Given their general status as popcorn flicks heavier on the decadent calories than on the nutritional value, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much care Hollywood studios take when it comes to casting their superheroes in franchise flicks. Otherwise, we’d have had to endure such box office draws as Adam Sandler as Superman, Will Ferrell as Spider-Man and Mike Myers as Wolverine. Instead, we’ve been lucky enough to have been privy to (for starters) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (George Clooney as Batman, not so much). With Iron Man, Paramount Pictures settled on an actor who turned out to be both unexpected and just right. Robert Downey Jr. is hardly an unknown, yet any baggage he brings to the role only serves to enhance the character, not diminish him. Centering on the Marvel Comics character created back in 1963, Iron Man smoothly updates the action from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War era without missing a beat. Swaggering, self-centered inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has attained both fame and fortune by providing the U.S. military with its most reliable weapons of mass destruction. While in Afghanistan to show off his latest invention, Stark is captured and injured by a group of insurgents who drag him off to their mountainside lair. There, a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) creates an electromagnetic device that prevents shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart. Realizing that this is only a temporary fix, the two set about working from Stark’s designs on how to build a special suit of armor. Back home, Stark re-evaluates his life and realizes that instead of continuing to build instruments of death, he wants to dedicate himself to fighting for peace. This decision perplexes his faithful right-hand woman Pepper Potts (a game Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard, asked to coast until the next film) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (an imaginatively cast Jeff Bridges). Nevertheless, Stark won’t be swayed, and to accomplish his goal, he sets about building a sleeker, more efficient and infinitely cooler outfit. Stark’s difficulties provide the film with many of its most amusing moments, as do the flirtatious interludes between Stark and Pepper (Downey and Paltrow work well together).
Those of us reviewing films back in the late 80s/early 90s remember Patrick Dempsey as a talentless 20-something who regularly turned up in bombs like Run and Loverboy. He largely disappeared for a decade or so, occasionally popping up in minor TV projects and straight-to-DVD titles, before unexpectedly rising Lazarus-like from the dead with a career-redefining turn on the hit series Grey’s Anatomy. It must be said that middle age agrees with the 42-year-old Dempsey. As witnessed in last year’s Enchanted and now Made of Honor, Dempsey has settled into being a competent (if passive) romantic lead on the big screen. And for his first starring role since his rebirth (since Enchanted was all about Amy Adams), he’s wisely picked a project that will only further his standing as the country’s resident “McDreamy.” Unfortunately, those of us hoping for entertainment value beyond mere eye candy will be sorely left hanging with Made of Honor, the sort of romantic comedy that Hollywood spits out of the formula factory on a tight schedule. The second underachieving rom-com of the year to headline a Grey’s Anatomy player (the first was Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses), this cribs from the vastly superior My Best Friend’s Wedding in its portrayal of two longtime pals -- one male (Dempsey’s womanizing Tom), one female (Michelle Monaghan’s brainy Hannah) -- who have always been afraid that intimacy would ruin their perfect camaraderie. But once Hannah goes to Scotland for six weeks, Tom realizes that she’s been the right one all along; unfortunately, when she returns stateside, it’s with a fiancé (Kevin McKidd) in tow. Comic desperation can be seen at alarmingly frequent intervals. The fellating-female-bobblehead gag was handled far more wittily in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (is this 2008’s unexpected movie trend?), while other dim comic bits include such Hail Mary desperation passes as Hannah’s grandmother mistaking glow-in-the-dark anal beads for a necklace (and of course wearing them throughout the film) and a Scottish relative’s name, Athol, being misunderstood by the Americans as -- well, take a guess.
If there’s one thing that Tom Cruise proved with his race-car lovefest Days of Thunder, it’s that it can be dangerous for filmmakers to lovingly place their hobbies right up there on the big screen for all to see. The latest case in point is Redbelt, writer-director David Mamet’s salute to jiu-jitsu. Mamet, a real-life practitioner of the martial art, has cobbled together a samurai flick, a sports yarn and a con game (his specialty) in order to pay service to this noble undertaking. The result is as schizophrenic as any movie certain to open in 2008, as an interesting character study finally sinks under the weight of the plot’s predictable twists as well as a climactic fight so absurd, it makes the matches between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago seem as realistic as the real-life Ali-Foreman championship bout. The fine actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the leading role of jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry, who teaches both cops and citizens alike in his Los Angeles studio. Presented as a cross between Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Miyagi, Mike prizes honor above all else, and he refuses to enter martial arts competitions because he feels they’re degrading. But his trusting nature proves to be a detriment as he’s duped by several shady characters and unwittingly dragged into a major sporting event riddled with corruption. As a gruff movie star, Tim Allen lands the first interesting role of his 14-year screen career (the animated Buzz Lightyear excepted), and the movie could have used more of him.