You know the superhero genre has come of age when Marvel Comics goes to Afghanistan. In "Iron Man," the first film fully financed by the mammoth entertainment company, the titular hero, played by Robert Downey Jr., gets to mix it up with bad guys who, although they are not identified as such, could easily be Taliban. (If only he had made it to Iraq.)
Before he becomes Iron Man – that is, before he comes to resemble the Michelin Man in red- and gold-plated armor – our hero is the none-too-heroic Tony Stark, supergenius inventor, jillionaire scamp, and CEO of America's biggest weapons dealership. (The character was patterned on Howard Hughes when he made his comic-book debut in 1963.)
Early in the film Tony visits Afghanistan to show off his latest attack missiles and is kidnapped by enemy rebels wanting him to build them their very own weapon. Instead, he constructs an armored suit complete with grenade and rocket launchers and makes his escape back to America and the Malibu aerie that doubles as his crash pad and high-tech laboratory.
Tony replaces his shrapnel-injured ticker with a glowing thingamajig of his own invention, and the change of heart is both literal and metaphorical. Seeing up close the havoc wreaked by his armaments, he renounces war profiteering, much to the chagrin of his business partner, Jeff Bridges's Obadiah Stane. (I love these comic-book names!) An incipient good guy, Tony devotes all his time to perfecting his armored outfit, complete with boot jets that allow him to soar.
Much has been made by Marvel of the fact that Iron Man, unlike, say, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, is entirely human. But when Tony is zooming into the stratosphere raining destruction on bad guys, he's about as "human" as a Jedi knight. Or at least he would be if he were played by anyone but Downey. It's unusual for a great actor to be cast in the lead role in a comic-book movie. In these situations, sometimes OK actors are better than great actors anyway – Tobey Maguire makes more sense, for example, as Spiderman than, say, Ryan Gosling.
But Downey comes equipped with such a load of dark introspection and cunning that you can't imagine anyone else in the role once you've seen him. His trademark intonation – a kind of hasty, ominous patter – makes perfect sense for a man whose thoughts run ahead of his mouth. Downey gives his reformed "merchant of death" a poignancy that goes a long way toward humanizing what might otherwise have been a "Terminator"-style flick.
With the exception of Bridges, who makes his bald-pated Obadiah a fitting adversary, the rest of the cast – which includes Terrence Howard as a Pentagon official and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony's lovelorn assistant – is fairly perfunctory. Director Jon Favreau doesn't go for an obvious comic-book look, but he also doesn't go in for much of anything else. When Iron Man is zooming above bejew-elled southern California, I expected a thundering lyricism but instead settled for some routine CGI stunts. I suppose it's asking too much for a great actor to be matched up with a great director on a project like this. On the other hand, there's always the sequel. (PG-13, for sci-fi violence and brief suggestive content.)
Movies about childhood are, almost by definition, made by adults. Few oldsters can imaginatively re-create their early years, and when they try, the results are usually bland or bizarre. The classic movies about children – "The Red Balloon" and Alfonso Cuarón's "A Little Princess" are at the top of my list – are the ones in which the filmmakers somehow channel their own childhood with the guiding hand of experience.
"Son of Rambow" is not remotely in the same league as those classics but it has its small-scale charms. It never makes the mistake of condescending to its audience by turning its tykes into overgrown adults. The childhood experience feels emotionally accurate. English director Garth Jennings ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") understands the universality of being a kid.
Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) is an 11-year-old in 1981 England who has been reared in relative isolation with his widowed mother as a member of a religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren that forbids any access to television, pop music, or nonBiblical texts. Will is a gifted doodler, though, and his best drawings are all about boys triumphing against adversity. When this pipsqueak rebel teams up with Lee Carter (Will Poulter), the school bully, it is a short leap to trouble. But the trouble is memorable: Lee shows Will a pirated copy of "First Blood," the first Rambo movie, and the boys set out to re-create it, right down to the stunt work, on video. Will, meanwhile, attempts to hide out from The Brethren, a feat even Rambo – or "Rambow" as the boys would spell it – might find imposing.
Jennings is onto something here. The '80s was the era when kids first had access to video cameras, and for many budding auteurs, this meant home-grown versions of favorite films. Lee and Will play out scenes from "First Blood" that, in some ways, are more enjoyable than the Stallone version. (For one thing, the re-creations can't help but be parodistic, and the Rambo series needs all the laughs, intentional or otherwise, it can get.)
Both Milner and Poulter are first-time actors, and this works to the film's
advantage. They don't have that overrehearsed quality that most child actors acquire. The boys can embody childhood innocence because they're the real deal – and Jennings is skillful enough to show off their amateurishness in all its charm.
My only regret is that the film could not somehow take a leap forward to 1988. I would love to have seen what Lee and Will could do with "Die Hard." (PG-13, for some violence and reckless behavior.)
'Made of Honor'
Patrick Dempsey goes into charm overload in "Made of Honor," to no avail. He's playing Tom, a ladies' man with commitment issues. The real mystery, however, is why Dempsey chose to commit to this script, which is all about how you don't know who you love until she is taken away. The love in this case is his best friend Hanna (Michelle Monaghan), who might as well be wearing a neon sign that reads, "Hey, dummy, I love you."
But, of course, if Tom picked up on this, there'd be no movie. So Hanna goes and gets herself engaged to a Scotsman (Kevin McKidd) while away on a business trip, and Tom plots to get her back before the knot is tied. Guess how it turns out? The only surprise to me about this movie is that there no jokes about kilts – a serious omission in an otherwise entirely predictable farce. (PG-13, for sexual content and language.)
David Mamet and jujitsu come together in "Redbelt," and the result is a draw. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the martial-arts instructor who refuses to commercialize his warrior code. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before we watch him duke it out in an Ultimate Fighting spectacular. In the movies, pure-in-heart pacifists almost always take up violence as a way of renouncing violence. Mamet toys with this existential dilemma but his heart – or fist – isn't in it. (R, for language.)