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Iron Man (2008)

M Payoff 1shtSometimes, when you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.  That’s how I feel about the Marvel films.  Until Iron Man, I don’t think anyone entirely handled the Marvel Comics properties correctly on a consistent basis, and so, it took until Marvel Studios was launched for a cohesive and high quality franchise of films to be created.  This was the groundwork, and on every level, it was a stunning success.

Billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the CEO of the leader in military weaponry, Stark Industries.  After Stark conducts a demonstration of the company’s state of the art Jericho Missile, his convoy is attacked and he is taken captive by a group of insurgents who want Stark to build him their own missile.  Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and a means to prevent his death from the shrapnel left in his chest by the attack.  Stark soon escapes captivity, and when he returns to the United States, he  changes his outlook on life, and begins to dedicate himself to peace instead of war.  He finds opposition and criticism from his closest confidants in business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and his smart and affectionate secretary Peppers Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Yet, when he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, Tony Stark dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

This is absolutely one of the best superhero origin stories ever realized on film.  I had not been thoroughly impressed with any Marvel Comics movies before this since Blade.  Whether it was unfaithfulness to the source material, the wrong talent involved, or the wrong tone being implemented, nothing from X-Men to Daredevil to Spider-Man ever really got it completely right in my view.  Iron Man is a perfect example of handling it right.  This set an excellent tone for the full Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also reflects the tone of Marvel Comics, in general.  It can have good drama, but usually, Marvel Comics are meant to be largely fun and colorful.  Director Jon Favreau does an exemplary job meshing those ideas together in a very cohesive and entertaining film.

It’s beautiful how Favreau sets up and establishes Tony Stark here.  We get a dash of the charisma and personality followed by the awards ceremony video package detailing his history in short.  It gives you all the basics right up front in an entertaining and succinct fashion.  This style permeates the film being sharp, smart, and stylish.  It also reflects Stark’s personality.  He’s a man of sharp wit, arrogant intellect, but is irrefutably charming and fun.  I can hardly imagine anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. pulling off this diverse and engaging role.  The charming yet arrogant egotist is a major challenge, but it seems to come easy to Downey.  It’s that sense of heart and lovability he adds in there, especially opposite Paltrow, which allows Tony Stark to come off as a charismatic joy instead of a self-important jerk.  Downey is simply a vibrant, solid leading man who handles the dramatic, soul searching aspects of Tony Stark as strongly as the fun, humorous bits.  He’s compelling and electric on screen.  He makes that subtle, yet profound evolution from the self-important genius to the selfless, righteous hero masterfully.  He doesn’t just embody Tony Stark, he launches him into excellence.

Jeff Bridges does an excellent job as Obadiah Stane.  He’s an immensely diverse actor able to do the full spectrum from kind hearted hero to tough, gritty guy, and here, he gives us some taste of that whole range.  We get the upbeat, friendly guy who is very close to Tony, and can work an awards ceremony audience or a press conference with charisma and spin.  Then, we get the gradual transition to the intimidating, menacing villain.  It’s a masterful turn towards the corrupt businessman willing to sell out his company, best friend, and country for profit.  Bridges embraces all of these fascinating aspects with great zeal making Stane a very solid and smart enemy for Stark to combat.  In general, he just plays an awesome heavy.  And apparently, Bridges always wanted to shave his head for a role, and I think maybe that propelled his enjoyment of the character.

I also really love Terrence Howard.  He’s an amazing actor that I hold in high value.  As Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, he’s really a joy.  The strongest qualities are his vibrant chemistry with Downey, and the sense of compassion and honor he has.  Rhodey’s clearly a great character with a lot of depth and dynamics to offer, and I think Howard was wonderful in this part.  It’s a performance that gives us a character of potential, and while it’s unfortunate that Howard could not negotiate a return for the sequel, the character has yet to go to waste in any actor’s hands.  And of course, I’ve always loved the little tease of War Machine we get going into the third act.  It’s a great moment thrown out for fans, but also works smartly for non-comic fans.

And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as the sweet and smart Pepper Potts.  It’s great how Pepper brings out the heartfelt honesty in Tony, and Paltrow does that with some great subtlety and charm.  She makes Pepper this interesting person who can be very assertive and a sharp business personality, but then, get very sweet and flustered when trying to keep up with Tony’s rapid fire wit.  The chemistry between her and Downey is beautiful, and really allows for the humanity of Tony Stark to show through.

What we get here is a very strong and smart origin story that never bogs us down.  So many origin stories seem to suck up a lot of time just establishing every little element methodically before we get to see the hero come into being.  With Iron Man, the film unfolds at a tight rhythm always pushing the story and character forward to where you are fully invested in Tony Stark, and what he’s going through.  We see the man himself evolve and change his sensibilities in order to make Iron Man what he needs to be.  It is a story of redemption.  Stark is reforming his ways and becoming accountable for what his company does, and how his negligent behavior has facilitated Stane’s corruption of Stark Industries.  It’s qualities like this which make Stark one of the more fascinating Marvel superheroes.  He has a lot of bad behavior and decisions to make up for while trying to build a better, safer future for everyone.  The relationship with Pepper Potts beautifully reinforces the depth of humanity that is motivating Tony.  He wants to be a better person that saves lives instead of enabling war.

I love the motivating scene where Tony is watching the newscast of the Ten Rings having ravaged Yinsen’s hometown while he is working on the Iron Man gauntlet.  It’s that moment which triggers Stark into action as a protector doing what no one else can.  That is the moment where his purpose and path is clear.  He’s been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and sees that betrayal has lead to this level of tragedy and injustice.  He will not stand for it, and that is the scene where Iron Man is solidified.

We also get those great phases as Tony goes through the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III armors gradually refining Iron Man.  Each one is excellently adapted from the pages of the comic book making them convincing as functional pieces of machinery.  The visual effects married with practical elements create a cohesive and seamless result.  These are top grade visual effects featured throughout this movie giving us dynamic, cinematic images that serve the story superbly.

This film has plenty of sharp, smart humor.  These moments really create the fun factor of Iron Man, and maintain the entertainment value in between the scenes of action and engaging drama.  They hit in just the right moments to highlight the well written and developed qualities of these characters.  And the dramatic qualities of Iron Man are executed with equally great skill and care.  The emotional weight and drive of this story is powerfully accentuated throughout.  Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, all of this results in a movie of great thrills.

This is just filled with wonderfully done action sequences.  They are never frivolous.  They drive the story and characters forward each time.  Stark has something to fight for each time whether it’s freedom, destruction of his back market sold weaponry, or protecting those he cares for, it all has a purpose to exist.  The action climax is beautifully done.  It has bombastic intensity and emotional stakes while all the while being fun and thrilling.  It is exceptionally satisfying.

Needless to say, Iron Man is one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. was brilliant and pitch perfect.  There are possibly other actors that could have done a fine job with the role, but what Downey brings is that sharp wit and charisma that instantly and endlessly entertains an audience while hitting all the dramatic beats beautifully.  Favreau was also ultimately a fantastic choice for a director bringing in a lot of those same elements from behind the camera.  This was an exciting, successful launch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that little tease after the end credits of Tony getting a visit from Nick Fury drove fans crazy at the time.  What Marvel Studios has since done with this universe and franchise is an amazing achievement that is not ready to slow down anytime soon.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

g_i_joe_ver11Growing up in the 80’s I was a fan of G.I. Joe, and owned many of the toys that the cartoon generated.  However, I was never that hardcore of a fan.  As I grew up, the franchise didn’t stick with me as I gravitated towards Transformers overall.  When this live action movie, directed by Stephen Sommers, was being made and released, it didn’t grab my attention.  I didn’t give it a chance until a strongly opinionated friend of mine, who was a big G.I. Joe fan, stated that he did enjoy this movie.  One iTunes rental later, and I was approving of this movie.  Yes, it has problems, and has some serious unfaithfulness to the source material, but it’s a big, enjoyable science fiction stylized action movie, regardless.

Two soldiers stationed in Kazakhstan, Captain “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and his partner Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are ordered to transport special warheads created by MARS, an arms manufacturer controlled by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston).  When they are attacked by a highly advanced terrorist group, led by Baroness Anastasia DeCobray (Sienna Miller), they are saved by a top secret, international special forces unit known as G.I. Joe.  The leader of G.I. Joe, General “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) is on the trail of these thieves: an evil organization called Cobra.  While Duke and Ripcord train to join the Joes, McCullen is secretly working for Cobra and plotting to recapture his metal-eating “Nanomite” warheads.  Duke and Ripcord, with help from Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and the rest of the Joes, must prove that they are Real American Heroes by stopping the launch of these warheads before Cobra uses them to take over the world.

There are several alterations to characters and their relationships from the familiar comic book and cartoon source material.  Why filmmakers have this compulsion to make changes of these kinds escape me.  I don’t mind adapting a concept or idea to suit the live action filmed media as opposed to the more fantastical mediums of comic books and cartoons.  However, the changes here didn’t need to be made to make the idea of G.I. Joe work as a live action movie.  They were simply creative decisions made for whatever reason to tell the story these filmmakers wanted to tell, despite whether or not it fit into who these characters had been for over a quarter century.  I’ll touch on these as I comment on some of the cast, as I have done some light research to understand the divergences at hand.

This movie has some acting talents that seem questionable to me at both the time it was released and in retrospect.  Obviously knowing Marlon Wayans from increasingly badly received comedic vehicles, he was the most peculiar casting choice.  While Wayans’ character of Ripcord does have a playful, somewhat silly personality at times, he’s decently enjoyable once you begin to take the film as a light, popcorn movie adventure.  He even has a moment or two of charm as he begins to develop some friendly relations with Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett.  As the film goes on, and the threats become more serious and imminent, Wayans rises to the occasion to make for a nicely respectable cog in this action centric cast.

Channing Tatum is someone that I’ve come to know as a rather uncharismatic actor with not much to offer.  While he surely doesn’t give us anything close to the Duke fans knew from the original cartoon series, who was a very strong, authoritative commanding officer, he is fine in this younger iteration of Conrad “Duke” Hauser.  It’s not a particularly dimensional performance, which could have helped in some instances, but Tatum decently fits the role as written.  It’s fortunate that the film has so many characters you can fixate on so not to be distracted by Tatum’s limited abilities.  It’s not an outright groan inducing performance, just a flat one that is aided by some decent comedic chemistry with Wayans.  Still, a far better actor was surely available to cast in this role to make him a more standout lead instead of blending into the ensemble.

Thankfully, we have some strong, vibrant villains to enjoy.  Christopher Eccleston is sophisticated, intelligent, but also despicably vile.  He injects charisma and slick savvy into McCullen, aka Destro, that is distinctly different from his Sunbow cartoon incarnation, but ultimately, follows the character as he has been developed through other media over the years.  Eccleston has a very good presence conveying a contemptuous weight towards the world without it feeling one dimensional.  He has a very elaborate, smartly devised plan to place himself in control of the world.  He works greatly as a global level villain whose motives nor agendas are shallow in the least.  Plus, the English actor works a very solid Scottish accent.

The filmmakers made serious changes to the Baroness, who is supposed to be an Eastern European straight-up villain, but is now simply Duke’s American ex-girlfriend Anna Lewis who has been specially manipulated into being a villain.  Regardless of this, Sienna Miller is endlessly and immensely hot in this very femme fatale role.  She plays it with a lot of bite and sexy assertiveness.  She is a bad ass villain that would’ve been perfect if the filmmakers played it faithful, but as it is, she does a damn good job making the Baroness alluring, dangerous, and intriguing.  Essentially, this character change was made in order to create a romantic relationship for Duke to grapple with, and while it’s nicely executed, it still would’ve been more pleasing to see the real Baroness here.

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park are probably the best parts of this movie portraying Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, respectively.  Both characters are straight awesome here.  Storm Shadow is beautifully lethal and stealthy with a real cutthroat, edgy presence.  I think he truly lived up to many fans’ expectations through an excellent, sharp performance.  Obviously, Snake Eyes has no dialogue, but Ray Park’s expert athletic and martial arts talents shine through.

Cobra Commander is here in this movie, but doesn’t declare himself to be as such until the end.  We are essentially given an origin story for him that is very much inline with that of the Baroness.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I don’t wish spoil the film’s intended surprises, but let’s say that it’s not the Cobra Commander you’re used to or expect.  He was my favorite character from the 80’s cartoon series due to being a rather excitable, egotistical fool, and even there, his back story was never entirely consistent.  What we even got in the animated movie was not very palatable to me.  So, when I saw this movie, none of this new back story really hit a bad nerve, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers attempted to make him look like Cobra Commander in his final moments on-screen.  Reportedly, they were fixated on the hooded look for the character, and avoided using it for understandable iconography reasons.  Still, as the sequel demonstrates, the chrome masked version was easily adaptable, and its absence comes off as even stranger since the filmmakers put an odd translucent mask on him at the end, anyway.

The question is if all of these objectionable changes make this a poor movie.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I would imagine many very serious G.I. Joe fans with a knowledgeable and loyal history for the franchise would be upset by these arbitrary alterations.  For a more casual fan, like myself, they don’t break the movie, but certainly make it less than it potentially could have been.  It’s a tad surprising that this movie was co-written by Stuart Beattie, who I recently gave vast amounts of credit for his screenplay for Michael Mann’s Collateral.  That was a brilliant, introspective movie of great, unique depth.  This is far from that.  Beattie’s co-writers have shallow filmographies with nothing much to really say they are exceptionally good or bad screenwriters.  I’m not saying that this script is bad, though it has some shortcomings and flaws, but in terms of attempting to be a faithful adaptation, it has a lot of wrong turns that I’m not sure who is to directly blame for them.

Now, the quality of the CGI here is about standard for a Stephen Sommers movie, unfortunately.  The effects in The Mummy were really good for 1999, and still hold up fairly well today.  However, Sommers’ films have since become larger scale productions requiring more elaborate visual effects, and this is evidence of that.  The CGI is used extensively, and is not really that good to be given so much screentime.  Among six visual effects companies that worked on this, there’s no real distinguishing level of quality.  I would be hard pressed to say any of the visual effects shots are anywhere in the neighborhood of great.

Still, despite the lacking digital effects, Sommers delivers some solid action sequences.  They are big, explosives scenes with some inventive ideas and nicely choreographed fights.  All of this action is very well shot showing that Sommers knows how to present and construct action sequences very competently.  Plus, he knows how to inject a real sense of entertainment value into everything, even if some of the funny bits are somewhat extraneous.  Still, the sprinkles of comedy entirely suit Sommers’ style that we saw in The Mummy and so on.  A definite action highlight is seeing Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battle, and Sommers treats it as a special attraction.  There’s an early on battle between them, but the climax gives us the real juicy stuff.  It’s just bad ass all the way through, if delivered sparingly, and I only wish there was more of it.  Hopefully, I will get my wish in the sequel.

While G.I. Joe always had a bit of advanced technology giving it all a slight science fiction edge to it, this movie really pushes that full boar by even stating it takes places in the “not too distant future.”  This is a movie of very advanced technology with people communicating through holograms, using nanomite weaponry, energy based weapons, entire underwater Antarctic lairs, and various other fantastical items.  It does fit alongside much of the established franchise mentality, but it probably pushed the envelope further than it needed to.  I like a little high tech gadgetry in G.I. Joe to make it feel special and unique, but I think a live action movie should probably ground the ideas more.  Take it more away from the cartoony aspects, and make it a little tougher, more hard edged with contemporary weapons.  While I found the film fun, this film franchise really does need to go that direction so it can plant its feet in the ground and push forward with a strong foundation.  Take away the almost cyborg-like accelerator suits and the energy guns, and give us more down and dirty stuff.  Ultimately, I think that sells easier and stronger to a wide audience.  We can take a little fantastical science fiction every now and then, but if you’re setting the film in a recognizably contemporary time and not the especially distant future, sell it that way.  Give us a bad ass military guy unloading live rounds from a machine gun.  Laser weapons were used in the cartoons because they were cartoons.  You couldn’t show people getting shot with bullets and dying in that medium.  This is a live action PG-13 movie.  Mature the content a little, and give action fans and the adults who were kids in the 80s something that appeals to them more.  Don’t make it too violent, but do enough to be bad ass, which is what the soon-to-be-released sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, seems to have done.  Still, we’ll see about that in a few days.

The climax itself is full of plenty of action with both Ripcord piloting a Night Raven jet to intercept McCullen’s nanomite warhead missiles, and the assault on McCullen’s Antarctic lair.  Like with the whole film, it’s tightly edited with constant energy propelling the story forward.  The dramatic tension is kept high, and these intercut storylines flow very well.  We get some very good, heroic pay-offs, but we ultimately understand that this is just the setup.  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the story that puts all the heroes and villains into their proper places to give the franchise a launching point.  Plots have still been set in motion by Destro and Cobra Commander that will be followed up on in the next film.

Again, this is a film that I do find enjoyment from, but surely not frequently as I’ve watched it maybe four times in three years.  It’s a nice, enjoyable ride with some very well executed action sequences that do aim to please, and a fine dash of humor and levity to keep it fun.  It has a decent cast that generally does enough to be closer to Stephen Sommers better work, but it’s still a movie that could’ve benefitted from some better creative direction.  I’m hesitant to give it a big endorsement because, again, there’s plenty of bad CGI all over the place and it fails to faithfully adapt the source material.  For what it is, I think it’s mostly well done.  It’s not the G.I. Joe movie that fans wanted or expected.  The animated movie really diverted into very strange territory that I still find not to my taste.  I don’t own that movie, but I do own this one.  It’s closer to what a G.I. Joe movie should be focusing on terrorism and advanced technological warfare, but it did need someone at the helm that could shape it into what the fans desired.  I do think it’s a better movie than reputation has seemed to label it with.  There is plenty of entertainment value that surely never gets to the annoying levels of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  I would recommend giving it a chance, but knowing that it still falls short of its potential in several areas.  If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes clash.