Stark’s long-suffering girlfriend and business associate Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the helpful, professional Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle). All of these actors are clearly having a fun time, which helps to keep a movie with wall-to-wall special effects, danger and anxiety from becoming oppressively dour. Kingsley, especially, is having such a ball with his purposely over-the-top villainy that I found myself chuckling at his grave threats even as I vaguely registered the escalating stakes to which the film required me to respond.

Black’s script features a few nice twists, fun banter, a rapid pace, and some finely tuned comic lines of dialogue that sail in unexpectedly now and then and provide a welcome relief to the string of bloodless violence and collateral damage that makes up the villains’ plots. It’s all in good fun, evoking real-world menace and politics only to quash it under the metallic CGI boot of a billionaire engineer who is there to fix things as he can. It makes for an awkward fit, sliding between joking and deadly serious, cruel and almost sweet. The action set pieces are perfunctory at times, but end up mostly satisfying, like in a well-photographed air disaster and in one standoff that ends with a surprising bit of honesty on the part of a henchman. The finale may drone on for far too long and the explosions grow exhausting after a time, but that’s all part of the deal. There’s something to be said for a movie that sticks to its formula and serves up exactly what’s promised with some amount of skill. It’s rather inconsequential fun, the work of talented people simply giving us the usual skillful empty thrills.

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