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Iron Man 3

Stark reality.

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Robert Downey Jr. looks bored. So does Gwyneth Paltrow. That's completely understandable. The live-action theatrical movie division of the Iron Man franchise has been in business since 2008, and inventor/superhero Tony Stark (Downey) and his faithful wife Pepper Potts (Paltrow) have been through a lot — in the end, nothing a sock on the jaw couldn't fix, but still. It's a time for stepping back and taking stock. But first there's work to do in Iron Man 3.

Villains are afoot. A frothing mock-Arab who calls himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is threatening to blow up the world, etc., etc., and there's a smoother, more menacing character, the usual disgruntled rival scientist, called Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who's invented some sort of DNA-brain-projection whatsit called Extremis, with which he wants to rule the world. So there's competition — one bad guy wants to destroy the planet, the other merely wants to own it. Don't they know Tony Stark already runs the place? They care not a fig for the Iron Man, the cads.

Mayhem erupts. A terrorist nuke goes off at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and nearly kills Tony's comic-relief bodyguard, Happy Hogan (erstwhile filmmaker Jon Favreau). The Mandarin claims responsibility. Tony swears vengeance. Then a convoy of helicopters destroys the stunning Stark residence overlooking the ocean in Malibu, just as Tony and Pepper are warming up to some old-married-couple hanky-panky. The gadget-filled estate slides off the bluff into the Pacific, and there's a gorgeous underwater sequence with everything sloshing around the kelp beds. Tony is now at rock bottom, his customary starting point for a massive show of force.

Downey and Paltrow, of course, are pretty good actors. Ditto Kingsley, Pearce, Favreau, Don Cheadle (as Col. James Rhodes, aka the Iron Patriot), Stephanie Szostak (she plays a subaltern baddie named Ellen Brandt), Miguel Ferrer (the US Vice President), Dale Dickey (the mother of a victim, glimpsed briefly but memorably), and even Paul Bettany, who does the voice of Jarvis, Tony's robot major domo.

But despite the Marvel Comics pedigree, the sheer hell of it (diminishing with each sequel), and all that, we can't help thinking Downey and Paltrow, in particular, are wasting their time in a giant-robot kiddie-movie cash cow based on a comic book. They could be out there doing Shakespeare or something. I know — the operative phrase is "cash cow." So Tony and Pepper's midlife crises take on added meaning in between firefights, and they never hit the sack. Instead of discussing their frustrations over a martini in a sexy hotel suite somewhere, the stressed-out spouses put on battle armor and trounce ruffians. Well, why not? It's the American way. Tony reveres ideals and morality. He confesses he's tired of the constant strife as well as his frequent anxiety attacks, and we believe him. The job of an enlightened technocrat is a lonely one.

The Chinese Theatre debacle and the trashing of the Stark-Potts mansion are spectacular, as is the climactic battle royale at some imaginary San Pedro dockside, but the effects pièce de résistance has to be the rumble in Tennessee, a bar fight carried to deliriously absurd extremes — like everything else in Shane Black's third directorial effort (screenplay by Black and Drew Pearce). This maelstrom of violence is exhilarating, but you'll forget about it before you reach home.

** SPOILER ALERT: Don't read any further if you care about surprise plot points **

Of all the reasons someone might want to see Iron Man 3, one of the most original would be to witness Ben Kingsley's performance as The Mandarin, who is revealed to be an out-of-work actor hired by the nefarious Killian in order to confound the world's news orgs and government leaders.

The ostensible mega-terrorist, a black-keffiyeh-clad Osama bin Laden replacement who supposedly broadcasts from Pakistan (in a voice eerily reminiscent of the late author William S. Burroughs), is in reality a dope-fogged moron named Trevor Slattery. Trevor spends most of his time shacking up with rent-a-girls while watching Liverpool FC matches on TV in a secret hideout, surfacing only for faked "war" video pronouncements à la Wag the Dog.

We'd like to see a whole movie about Trevor Slattery. Where did he come from? How much are they paying him? Does he think Luis Suarez is crazy? Inquiring minds want to know. In the meantime, if you don't have anything better to do, Iron Man 3 — shabby 3D notwithstanding — is a distracting way to squander an evening.

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