Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Iron Man 3: Back to Black

Somehow, I managed to forget that Shane Black wrote and directed Iron Man 3, and so when Robert Downey started the movie with a rambling monologue, I didn't join the dots up the way I should have. Cool, I thought, I hope Downey keeps doing improv. It turns out it's less improv and a return to the career-saving Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 silly little movie which pulled both Black and Downey out of the long slumps they'd found their way into once their earnings gave them the chance to buy pretty much all the drugs in the world. Except that Iron Man 3 isn't that good, because it isn't exactly a leap into the dark to cast Robert Downey in a movie these days, and there's a big difference between bringing in a tiny personal project with everything in your own lives on the line and bringing in a $200 million dollar movie which is a sure thing unless both of you set fire to the money and flee to the Bahamas. Given their histories, I wouldn't rule out that they talked about that before remembering that they're grownups now. Poor bastards.

Anyhow, since Black is a hedgehog rather than a fox, and knows one trick really well, there's bits of the baggage of his previous scripts all over Iron Man 3, and those are the good bits; the not good bits are where he had to write "and then all hell breaks loose" and turn the thing over to CGI folken. The opening and closing monologues are more or less nicked from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which to some extent is the modern gold standard for silly voiceover). The master plot is lifted out of The Long Kiss Goodnight, and then really carefully reworked so that it's a genuine surprise when the reveal is pulled; I sat there for long minutes into that, waiting for it to be Alan Rickman's wonderful fake-out scene in Die Hard, but no, it's just what it says it is, and magnificently it makes perfect sense, not just as a plot twist, but as an explanation for all the things which up to then had seemed like movie contrivance. Well played, Shane Black. Do some more of that. Do it with less money so that you have to use actors and writing; you're good at that. Other themes making a comeback; snappy dialogue under pressure, kids put in hazard and getting themselves out with improvised weapons, an unstable white smart-ass paired with a steadier and more responsible black guy (but that was there before they let Shane Black near the franchise, so lets not call that a Lethal Weapon shoutout), and smart ass white character getting a wicked dose of PTSD and not dealing with it well.

When I blogged Iron Man 2 back in 2010, I complained that they'd just amped up the special effects when they were by far the least interesting thing in the first movie. For a big chunk of Iron Man 3, I dared to hope that the producers had the same insight; for a lot of the movie Tony Stark is out of the suit, out of his element and getting by on his wits. Of course, they kind of have to keep chucking the suit into the mix, it's in the title, but it breaks, runs out of power, isn't where he needs it to be, or only has bits to hand. So for about the first two thirds, I was having fun. Then it's time for the showdown, and the movie lost me. There are more suits than you can hit with a big stick. This is all kinds of wrong; just like the climax of the second movie, there's just a clutter of invulnerable suits bopping around doing massive amounts of property damage in the dark; even if you could see it properly, it wouldn't be that interesting.

But more importantly, it sweeps away any sense of anything being at stake; every time Tony Stark is in trouble for even a moment, yet another suit swoops in to deflect the problem. A running gag through the movie is that the suits can be remote controlled (unlike Oblivion, there doesn't seem to be the remotest intent to ponder the role of the drone in our lives) and will fly through the air in bits to adorn Tony at the drop of a hat. This is used to pretty good effect when it's just one suit that doesn't work very well (and there's a really nice bit late in the movie where we don't know the suit is empty until is gets hit out of nowhere and we realise that "No-one could have survived that" works pretty well when "No-one" is just who's in the suit). When it's Tony jumping out of one suit into another in split seconds it just feels like a stupid gimmick. [1] What bugged me all the way through is that Black used to be able to navigate an action scene which felt like the action mattered. There's a moment in The Long Kiss Goodnight when Geena Davis rides up a rope and then back down it again, shooting all around her which is simultaneously ludicrous and magnificent, as all the best action should be; the last ten minutes of that movie are one long fight scene in darkness, and yet it hangs together beautifully, absolutely nailing the whole notion of a chaotic fight that ends with the villain murdered so thoroughly that you could teach ten year olds what catharsis means with just that one clip.

Continuing a trend of using far more actor than the movie really knows what to do with, the movie cheerily wastes Miguel Ferrer, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, James Badge Dale and Rebecca Hall. Of all of that, I think it was James Badge Dale which bugged me the most; in Rubicon he was pretty persuasive as a smart guy who was coming to realise he was in the wrong line of work, and here in Iron Man 3, he just gets to be smug muscle with a mean streak, a job for which even Vin Diesel would have sufficed. At least everyone else got a chance to act; as always, watching Guy Pearce playing a villain reminds me that I want to watch his Australian cop show, Jack Irish

However, trying to wrap this on a constructive note; this is a perfectly good movie, especially if you leave it early enough to miss the climax, and it's great to see Shane Black and Robert Downey continuing their shared rehabilitation to good effect. But if you want to have some real fun, go back to when the band was fresh and exciting and had everything to prove; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang cost less than Iron Man 3 spent on doughnuts and it's a lot more fun.

[1] And it offended my inner cost accountant; the only way those suits could work at all would be if they were tailored for a specific person, and yet people are jumping into all kinds of suits built for different people without any practical problems at all. (Iron Patriot suit; Don Cheadle (5'8½") James Badge Dale (6') William Sadler (5'8") Iron Man suit: Robert Downey (5'8½") Gwynneth Paltrow (5'9" and very different build) Guy Pearce (5'11" - though in that case it's not like anyone cared if it fit properly))

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