“Iron Man 3″
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Paul Bettany, William Sadler, Jon Favreau
Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action and violence, and mild sensuality
The action-oriented franchise delivers another crowd-pleaser
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Most people eventually develop the wisdom to learn this lesson: Never poke the bear.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is quick-witted, ferociously smart and impressively resourceful … but he also seems to view arrogance and recklessness as virtues. As we’ve seen in this series’ first two installments, such behavior inevitably gets him into trouble.
As is the case this time.
Giving his home address to a scary terrorist, and then challenging the maniac to do his worst?
Definitely not something Tony could mention when filing the subsequent insurance claims.
But it sets up a rollicking retribution storyline courtesy of director/co-scripter Shane Black, who hasn’t lost the touch he established so well back in 1987, with his debut screenplay for “Lethal Weapon.” Black clearly understands the formula that has worked so well for the “Iron Man” franchise: plenty of action, laced with equal opportunities for Downey to get his snark on.
When it comes to cracking wise in the face of serious adversity, Downey’s Tony Stark could give James Bond lessons in well-timed one-liners. Veteran comic book fans may show up for the landscape-shattering punch-outs, but Downey’s the glue that holds these films together.
He persuasively conveys the impatience and frustration of a genius scientist whose ideas come more rapidly than he can act upon them. Downey can weave a tapestry of emotional conflict from a simple sigh of exasperation. He’s the ultimate obsessive/compulsive, and for that reason he’s an improbably endearing character: seriously flawed emotionally, and desperately in need of a keeper.
Too frequently, in times of stress, he turns to his A-I helpmate Jarvis — voiced with mellifluous irony by Paul Bettany — rather than Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman who loves him. And puts up with him. (No small thing.)
Three films into this series, Downey and Paltrow positively bubble with playful erotic tension. They’re one of very few on-screen couples able to honor the deft rat-a-tat banter that hearkens all the way back to William Powell and Myrna Loy, in the 1930s and ’40s “Thin Man” series. In a word, Downey and Paltrow are fun together, even as we wonder if his self-centered attitude finally has gone too far for her to endure.
Indeed, the core of this storyline — Black shares scripting credit with Drew Pearce — involves Tony’s realization that he must always protect the one thing that’s dearest to him. With his back to the wall, with all the chips down, he’s surprised to discover that the choice is obvious: Pepper means far more than all the gadgets his unparalleled wealth can allow him to build.
It must be said, however, that this film gets a bit egregious with respect to Tony’s wealth. He doesn’t just have more money than God; he has more money than God’s banker.
But that’s getting ahead of things.
This adventure begins with a flashback to Dec. 31, 1999: the dawning of a new millennium, which finds Tony in Bern, Switzerland, several years before the events (detailed in the first film) that will change his life. Drunk as a lord and determined to party hearty, Tony does what he did so often in those days: He blows off a reverential young man with a gleam of scientific potential — Guy Pearce, as Aldrich Killian — and then turns talented genetic botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, adding dramatic heft to these events) into a meaningless one-night stand.
And promptly forgets both of them.
Flash-forward to the present day, during December’s holiday season. The American airwaves are being hijacked every so often by a malevolent terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) while claiming credit for an escalating series of atrocities around the world. A lesson must be taught, he intones; a ledger must be balanced … and the account will come due when, it’s promised, something awful will happen to the U.S. president (William Sadler) on Christmas Day.
Meanwhile, Killian re-surfaces and pitches his newest scientific breakthrough to Pepper, in her capacity as Stark Industries’ CEO. She declines, concerned not only about this discovery’s potential for weaponization, but also by Killian’s predatory fixation on her.
Tony’s best friend and Stark Industries security chief, Happy Hogan — Jon Favreau, who directed the first two films in this series and supplies mild comic relief here — doesn’t like or trust Killian. Not one little bit. Happy also doesn’t think much of Killian’s bodyguard, Savin (James Badge Dale), who behaves … oddly. Wanting to learn more about these two guys, Happy trails them into a catastrophe, when he watches Savin give something to a fellow who subsequently heats up into molten instability and then detonates like an exposed reactor core.
Cue Tony’s angry, challenging outburst to the Mandarin, via international news feeds. Folks who’ve seen this film’s preview — which, like so many these days, shows too damn much — know what happens next.
When the dust settles, Pepper is on the run and Tony is barely alive, his Iron Man suit an all-but-useless hunk of metal; even Jarvis’ core memory has been compromised. Worse yet, Tony is in small-town Tennessee, trying to chase down the last faint lead that Jarvis helped him find, before all hell broke loose.
At which point we’re introduced to this story’s next genius touch: precocious Harley (Ty Simpkins), a local kid with a scientific bent, who becomes something of a young apprentice. Not that Tony would acknowledge such a relationship; he’s not about to admit that he actually needs help. Even though Harley knows that he is helping. A lot. Which adds an engaging layer of prickly tension to this character dynamic.
And this is crucial, because Downey needs somebody to spar with; his laughably puffed-up behavior adds sparkle to every scene. So, since Pepper is God knows where, and Jarvis is off-line, Simpkins’ Ty picks up the slack. And does so with panache.
The rich entertainment value notwithstanding, this film’s journey is far superior to the climactic destination, which slides into wretched excess. Just as Downey always has been this series’ strongest asset, the increasingly indestructible — and numerous — Iron Man suits have remained the deus ex machina weak link. No matter what sort of crisis envelops our hero, salvation arrives in the form of yet another armor refinement.
That gimmick builds to a ludicrous extreme during the third act battle royale on a massive, ocean-bound oil rig: a tumultuous sequence assembled so choppily by editors Peter S. Elliot and Jeffrey Ford — and taking place at night, which makes things even worse — that we really can’t appreciate what’s happening to whom, or how.
Black obviously builds to this melee because he believes viewers expect it, but that doesn’t excuse the sloppiness or comic book overkill. It’s simply an explosive time-filler: far less satisfying than (for example) the genuinely tense Tennessee fight between an un-armored Tony and a hot-tempered babe named Brandt (Stephanie Szostak).
So, this current film may be pure formula, but there’s no denying the success of that formula. Black proves a worthy successor to Favreau, in the director’s chair, and I’m sure “Iron Man 3” will generate plenty of repeat business. (And don’t forget to stay put for the post-credits tag scene, which sets up dire doings in the next Marvel Universe film.)
Hollywood’s cinema summer has begun.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com