‘Iron Man 3’
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow
3 (out of 5) globes
The first time Robert Downey Jr. and writer/director Shane Black teamed up, few people cared. With 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” they were two ‘80s casualties. Downey was a recovering druggie; Black, meanwhile, was Hollywood’s former highest-paid screenwriter facing down backlash over having made too much money.
With “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and others, Black created the modern smartass action blockbuster, only to find his pricey scripts turning meager profits. Cut to 2013. “Iron Man 3,” their belated reunion, grossed in 10 seconds what “Kiss Kiss” made in its entire run. The times, they are a-changing back.
Black was brought on as a replacement for departing auteur Jon Favreau, and overhauled a massive product that was already running through the machine. The opening sequence of “Iron Man 3” is thrilling, which is to say it’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” but with guys flying around in billion-dollar supersuits. It’s 1999 and Downey’s Tony Stark, a few years from rebirth, skulks about a New Year’s Eve party, wooing a hottie scientist (Rebecca Hall) and relentlessly mocking a nerdy fanboy (Guy Pearce). Pissy quips fly fast, while the narration calls attention to the script’s own making. “You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this,” cracks Stark — a self-aware gag right out of “Kiss Kiss.”
Alas, such introspection couldn’t last in a billion-dollar grosser that regularly requires clangy action set pieces. It soon becomes apparent that while Black might have beefed up a project that would have been as tiresome as the doughy “Iron Man 2,” he was likely under orders to leave some of it stupid. Here, Stark is attacked by a bin Laden-ish heavy known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). He might have connections to the aforementioned Pearce, who cleaned himself up into a golden god not above showing off his six-pack.
In a nice twist, Stark spends the majority of the film sans suit, stranded in Nowhere, Tennessee. An even better twist, one that ought not to be spoiled, comes later. (Let’s just say that it elegantly and amusingly disarms the queasy racism of having a villain in 2013 called “The Mandarin.”)
Black is a dark guy, but his darkness often manifests itself in hilariously caustic one-liners. He goes as far as he can in tailoring the project to his own whims, and he treats the material he can’t change with indifference — if not active hostility. Don Cheadle’s War Machine has been painted red, white and blue, and renamed the Iron Patriot, a cheesy rebranding Stark never misses an opportunity to belittle. Black saves his most hostile lines for when Stark is suddenly stuck with a kid sidekick. Turning Tony Stark into W.C. Fields, at the start of the summer season, no less, is a welcome development.
It’s odd for a filmmaker to try defeating the very cliches he once helped create. But then, times have changed: Hollywood product is more impersonal; personality is discouraged. Black, once the architect of blockbusters, is now an iconoclast. His “Iron Man 3” doesn’t have a heart (as though that’s a bad thing)but it does have a genuine sense of fun — even the noisiest, nonsense-iest parts are delivered with a smile. This isn’t “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” redux, but it’s closer to it than we deserve.