IRON MAN (Jon Favreau) 126 minutes. Rating: NNNN
As Marvel Comics adaptations go, Iron Man follows the Spider-Man template perhaps a little too closely. The movie's first two-thirds constitute an entertaining origin story, while the last act is just a slugfest between two guys in masks.
Fortunately for all of us, the guys in the masks are still pretty interesting.
Robert Downey Jr. was born to play the role of drunken billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, the playboy weapons designer who rebuilds himself as an avenging armoured angel after a life-altering incident leads him to understand how much damage his high-tech munitions have caused around the globe.
Downey's wake-up call came in the form of an overdose of celebrity; Stark's comes with a sucking chest wound after he's blown up and held hostage by Afghani militants. But they end up in the same place, choosing to redeem themselves by using their considerable charisma in the service of good, rather than evil.
In Downey's case, that means making smart, snarky movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man, which use his unpredictable screen presence like a volatile power source.
Director Jon Favreau – who previously demonstrated a fine sense of tone in Elf, and a flair for visual effects in Zathura – builds a long stretch of the film's midsection entire scenes around little more than Stark playing with his explosive new toys in his basement lab, and Downey makes it not just entertaining but positively illuminating.
There are other actors in the mix, all doing excellent work in simple supporting roles. Terrence Howard plays it straight as Stark's best friend (and military liaison) Jim Rhodes; Jeff Bridges rocks a chrome-dome 'do as too-genial mentor Obadiah Stane, and Favreau gives himself a nice little walk-on as Stark's bodyguard and chauffeur, Happy Hogan.
But it's Gwyneth Paltrow who very nearly steals the picture from Downey, with a flat-out terrific appearance as Stark's girl Friday, Pepper Potts. It's the kind of casual, radiant turn that makes you wonder where she's been hiding. Hopefully, she's locked in for as many sequels as Downey.