Is there any actor alive who takes more obvious delight in his line readings than Robert Downey Jr.? He is precise yet baroque, contemplating each word with casual bemusement as it leaves his mouth. Though he is one of modern cinema's fastest talkers, it's not because he's in a hurry to tell us anything. Rather, he seems to feel that once a remark has passed through his mind, it's already happened; uttering it aloud is almost an afterthought. It's a form of delivery at once self-deprecating and self-absorbed: Are his thoughts unworthy of being shared? Or are we just unworthy to hear them?
Casting him as Tony Stark, the titular hero of Iron Man (which opens on over 2,000 screens tonight) was a stroke of conceptual genius by director Jon Favreau, who was aiming for a Johnny-Depp-in-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style anti-hero and hit the mark exactly. Stark, a billionaire playboy arms manufacturer with a villainous goatee, is, like
When first we meet Stark, he’s in
The missile showcase is a success, but it attracts unintended customers: A local warlord attacks the military convoy, imprisons Stark in one of those Central Asian caves we hear so much about, and demands he build him his very own
Back stateside, Stark has second thoughts about the family business and declares that he doesn’t want to make weapons anymore--an announcement that is not well received by his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, sporting the bald pate and bushy beard of a biker or professional arm wrestler). As Stane plots jealously against him, Stark begins refining his original armor from something resembling an ambulatory toaster toward a high-end men’s razor, all golden gleam and hot-rod red.
Soon it’s time for a quick jaunt back to
The typical tropes of the birth-of-a-superhero genre are rolled out in due course: the test-driving of new powers; the friendly misunderstanding with law enforcement (here represented by two F-22s); the love interest who must not be loved (Gwyneth Paltrow, surprisingly endearing as super-assistant “Pepper” Potts, a throwbacky role whose chief consolation is that her nickname isn’t “Honey”); the final, somewhat tedious showdown with a superbaddie wielding Stark’s own technology against him.
But even as Iron Man fulfills its genre obligations, it transcends them, thanks to lively direction by Favreau and, especially, the tour de force performance by Downey, who cements the comeback he’s been building in such films as Zodiac, A Scanner Darkly, and (especially) as the bumbling hero of the criminally neglected Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The rest of the cast, which also features an underutilized Terrence Howard and the very good Shaun Toub (both late of Crash), is uniformly strong. But it’s
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The