(US/China - 2013)
Directed by Shane Black. Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Ty Simpkins, Wang Xueqi, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Shaun Toub, Dale Dickey, Linden Ashby, voice of Paul Bettany. (PG-13, 130 mins)
After the incredible success of last year's THE AVENGERS, veteran screenwriter Shane Black is an odd choice to take the reins of a mega-budget superhero franchise, especially considering IRON MAN and IRON MAN 2 director Jon Favreau remains onboard as a producer and onscreen as Tony Stark bodyguard Happy. Best known for writing such cop/buddy movie classics as LETHAL WEAPON (1987) and THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), Black has only directed one other film, the cult classic KISS KISS BANG BANG, and that was eight years ago. But IRON MAN 3 reunites Black with KISS star Robert Downey, Jr., and it's obvious the pair have great chemistry. Black's sardonic, snappy, one-liner-filled writing style suits Downey's Stark very well, and brings an unexpected mean streak (but a hilarious one) to much of the dialogue, especially in the way the story introduces wide-eyed young Iron Man fan Harley (Ty Simpkins), who's beside himself at being able to meet his hero Tony Stark, only to have Stark mercilessly and endlessly bust the kid's balls in a big brother kind-of way (Stark: "Where's your parents?" Harley: "My mom's at work and my dad went out for scratch-offs. He must've won, 'cuz that was six years ago." Stark: "Yeah, well, dads leave...there's no need to be a pussy about it"). While elements of familiarity are inevitable three films into a franchise (four, if you count THE AVENGERS), Black manages to bring enough of his own style and personality to the film (set, like most Black scripts, during the holidays) that it's consistently entertaining, and a big improvement over the bland and forgettable IRON MAN 2.
Stark, suffering from paralyzing anxiety attacks after the events of THE AVENGERS, finds himself back in action as Iron Man when an elusive terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) engineers a series of bombings across the US--one of which nearly kills Happy at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood--and makes no secret of his ultimate target being the President (William Sadler). Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets with scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who tried to form a partnership with Stark 13 years earlier but was rudely dismissed by the playboy billionaire, about a high-tech project that could revolutionize Stark Industries. The Mandarin answers Stark's challenge and destroys his oceanfront home. Stark and Pepper are separated in the confusion, and Stark's malfunctioning operating system J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) inadvertantly transports him to Tennessee. Believed dead and with his Iron Man armor severely damaged, Stark is forced to rely on his wits to get back home to save Pepper, who's been abducted by flunkies of The Mandarin as the President sends Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), in his new Iron Patriot guise, after the nefarious terrorist.
KISS KISS BANG BANG (a terrific film that Warner Bros. just didn't know how to market, so they didn't really try) had a lot of fun with genre conventions of this sort, but it's strange seeing them dropped into something like this and having it work so well. The same goes for a major mid-film plot twist that allows Black to take some LAST ACTION HERO potshots at Hollywood and washed-up actors. When Black was announced as the director of IRON MAN 3, admittedly my first reaction was "He hasn't worked in years...Downey must be helping his buddy out," but it's demonstrative of some very outside-the-box thinking that pays off. IRON MAN 3 isn't a superhero classic, but it's fun, funny, never drags, there's some endlessly quotable dialogue, and Black brings enough unpredictable elements to the table (lovin' the '70s cop show closing credits!) that it, coupled with THE AVENGERS, successfully reinvogorates a series left a bit stale by a lackluster sophomore installment.