Suiting Up

‘Iron Man' & ‘Redbelt'

I can’t write a fair review of Iron Man because the Spider-Man trilogy has ruined the superhero genre for me. Though Tim Burton’s Batman may have started the trend of showing the “human” side of comic-book champions, Spidey consolidated it. Even in his precinematic comic-book period, he was truly one of Hamlet’s spiritual children, and the movies expanded Peter Parker’s vacillations to the point where (in Spider-Man 3) he realized that the question “To rescue or not to rescue?” could be answered in the negative if a villain had psychological problems better resolved by a psychiatrist than by a biff to the jaw. Consequently, I expect each new superhero film to top the previous one in character complications. Special effects be damned, I want neuroses! I’m hopelessly jaded.

So Iron Man, the digitalized wonderment created by director Jon Favreau and his senior visual-effects supervisor, John Nelson, is perfectly OK, but in the moral-crises department the movie is pretty lame. The hero, Tony Stark, is a weapons mogul, proud of the fact that his creations enable American soldiers to crush terrorists, while protecting themselves and various innocent villagers in Afghanistan. But he is shocked, shocked, to learn that our weapons occasionally fall into enemy hands and are used not only against our own troops but also civilians. Once he invents a supersuit that allows him to fly, deflect bullets, throw flames out of his fingertips, etc., he uses it to redeem his merchant-of-death past by...well, by crushing more terrorists while protecting innocent villagers. In other words, just what he was doing before he got the suit. Only now he gets to do the smashing, pulverizing, and vaporizing himself. And, oh yes, he also gets in touch with his feelings, stops being sexually promiscuous, and falls in love with his loyal secretary.

Iron Man offers us the vicarious thrill of obliterating the sort of lethally pesky insurgents whose horrors greet us on the morning newscasts. Even an inveterate liberal who deplores every Bush endeavor of the past five years may also entertain fantasies of blowing up Al Qaeda terrorists en masse. Iron Man taps into this.

But the movie has its likable, goofy side. Locked into his supersuit, Tony Stark remains a physically normal man, jolted and bruised and exhilarated by the feats his body armor is accomplishing. And while able to destroy entire cadres of terrorists with the weapons literally at his fingertips, he is also a klutzy everyman made klutzier by the suit’s bulk as he bumps into walls and lurches through narrow passageways. One particularly clever touch for superhero fans: Batman had his fatherly, sarcastic butler Alfred, but the high-tech Tony has robots attending him, and they are as sarcastic and devoted as Alfred.

For the lead role, Favreau shrewdly cast not a square-jawed, gym-pumped male model but the eminently fallible, jittery and witty Robert Downey Jr., who yelps when he feels pain and gloats when he makes villains feel it. And the chemistry between him and Gwyneth Paltrow is good. They finish each other’s sentences and seem to read each other’s thoughts with both exasperation and fondness, bringing an agreeable whiff of screwball comedy to the noisy proceedings. In fact, the strongest fantasy I entertained while watching the movie wasn’t a violent or vengeful one but only a wish that some talented scriptwriter would craft a romantic comedy for Paltrow and Downey. Theirs are the real special effects here.

“Improve the position!

“Insist!

“Do not get angry! Control your emotions.

“Insist! There is a way out. There always is.

“Improve the position!”

This is not a CEO barking instructions to his lawyer over a cell phone, or Suze Orman lecturing a class on how to secure financial freedom. It is Mike Terry, jujitsu teacher extraordinaire and hero of the new David Mamet movie Redbelt, vocally prodding a student during a practice bout. No surprise that he should sound like a CEO because almost all of Mamet’s characters are caught up, desperately or smugly, in the toils and coils of power. Whether a salesman ensnaring a client (Glengarry Glen Ross), a would-be stud after a girl (Sexual Perversity in Chicago), or a Hollywood producer hoodwinking a scriptwriter (Speed-the-Plow), a Mamet male must make the guy he’s dealing with take a fall lest he take it himself. For David Mamet life itself is jujitsu. Still, screenwriting sometimes awakens in him an idealism seldom found in his plays. The lawyer-heroes of The Verdict and The Winslow Boy (Mamet’s adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play) and Eliot Ness in The Untouchables are trying to improve not their own positions but the positions of the victims of power.

Likewise Mike Terry not only works selflessly for the empowerment of his students and the honor of his craft, he also tries to redress the wrong done to one particular student. The effort blows up in his face, forcing him to do something he abominates: place his great skill on display in a moneymaking competition he later learns is fixed. His urge to expose the fraud then propels him into a dangerous combat outside the sporting ring.

We are used to martial-arts heroes who are either wide-eyed, plucky neophytes (The Karate Kid) or Buddha-calm supermen always ready with a Zen koan or an all-American wisecrack when they’re not chopping down villains. Up to now, the agile clowns played by the marvelous Jackie Chan have been the only exceptions I know. So Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) startles with his sheer humanity. There is nothing mystical about this combat instructor of LA cops. However rigorous he is as a trainer, he more readily rewards an act of compassion by one of his students than a pupil’s improved technique. In thrall to his Brazilian wife’s beauty (and Alice Braga is indeed a knockout), he is troubled that he can’t give her the affluence she craves. Mostly scorning the values of our materialistic and media-saturated society, he himself is nevertheless star-struck enough to be thrilled with a TV personality’s unreliable offer to make Mike the coproducer of a series. In fact, as the world must judge him, Mike is something of a chump. But it is precisely because this hero isn’t an impervious übermensch but a vulnerable man who must fight to salvage his honor that Mamet can give us a truly compelling melodrama. Watching comic-book heroes in action, we marvel (and laugh) at sheer prowess. Watching Mike Terry, we admire the pride and dignity behind the prowess.

To bring his hero’s fortunes low, Mamet has done some heavy narrative lifting that strains credulity. A panicked woman in Mike’s studio fires a policeman’s gun, then a valuable watch turns out to be stolen, and finally one of Mike’s pupils commits suicide to protect his teacher’s reputation. The first two incidents could have been resolved by subpoenaing witnesses to tell the truth. The suicide is scarcely credible as the act of a down-to-earth LA policeman who knows that he’s leaving behind a widow with bills to pay and an insurance policy rendered void. Even if one or more of these circumstances had been believable, the fact that Mamet piled one on top of the other indicates that the writer himself trusted none of them.

The concluding scenes feature some of Mamet’s best directing, plunging the viewer into the noisy, hype-happy maelstrom of a sports event (mixed martial arts) that is also a media circus. Surrounded by hucksters and fans, everything multiplied by TV monitors functioning like a hall of mirrors, Mike walks toward the ring simultaneously pumped up and repulsed, and Mamet makes us feel the crosscurrents of emotion coursing through his hero.

In the lead role, Ejiofor keeps it all real, even when the script doesn’t. His particular triumph is the way he communicates that the inner clarity a jujitsu fighter needs in a bout has come to inform Mike Terry’s entire life. Even when facing troubles Mike knows he can’t defeat-his wife’s impatience with his otherworldliness, the dishonesty of a powerful client—he is still and watchful, appreciative of how difficult life is, and of how strong you must be inside merely to endure.

If you know a male adolescent overly impressed with WWF beefiness and the pixel heroics of computer games, you could do worse than to take him to see this movie about a man of honor who possesses more than one kind of strength. It might even improve the kid’s position. Insist.

Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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