Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 20, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1965)

3. Major Dundee

He was only two films into his career but Sam Peckinpah already had a reputation as difficult. On his first two films, he feuded with the producers and the stars. None of these kerfuffle would compare to the disastrous production of “Major Dundee.” Charlton Heston, impressed with “Ride the High Country,” brought Peckinpah on to direct. Supposedly, Sam frequently showed up drunk and treated the crew poorly, infuriating Heston. Heston became so angry at Peckinpah, he threatened him with a cavalry saber. The budget was slashed before filming began, causing Peckinpah to go over-schedule. When it was demanded the film be finished quickly, Peckinpah basically gave up. Heston directed the remaining days. Following a disappointing test screening, the resulting film was re-cut and re-scored against the director's wishes. In 2005, the Peckinpah's original vision of “Major Dundee” was restored and released on DVD.

The Civil War rages on. Major Amos Dundee of the Union army, following a mistake at the Battle of Gettysburg, has been sent to head a prisoner-of-war near New Mexico. Along the way, he discovers a group of ranchers and a cavalry unit that were massacred by an Apache war party. Dundee decides to pursue the Apache chief responsible. He recruits prisoners, Confederate soldiers, from the jail to help him on this mission. Captain Ben Tyreen, a Irishman who joined the Confederacy, is among the men recruited. The two factions argue and fight as they head on their mission, Dundee leading them to Mexico and certain doom.

Reoccurring themes continue to emerge across Peckinpah's early movies. Following “The Deadly Companions” and “Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee” is another Peckinpah movie about men on a mission. As with both of those movies, their straight-forward quest is quickly complicated. Distrust and betrayal simmers between the men as they travel towards their destination. The movie even features another woman being misused by the men around her, as another example of how harsh the world can be. Peckinpah would more-or-less disown “Major Dundee” but he still rewrote the script, which is likely why his themes continue to reappear.

Another big difference between “Major Dundee” and Peckinpah's first two movies is the reasoning behind the conflict in the group. “Major Dundee” is loosely based on fact, inspired by an incident were Confederate prisoners-of-war were recruited by Union forces to fight Indians. In real life, despite being at war, the different sect of soldiers work together fine. In the film, there is conflict between the Yankees and rebels immediately. Dundee is reluctant to use them, threatening their lives frequently. As they march to battle, the Rebs sing “Dixie” while the Yanks sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This characterizes the conflict in a historical light. The eventual resolution, the soldiers fighting together despite their differences, definitely has some sort of significance.

But “Major Dundee” is not really a story about men learning to work together. Instead, it's a tale of a man on an obsessive mission of self-destruction. Both during production and in the years since, the film has been compared to “Moby-Dick.” Amos Dundee is a Captain Ahab-like figure. Both pursue their goal until it destroys them. The motivation is very different. Ahab is driven by revenge. Dundee is driven more by pride, by a need to prove his worth. The story eventually reaches the point where Dundee's original goal is all but forgotten, the leader marching his men towards death entirely because of mistakes he's made. In this light, “Major Dundee” reads as another Peckinpah story about the fragility of the masculine ego bringing death and pain down on everyone around him.

Apparently, the original screenplay for “Major Dundee” was more of a straight-forward adventure story. One of the few things Charlton Heston and Sam Peckinpah agreed on was the need to make “Major Dundee” more of a character study. Heston subverts his status as a heroic matinee idol to play the deeply unglamorous Dundee. He begins as a hard and ornery man, focused solely on his goal and pissing off everyone around him. Soon, his obsessive desire for glory becomes dangerous, leading more and more of his men towards death. Before the end, Dundee even collapses into an alcoholic stupor, forgetting his mission amidst the drink and women of a Mexican village. Heston certainly makes the most of his chance to play such an unrepentant asshole, creating a fully formed portrait of a man who constantly makes the worst decisions possible.

The historical setting of “Major Dundee” casts the typical western troupes in a more interesting light. Among Dundee’s soldiers are several black men. The Confederate soldiers treat the black men badly, as you’d expect, but Dundee isn’t much better. When they ask to join his march, he only allows it reluctantly, showing a clear disdain for the man. Other racial minorities are treated in a way that shows the prejudice of the time. At first, Dundee is similarly dismissive of the Mexicans before being accepted into their community. As for the Apaches, there are two Indian trackers that work with Dundee. Despite them showing their loyalty to Dundee repeatedly, even dying to help him, he and the other men still regard them suspiciously. “Major Dundee” isn’t quite a western that sets out to deconstruct the western setting but it goes further to show the casual racism and bigotry of the time than most.

“Major Dundee” is obviously a deeply inglorious story, about a hard and foolish man courting death for prideful reasons. Despite Dundee obviously being intended as an unlikable protagonist, the film still feels the need to give him a romantic subplot. While in the Mexican village, he meets Teresa Santiago, the widow of a killed surgeon. He’s obviously attracted to her and attempts to form a relationship. They even have a romantic date by a scenic lake. Eventually, he screws up the relationship by drunkenly sleeping with a Mexican servant girl. This subplot ends up contributing very little to the story, causing the film to drag quite a bit in its second half, despite the best efforts of the more than capable Senta Bergan.

Co-lead with Heston is Richard Harrison as Benjamin Tyreen, the Confederate captain that is dragged along on this journey. At first, Harrison’s Tyreen is deeply resentful of Dundee and resist his mission at every turn. As the story evolves, we learn that the Confederate soldier is more reasonable than his Union commander. Tyreen is the one ultimately responsible for dragging Dundee out of his drunken stupor. There’s definitely a subversion of historical perception here, by making the Confederate soldier the more reasonable of the two. What point the film is exactly making there, other than just working to make Dundee seem more unhinged, is murkier. Either way, Richard Harrison is very good in the part, charming and roguish as the world falls down around him.

The film has a large cast and most of the supporting characters don't get much of a chance to define themselves. Recognizable faces crop up in small roles. Slim Pickens appears as a drunken mule packer in just a few scenes. R.G. Armstrong has a memorable part as a minister who joins up with the cause. Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones appear as brothers in the Confederate army. It's nice to see these guys but they aren't given much to do. The rest of the supporting cast is harder to grade. James Coburn is quite good as Samuel, the one-armed Indian half-breed that assists Dundee in several scenes. Jim Hutton has an odd role as the film's comic relief, a bumbling artilleryman that is scorned by Dundee several times.

Supposedly, at one point, the script for “Major Dundee” was more explicit than what could have ended up on screen, with stronger violence and profanity. The film we ended up with was still probably more violent than most westerns made at the time. As Dundee and his company overlook the aftermath of the Apache massacre, we see multiple bodies covered with arrows. Including a dead child, the second such sight to appear in a Peckinpah film. Bodies are strug upside down, the implication being they were tortured before dying. In the later scenes, we see a river turned red with blood. Peckinpah was edging ever closer to making the kinds of bloodbaths he would soon be famous for.

“Major Dundee” is not as sturdily directed as Peckinpah's last two features. The film contains the same contrast between the intimate and the epic that characterized Peckinpah's films up to this point. The scenes of Dundee in his office, interviewing potential canidates for his march feel almost like stage plays. The battle scenes, meanwhile, play out in wide cinematic vistas. However, there are a few shots that are downright shaken, when violence brings out at a fort or on the battlefield. Considering Peckinpah didn't even finish directing the movie, ti's hard to say if he's responsible for these moments.

As I said, Peckinpah would essentially have “Major Dundee” taken away from him. The version that premiered in theaters in 1965 ran 123 minutes – a half-hour shorter than the director's cut – and would be poorly received by both critics and audiences. For years, rumors circulated that Peckinpah's version was a masterpiece, badly handled by a handsy studio. In 2005, most of the missing footage was found and an extended cut – running 136 minutes – was assembled. Considering Sam had been dead for 21 years at the time, it's likely the closest we'll ever get to his original vision. Even in this form, “Major Dundee” is a shaggy film. The cast is strong and the concept is interesting but, in execution, it's an aimless and unpleasant watch. The film is most important for featuring the embryonic forms of ideas the director would explore more freely on his next feature. [Grade: C]

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1962)

2. Ride the High Country

Sam Peckinpah grew up in Fresno, California. Reportedly, he would often skip school to spend time on his grandfather's ranch. There, he would learn to ride, rope, brand, and hunt. Supposedly, these childhood adventures inspired parts of “Ride the High Country.” The script was originally written by N.B. Stone Jr. The producer, a fan of “The Westerner,” offered Peckinpah the director's chair. He rewrote most of the script, incorporating elements of his relationship with his father as well. The resulting film would be the director's first breakthrough. Some still consider it Peckinpah's best film.

The wild west era is just about over. Steve Judd, a former lawman and gunfighter, arrives in California to take a job escorting a gold shipment down a mountainside from a mining colony. In order to help him, he recruits an old friend named Gil Westrum. Gil brings along Heck Longtree, a fiery young brawler. Gil and Heck conspire to betray Steve and take his portion of the gold but Gil has second thoughts. On their journey up the mountain, they meet Elsa, the daughter of a controlling and religious man. Elsa is immediately attracted to Heck but is already engaged to Billy Hammond, a man living at the mining settlement. Elsa goes with them and marries Billy but quickly regrets it. She leaves with Steve, Gil, and Heck. Billy, however, follows and plans to get back the woman he believes is his.

Only in his second feature, you can already see Sam Peckinpah's themes evolving. “Ride the High Country” shares a few superficial similarities to “The Deadly Companions.” Both films involve a group of men, riding through the countryside with a woman they perceive as more vulnerable. Within both films, treachery and betrayal simmers between the men. Both also feature a pretty uncomfortable attempt at sexual assault, which ends when another man intervenes. Yet these ideas have continued to evolve in a darker and more complex direction. “Ride the High Country” is, pointedly, a story of murkier morality with a more uncertain tone and an ending you can't exactly call “happy.” It represents Peckinpah coming into his own.

“Ride the High Country' begins with Steve Judd riding into town. They're having some sort of parade and, while he waves at the crowd, they boo him. Gil is working a carnival game, wearing a fake mustache and pretending to be a legendary outlaw. The two old friends trade stories, reminiscing about their glory days. Each story has a sad coda, about how that person is dead or that woman is married to someone else. These honorable lawmen are now resorting to transporting gold in order to make ends' meet. Throughout the film, there's this sense that the legendary old west is coming to an end, that the protagonists are relics of a bygone age and will soon be irrelevant. (Casting aging western icons like Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in the leads was surely intentional.) Thus, “Ride the High Country' becomes the first of several elegiac westerns Peckinpah would make, movies that engage more with the myth of the west and its inevitable end.

From the outside, though, “Ride the High Country” appears to be a typical example of the western genre. This is another story about the camaraderie among men as they go on a mission. There's conflict between the men, as Heck's antics get the others into trouble. He starts a fist fight in a bar and his attempt to force himself on Elsa earns him a beating from both older men. Eventually, the three overcome their differences and begin to feel like brothers to each other. This kind of macho struggle and bonding were commonplace in classic westerns.

However, “Ride the High Country” does not exist in a black and white world. At one point, Elsa says that her father teaches that the world is right or wrong. Steve admits that it's more complicated than that. This line informs all of “Ride the High Country's” world. Though Gil acts as if he's Steve's friend, he secretly plots to rip him off. Eventually, this conflict comes to the forefront, Gil attempting to betrayal his friend. However, the two eventually come together to fight their enemies. This characterizes the morally gray world of “Ride the High Country,” where men make mistakes and don't always do the right thing.

Another theme that develops from “The Deadly Companions” is the treatment of women. From the moment we meet here, Elsa is treated like an object, something to be controlled and traded, by the men around her. Her father is abusive, a tyrant that demands his daughter conform to his worldview. There's sparks between Elsa and Heck from the moment they meet. However, he takes it too far, attempting to force himself on her soon afterward. Her fiance Billy is no less patient. He attempts to consummate their relationship soon after being reunited. This sows doubt in Elsa's mind that grows as their wedding draws closer. The two are married in a brothel, Elsa showing her clear discomfort on her face. During the rowdy after-party that follows, she's nearly raped by both Billy and one of his friends. Judd and Gil then attempt to dissolve the marriage and take Elsa back to her home. Billy's refusal to let go of the woman he sees as his property is what drives the violence in the film's second half.

It's difficult to read “Ride the High Country” as feminist. Elsa is only so proactive, as the men still make most of the decisions. This is ultimately not her story. Heck is easily forgiven for his near assault, still being treated as a hero throughout the rest of the movie. However, the film seems to acknowledge that men, especially during this time period, treated women terribly. That they had thoughts and feelings of their own apart from their husbands and love interests. And, the film suggests, these attitudes might be something else from the old west that is best left behind. This makes the film progressive for its time, when westerns were usually happy to have women be nothing but props.

A story like “Ride the High Country,” about the end of a mythic age, obviously required iconic actors to star in it. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, iconic western performers, were obviously up for the part. Interestingly, the actors were originally cast in the opposite roles before complaining about the production and getting switched around. It's hard to imagine it the other way around. Joel McCrea is fantastic as Steve Judd. He has a wry gleam in his smile, making him believable as a lovable old man from a bygone era. However, as the film goes on, McCrea faithfully brings to life someone who is struggling with obsolescence in a world that he is finding increasingly difficult to understand.

Randolph Scott co-stars alongside McCrea, though he got top-billing as that was decided by a coin toss. Scott plays off of McCrea fantastically, the two truly seeming like old friends with a long history together. As the story grows darker, Scott seems willing to embrace the more challenging aspects of the character. Scott and McCrea both formally retired after seeing the film, deciding a film this good was an ideal one to go out on. This only adds to “Ride the High Country's” status as a film about the end of the western era. (Scott's announcement of retirement stuck, as he never appeared in another film. McCrea would come out of retirement for a few B-westerns in the mid-seventies.)

As good as McCrea and Scott are, and they're both excellent, the heart of the movie belongs to Mariette Hartley as Elsa. Hartley projects a vulnerability that makes her believable as the sheltered daughter of a preacher. However, there's also a fiery drive in her, determined to get out from under her father's control and start her own life. Hartley also just has an excellent screen presence, being captivating to the eye. She's also believable as someone interested in Ron Starr's Heck. Starr is very good as well, as a hard man who learns his lesson as the story goes on. This was Hartley's first film and she would go on to a long career as a character actress. Starr would only appear in two other movies and a few more television episodes after this.

“Ride the High Country” shows Peckinpah's visual sense evolving as well. Compared to the flat Arizona desert of “The Deadly Companions,” the mountainous regions depicted here are much more colorful. There's a sweeping scene of scope, as the camera looks out over the rising Californian frontier. Peckinpah also brings an intimate element to other scenes, such as a shadowy and tightly framed scene devoted Elsa and her father talking in the darkness of their dining room. Save for one oddly crop shot – a sudden zoom in on a corpse's body - “Ride the High Country” is an elegant looking film that is fantastically assembled.

“Ride the High Country” was released on the second half of a double bill with “The Tartars,” a mostly forgotten Italian viking movie starring Orson Welles and Victor Mature. The film was released this way because the studio didn't believe the movie cost enough to be as good as it was. It would receive positive reviews from a few American critics but was largely overlooked. It found far more success in Europe, winning awards at festival. (It actually beat out Fellini's “8½” for Best Picture at the very first Belgium Film Festival.) Nowadays, it's recognized as a classic western and the first great film from Sam Peckinpah. [Grade: A]

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1961)

From the moment I became a film nerd, I've had a massive amount of respect for Sam Peckinpah. Chalk it up to the evergreen appeal of the incorrigible, rebel filmmaker to the adolescent movie obsessive. Never mind that Peckinpah was as much an abusive alcoholic as a genius filmmaker. Despite my admiration of his work, I had only seen his key pictures. So a Director Report Card focused on Peckinpah allowed me to fill in the blanks and get to know this notorious, groundbreaking director for more than just his reputation.

1. The Deadly Companions

Sam Peckinpah got his start in the industry by writing scripts for TV westerns, something he pursued on the advice of Don Siegal. He would provide screenplays for “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun – Will Trouble” and “Zane Grey Theater.” He would co-create the popular series “The Riflemen,” eventually directing four of its episodes. After that, he would create the series “The Westerner.” Starring Brian Keith, the show was grittier and more naturalistic than most television westerns of the time. It would be critically acclaimed but failed to catch on with audiences, being canceled after one short season. After “The Westerner's” end, Keith would be cast as the male lead in a feature western called “The Deadly Companions.” He would suggest Peckinpah as the director. This is the unsuspecting beginning of the career of one of cinema's most notorious infant terribles.

Three men come into a frontier Arizona town with the intention of robbing its currently unguarded bank. They are Yellowleg, a former Union officer who survived a scalping during the war; Turk, a former Confederate officer who is a crooked gambler; and Billy, a charming but calculating gunslinger. As they prepare to rob the bank, another gang strikes first. In the ensuing shoot-out, Yellowleg accidentally shoots a dancing girl's young son. Kit, the dead boy's mother, is ostracized by the local community. She decides her son must be buried beside his father, whose grave resides in Apache territory. Feeling guilty, Yellowleg decides to shepherd the woman through the dangerous area. Billy and Turk follow along but soon the agreement between the four individuals turn sour.

Sam Peckinpah did not have a good experience on “The Deadly Companions.” The film was produced by Maureen O'Hara's brother, who bossed Peckinpah around. Supposedly, he prevented the director from changing a word of the script. However, you can still see the emerging director's interest in the final product. Like a few of Peckinpah's later movies, “The Deadly Companions” is about a group of morally gray men leaving on a mission together. The film's atmosphere is unusually grim, as the story revolves around a dead child. A sense of futile dread hangs over the story, as the journey seems more and more doomed the longer it goes on. Though he would disown the final product, some of the themes Peckinpah would develop over his later movies are evident in this debut.

In other ways, “The Deadly Companions” is very much a typical western of this time. The characters begin as antiheroes out to rob a bank, only interested in lining their pockets. As the story goes on, it's quickly shown that Yellowleg has a moral center that his partners lack. By the end, it's thoroughly established who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The film ends with a confrontation between the do-gooders and the evildoers. And this is, after all, a western that plays the troupe of the savage Indian completely straight. “The Deadly Companions” comes close to being something subversive but is still wrapped up in the cliches and conventions of the time.

I've never seen “The Westerner,” though the show was released on DVD. So it's hard for me to compare Brian Keith's performance here with his role on that series. However, from what I've read, it sounds like the parts are similar. In “The Deadly Companions,” Keith plays an incredibly stoic character. Yellowleg, a nickname gained from the color of Union uniforms, rarely says what's on his mind. There is a certain rugged heroism to Keith's unemotional approach. The slowly revealed moral code is shown in interesting ways, the man standing up for certain beliefs. If nothing else, Keith has the kind of classical screen presence that many old school western stars succeeded on.

“The Deadly Companions” was primarily conceived as a vehicle for Maureen O'Hara. As one of the star leading ladies of her time, O'Hara appeared in quite a few westerns. “The Deadly Companions” would come after “Rio Grande,” “Comanche Territory” and “The Redhead from Wyoming” but before “McLintock!” and “Big Jake.” In this film, O'Hara does well as a woman who is frowned upon by her neighbors but has a fierce independent streak of her own. Her best scenes occur when she points a shotgun at the men who hope to protect her, showing an ability to stand up for herself even when she's grieving.

However, the film eventually attempts to push Keith and O'Hara's characters together into some sort of romance. This seems to be another side effect of the time period when the movie was made. It was just natural that the male lead and the female lead would fall into each other's arms at the end. Even though the two have a somewhat hostile relationship up to that point. O'Hara warming up to Keith is a natural part of the story. However, it feels like they should be headed for a mutual understand, not a full-blown romance. It does not feel like a natural trajectory of the story.

“The Deadly Companions” is a film, more or less, revolving around only four characters. Steve Cochran as Billy Keplinger is introduced as a hell raiser and a rogue. He pulls a gun out in church and happily looks forward to robbing the bank. As the story progresses, Billy reveals a more unpleasant side. Especially through his treatment of Kit. At first, the movie almost seems to be playing his lecherous attitude towards her for comedy. However, that comes to an end during a scene where he attempts to force himself on her. So, yes, Peckinpah's odd and frequently problematic obsession with sexual assault begins here as well. Cochran nicely rolls from slick to villainous fairly easily.

Another odd example of comic relief in the film is Chill Wills as Turk, the gambler. Wills mumbles through most of his dialogue. He's frequently difficult to understand at all. The character also seems to be an attempted source of comic relief. He's somewhat ridiculous, introduced in a noose and balanced atop a barrel. Turk seems to be intoxicated for most of the story. He responds to Cochran's barbs in a frequently glib manner, when you can actually tell what he's saying. Wills certainly gives an interesting performance but it's a very odd character, one that is hard to read both literally and figuratively.

In the lead-up to the quartet leaving on their journey, we hear a lot of references to how dangerous Apache country is. As the gang begins their journey, they see arrows littering the ground. However, this subplot doesn't pay off in a very satisfying fashion. As their mission becomes more grim, Keith and O'Hara are eventually stalked by one Apache brave on a horse. Just one. And the reason he's trailing them doesn't seem to be more complex than them being white intruders on Indian land. This subplot is then resolved bluntly before being completely forgotten in the final third of the film. It's disappointing that more isn't done with that angle, considering “women being led through dangerous territory” seems to be the capsule synopsis of the movie.

In fact, “The Deadly Companions” really gets messy in its last act. The story becomes a bit shapeless, as Yellowleg and Kit encounter more misfortune on their journey towards the cemetery. Upon finally reaching the graveyard, there's a long scene devoted to the two of them looking for her husband's grave. At that point, Billy and Turk wander back into the story, leading to the necessary showdown between heroes and villains. The film then wraps up with an overly tidy resolution about the price of revenge, also resolving Yellowleg's character arc in far too smooth a fashion.

Even this early in his career, even on a work-for-hire job like this, you can see Sam Peckinpah's visual sense developing. From the beginning, there's a sense of isolation as the characters stand against the huge blue sky and empty Arizona desert. That alienated feeling only grows as the cast ventures further out. There's also a few really cool, surprisingly fluid tracking shot. Such as one devoted to the men on their horses, tracking across a lake. Or another, focused on Keith as he marches towards Cochran for the final showdown. It's clear that Peckinpah knows what he's doing.

“The Deadly Companions” would be a largely negative experience for Sam Peckinpah. He fought frequently with the producer. In her autobiography, Maureen O'Hara said Peckinpah was “the strangest and most objectionable person she ever met.” Yet the debut would eventually prove to be a positive one for the young director. After the difficult experience, Peckinpah decided that he would never make a movie unless he had control over the screenplay. As it stands now, “The Deadly Companions” is an occasionally interesting film, with darker themes than you'd expect for the time and place. It doesn't quite hold together as a whole but, even outside its status as Peckinpah's debut, is sort of engrossing. [Grade: B-]

Friday, July 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2016)

3. The Nice Guys

“Iron Man 3” was an extremely good deal for Shane Black. Unless a director massively fucks it up, an entry in a popular franchise like that is almost guaranteed to be a huge commercial success.  Having a blockbuster like that on a resume allows a filmmaker to get almost any movie they want to make greenlit. And the movie Shane Black apparently wanted to make was “The Nice Guys.” The project happened almost exactly like that, as Joel Silver asked Black what he wanted to make after the sequel's success. Like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” it was a buddy movie loosely based on a novel by Brett Halliday. Black had written several versions of the script before, including one that was a television pilot, with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi. Also like that film, “The Nice Guys” didn't exactly set the box office on fire but received enthusiastic reviews and immediately garnered a cult following.

The year is 1977 and the place is Los Angeles. A dead porn star, by the name of Misty Mountains, crashes into a home in the Hollywood hills. Holland March, a single dad and private detective who is struggling with his alcoholism, is hired to find a missing girl. He quickly realizes she's connected to the dead porn star. The missing girl hires tough guy Jackson Healy to discourage Holland. Healy soon realizes the girl's life is in danger and reluctantly decides to team up with Holland, to find her before it's too late. The two will soon uncover a conspiracy involving the L.A. porn scene, the Department of Justice, and Detroit auto manufacturers.

Shane Black's movies continue to be immediately recognizable. “The Nice Guys” is, once again, about two guys who start out hating each other. As they begin an adventure together, they soon become friends. They uncover a crazy, convoluted conspiracy. There are sarcastic voiceover narrations from both main characters. A sassy kid is a major supporting character. And, yes, of course, the movie is set around Christmas time, though only at the very end. As another direct parallel to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” both movies are set in Los Angeles. Both even feature a scene where someone is at a swanky, entertainment industry party and gawks at a nude woman doing some odd piece of performance art. If “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was the most Shane-Black-y movie Shane Black could've made, “The Nice Guys” is somehow an even Shane-Black-ier movie.

A big difference is that “The Nice Guys” is set in the seventies. This ends up adding a lot to the film. Black goes out of his way to capture the feeling of the decade. The fashion, with their plaids and bell bottoms, are present and accounted for. The soundtrack is filled up with funky pieces like Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, and the Bee Gees. More importantly, the film successfully integrates the anxieties of the decade into its story. The concerns about smog in L.A. float in the background, including a student protest. The role the auto industry plays can't help but bring the oil and energy crisis of the decade to mind. The moral outrage behind the “porno chic” era informs the story's backbone. There's even a running gag about the encroaching killer bees. The lingering fears of the Watergate/Vietnam era, ecological upheaval, moral decay, and gaudy fashion characterizes “The Nice Guys'” world.

A huge boon to “The Nice Guys” is its cast. The film is the perfect vehicle for its two leading men. Ryan Gosling continues to subvert his pretty boy image with Holland March, a flailing man who is a delirious fuck-up. He's referred to more than once as the world's worst detective. Tattooed on his hand is the phrase “You can never be happy.” Gosling has no problem inhabiting the part of a man wracked by failure. His body language is lanky and loose, the shabby appearance of someone who has given up. This allows Gosling to throw himself totally into the physical comedy of the bumbling protagonist. Yet he also finds the humanity of the character, making Holland likable by emphasizing his few positive qualities, such as his love of his daughter, his commitment to getting to the bottom of things.

Starring opposite Gosling is Russell Crowe as Jack Healy. Crowe, of course, is an expert at playing gruff and blustery characters. Like Holland, Healy does not strike the audience as a likable character. He's paid to beat people up, which he does indiscriminately. Crowe's natural gruffness makes him a good counterpoint to Gosling's frequently bumbling character. Crowe brings his own quiet sardonic side to the part, putting an ironic spin on the film's conversation and events. Crowe is also very good at bringing out the heart of an outwardly rough character, adding a charm to a character that might be a bit of a scumbag.

The final corner of the film's central trio is Angourie Rice, appearing as Holland's teenage daughter, Holly. The young girl may be the coolest headed of the three people. Though her father frequently tells her to stay at home, Holly often tags along on her dad's adventures. She's pivotal to uncovering a few clues. Rice is fantastic in the part, happily managing Black's acerbic dialogue. She gives the impression of the world's coolest teenage, feisty and smart and more observant than some of the adults around her. I'm not sure why Rice hasn't become a bigger star since her performance here, as she magnetic and clearly talented.

Most of Shane Black's screenplays have been funny but “The Nice Guys” seems to the filmmaker committing fully to making a straight-up comedy. The film is frequently hilarious. Gosling commits to broad slapstick gags, such as a hilarious scene where Healy confronts him in a public toilet. Or when an attempt to impress a girl at a party results in him falling off a balcony. As always, Black's hilarious and circular dialogue is the main source of humor in the film. The barbs are traded back and forth at a lightning speed, the gritty crime plot often pausing for circular conversation about mundane details. The film often features a genuine absurd streak. Holland's reoccurring fears about the killer bees builds towards a delirious dream sequence where a giant bee is in the backseat on his car. There's also a fantastical appearance from Richard Nixon, building off a previously shared anecdote.

For all the tomfoolery that goes down in “The Nice Guys,” the film is also characterized by an undertone of melancholy. The reason Holland is such a depressing screw-up is because he never recovered from his wife's death. He's still haunted by her loss. He hopes for a better life for himself and his daughter, symbolized by the home they hope to rebuild someday, but it seems far off. Healy, meanwhile, begins as a despicable soul. At one point, he discreetly strangles a henchman to death. However, neither man is beyond redemption. Holland accidentally burns off his defeatist tattoo. Healy shares a story about his proudest moment, when he stopped a random robbery. Later, at Holly's insistence, he spares another bad guy's life. The characters may seem hopeless at first but, the film suggests, they deserve a second chance.

Even though it's probably more of a comedy than anything else, “The Nice Guys” is still an action film. The movie enjoys subverting action expectations – like how a tossed pot of coffee zig-zags – but the violence can be surprisingly graphic. The last act introduces a cold-blooded killer known only as John Boy. He assassinates his targets with ease and, in one scene, even cuts down a palm tree with a machine gun. The film's delightfully breezy finale involves a grenade suddenly exploding and a guy falling off a building, splattering graphically on the ground below. Even then, “The Nice Guys” tends to bring a level of humor to its grislier moments. The discovery of a dead body – played by an uncredited Robert Downey Jr. – soon turns into a farcical attempt to dispose of that body. While attempting to break into a building, Holland slices his wrist, resulting in a lot of spilled blood.

Black's propensity towards convoluted plots has sometimes been a determent. “Iron Man 3” became a bit of an incoherent mess and, as much as I liked it, I'm still not sure what the plot of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” actually is. “The Nice Guys” is a little less convoluted than those two. Yes, there's plenty of plot twists and suddenly reveals. One of the best involves the pay off to an old woman who claims to have seen her dead niece after she died. As set up in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the film eventually ties together its divergent plot points. The murder mystery ties into the automobile company conspiracy. While it's a lot to keep track of, it all eventually makes sense in the end. So I gotta give the movie that much.

Black fills the supporting parts with recognizable faces and entertaining talent. Margaret Qually is hilarious as the missing girl, who acts petulant even when on the run from a killer. Matt Bomer is chilly and intimidating as John Boy, a ruthless killer who assassinates with a smile. Kim Basinger brings some steely determination to the official woman alternatively encouraging and dismissing our heroes' adventure. Lastly, Keith David manages to make a small and practically unnamed role as a villainous tough guy a lot more memorable than it otherwise would've been. David is obviously adapt at building a whole character out of a snarl and a few lines of dialogue.

“The Nice Guys” seemed prime to launch an on-going series. It ends by setting up a sequel. You can certainly imagine Holland and Healy having further adventures. Perhaps seeing its crowd pleasing potential, the movie was released into a crowded summer blockbuster season. Predictably, it was loss among the bigger titles, preventing it from reaching a wider audience. I imagine “the Nice Guys” might have been a sleeper hit if put out during the spring or autumn months. It seems like 'The Nice Guys” will remain another delightful and slightly underseen cult classic, a highly entertaining neo-noir crime comedy from the king of smart-ass action movies. [Grade: A]

Having a hit like "Iron Man 3" on his resume has led to Shane Black being attached to quite a few projects. He was briefly going to make a "Death Note" movie, before it got passed onto Adam Wingard. Since then, he's had two pulpier projects added to his future docket. A "Doc Savage" movie starring Dwayne Johnson, which sounds perfect, is still being considered. More recently, Black has been attached to a big screen reboot of British spy series "The Avengers." Both sound like a good match for the director's style.

But something is coming much sooner than either of those. Part of the reason I did this Report Card - besides it being short and free time becoming harder to come by for me - is because Shane Black has directed the new "Predator" movie. And I've already reviewed all the other "Predator" movies. So it seemed like good time. Obviously, I'm anticipating that one.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2013)

2. Iron Man 3

If nothing else has become apparent during Marvel's decade long reign atop the box office, it's that the studio is very good at delivering a product to the audience when it's expected. That speedy work schedule is not always accommodating to talent. Director Jon Favreau had great financial success with the first two “Iron Man” films. However, he blamed the second film's disappointing writing on its rushed production schedule. Favreau was out for the third film, at least when it came to directorial duties. Robert Downey Jr. credited “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with him getting the “Iron Man” gig. So he returned the favor by recommending Shane Black to direct the third film in the blockbuster franchises. The screenwriter-turned-director would deliver a film that received positive critical reviews and would become one of the highest grossing films in the MCU. Fan reaction, however, was less unanimous.

After he nearly died during the events of “The Avengers,” Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD. He isn't sleeping and is spending more time in his basement, building countless variations on the Iron Man armor. Meanwhile, a terrorist known only as the Mandarin is threatening the world. After Happy Hogan is nearly fatally injured in an attack, Tony challenges the Mandarin directly. His Malibu home is destroyed, his armor is damaged, and he ends up in a small town in Tennessee. There, he begins to unwrap a mystery that resolves around Aldrich Killian, an old colleague of Tony's, and connects back to the Mandarin.

Over the years, people have accused Marvel's movies of lacking personality, at least in terms of directorial vision. This is not always an unfair accusation, especially when it comes to flicks like “The Incredible Hulk” or “Thor: The Dark World.” (Both of which I like, by the way.) Marvel has worked to overcome this verdict by hiring directors with clear visions, like James Gunn or Taika Watiti. Or Shane Black. Black, it must be said, totally makes “Iron Man” his own. Like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he opens with a sarcastic voice over from Robert Downey Jr. The last act features Tony and Rhodey, a white guy and a black guy, running and gunning and quipping like in “Lethal Weapon.” The plot is a convoluted mystery, slowly revealing the villains responsible. Most notably, the movie is set at Christmas. Black does not restrain his normal tendencies even when working on a 200 million dollar tent pole superhero release.

By making “Iron Man 3” so totally his own, Shane Black also reveals an obvious truth: He doesn't have much interest in what “Iron Man” actually is. Early in the film, Tony injects himself with nanobots, allowing him to summon the armor whenever he wants or even pilot it remotely. This, you'll notice, removes the central gimmick of the character. That tendency continues during a sequence where Tony, without his armor, enters the bad guy's base with homemade weapons and devices. Before the film begins, Stark has built over a dozen, awesome new suits. Some of these are briefly showcased near the end but most are haphazardly destroyed. Advanced Idea Mechanics, a major Marvel supervillain organization, is reduced to a minor background player here. Black's complete lack of interest in the nerdy source material could not be more obvious.

Black isn't just uninterested in the comic book background of the Iron Man universe. I'm not entirely sure he's seen any of the other Marvel movies. Tony Stark's character arc makes no sense. He begins the film with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is never well explained, with his near death or the sudden existence of aliens being the two offered theories. Both strike me as slightly out of character for a danger seeker and innately curious genius. The film ends with Stark getting the shrapnel lodged in heart removed during a simple surgery. Gee, if it was that easy, why didn't he get it done before now? The film tries to paint this as some sort of transformative experience. He's seemingly cured of his PTSD and of his interest in superhero-ing. Unsurprisingly, future Marvel movies would totally ignore this dismissive ending, with Stark once again being seen with something that looks like an arc reactor at his chest.

While “Iron Man 3” has some clear problems with the series mythology, it does feature enjoyable scenes. After the explosive first third, Tony lands in Rose Hill, Tennessee. Thus begins the small town interlude. Stark befriends Harley, a small boy. Stark becomes an unlikely mentor to the boy, often delivering Black style sarcastic barbs at the boy. Ty Simpkins is strong in the part and has fantastic chemistry with Downey. The other interactions Tony has with the small town folk, including an overly enthusiastic fan, are also amusing. The Tennessee interlude concludes with a fantastic action scene, where Stark slyly explodes a henchwoman of Killian's. Moreover, shifting gears and re-grounding the high-tech franchise in a small town was a smart idea.

In fact, the action is really very strong throughout “Iron Man 3.” Several scenes stand out. The Mandarin's attack on Tony's home is an exciting sequence, the hero dodging the rubble as it falls around him. The way he rescues Pepper Potts by wrapping her in his armor and rocketing her to safety. He ends up having to improvise some ways to take out the Mandarin's helicopters, one involving a piano. By far my favorite action scene has Tony rescuing a group of people falling from an airplane. The Barrel of Monkeys scene, as its called, is an impressive physical stunt that builds in more and more wild directions as it goes on. The fluidity of movement is something “Iron Man 3” heavily features, as the big climax revolves around Tony trading suits that spin through the air.

None of this is the reason why Marvel fans are so divided on “Iron Man 3.” Black's disinterest, bordering on disdain, of comic book lore is most apparent in the mid-film twist surrounding the Mandarin. After the villain being built up as a serious foe, it's revealed that there is no Mandarin. He's a character, played by a washed-up actor bribed with drugs and girls. Aldrich Killian has engineered the entire plot. There is certainly something clever about this. In the comics, the Mandarin is, rather notoriously, a yellow scare relic from an earlier age. Fu Manchu garb is traded out for a depiction highly evocative of Osama bin Laden and Middle Eastern terrorism. Black makes the Mandarin a xenophobic fiction created by an American weapons manufacture to prolong war and violence. And, yes, that's pretty clever.

But I fucking hate it, you guys. For a couple of reasons, most of which are nerdy nitpicking. In the comics, the Mandarin is Iron Man's archenemy, the Joker to his Batman. Yes, the character is an out-of-date stereotype. (One that would be especially offensive in China, a huge market for Marvel's films, which is probably the real reason the character was altered.) Yet there's a hundred ways the character could have been retooled that wouldn't be a cheat, that wouldn't come down to a fire-breathing Guy Pierce with a dragon tattoo. Making the Mandarin a hoax also ruins all the foreshadowing from the first film about the Ten Rings, an inconsistency “Iron Man 3” never attempts to justify. Is it too fan-boy-y to be annoyed that, instead of a bad-ass wizard with magic rings, we got an alcoholic Ben Kingsley telling fart jokes? I know I'm suppose to admire how subversive and cutting edge Black's decision was but, come on, I wanted to see Iron Man fight his archenemy.

Black has shown an interested in convoluted film noir plots before. In “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” he was actually making fun of this tendency. In “Iron Man 3,” he brings that same tendency to a superhero franchise without the same self-awareness. Watching “Iron Man 3” in the theaters, I was frequently confused by the twists and turns the story makes. Re-watching it at home, I'm still left with a few questions. Things are flowing pretty smoothly up until the second half, where the story completely collapses into a series of big plot reveals. This character is revealed to be a traitor. The story, involving disabled soldiers being turned into nano-tech infested henchmen, raises connotations that are never resolved. Worst yet is the reveal of the actual mastermind behind the plot, which comes out of nowhere and badly redirects the entire story. I'm sure Shane Black wouldn't care about any of this but it annoys me.

The pile-up of unclear storylines flat lines in an extremely unsatisfying final act. Kilian and his henchmen tears through Iron Man armors like a hot knife through butter. Armor, I'll point out, that previously took tank shellings and walked away fine. So that seems unlikely. Pepper Potts is reduced to a damsel in distress. The film then flirts with killing her off. If that wasn't contrived enough, what happens next is even more asinine. Pepper survives and starts kicking ass in a way that seems totally unlikely for someone with no combat experience. And did I mention Guy Pierce spraying lava from his mouth? Christ, that was fucking stupid. Everything about it is frustrating and displeasing. It ends the film on the most sour of notes.

But, you know, the cast is pretty good. Robert Downey Jr., at this point, could play Tony Stark in his sleep. He has self-internalized the quips, the ego, and the action hero theatrics. Gwyneth Paltrow is given less to do but her few scenes, like when she trade romantic banter with Downey, are cute. Don Cheadle also gets a few laughs, even if it seems like he also has less overall screen time than last time. I may be no fan of the Mandarin twist but Ben Kingsley is solid in the part. When playing the Mandarin, he's effectively intimidating, another reason the twist is disappointing. Kingsley is very funny once he's playing Trevor Slattery. His entire storyline irritates me so much that it's hard for me to grade Guy Pierce's performance in any sort of objective manner. I think he's kind of annoying.

The problems I have with “Iron Man 3” are indicative of the growing pains the Marvel Cinematic Universe faced in Phase 2. The attempts to shake things up resulted in shit like this Mandarin twist, S.H.E.I.L.D. being Nazis, and the growing dumpster fire of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Unsurprisingly, many of these twists would be retconned or ignored: A real Mandarin was hinted to exist in a Marvel One-Shot. The real S.H.I.E.L.D. continued to operate as an underground organization. And nobody, in or out of universe, paid any attention to the TV show. Ultimately, “Iron Man 3” feels like an “Iron Man” movie made by someone who doesn't care or know about “Iron Man.” It might be an interesting film but it fails as an adaptation. [Grade: C]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Iron Man 2 (2008)

Marvel's “Iron Man” gamble paid off big, the film becoming one of the highest grossing of the year. That same summer, the studio also released “The Incredible Hulk” to a somewhat more muted but still substantial box office reaction. Both movies featured explicit connections to each other. It looked like this crazy idea, of a cinematic shared universe, might actually work. Films based on “Thor” and “Captain America” were greenlit, paving the way for “The Avengers.” But Marvel wasn't going to march forward without a sequel to their now-flagship franchise. “Iron Man 2” immediately rolled into production after the first one's success. Jon Faveru was back in the director's chair with most of the original cast returning. The sequel would be another huge hit. The critical reception was less positive and “Iron Man 2” remains one of the most divisive of Marvel's movies.

The main problem with “Iron Man 2” is that it's trying to do too much. The script, written by Justin Theroux for some reason, is pulled in too many directions. Tony Stark, celebrated world over as Iron Man, is slowly being poisoned by the arc reactor in his chest. He's also being pestered by the government, who question whether a private citizen should own a weapon of mass destruction. Also, some guy named Ivan Vanko – the son of the Russian scientist who worked with Tony's dad – has a personal grudge against him. He creates his own arc reactor, turning himself into the supervillain Whiplash. In addition to all this, the movie also has Tony's pal Rhodey donning his own metal suit, becoming War Machine, and has Black Widow spying on him. Oh yeah, Nick Fury shows up again to further set up “The Avengers.” Needless to say, this is a seriously overstuffed sequel.

A script that is trying to do too much is, sadly, not “Iron Man 2's” only problem. The film begins with Tony Stark dropping out of an airplane and landing at the Stark Expo, a showcase for technology that his company funds. He then brags about how much Iron Man, as in him, has made the world a better place. Soon afterwards, he belittles some senators and rivals. In other words, Tony is a smug asshole at the film's beginning. In order to humanize his ego, the script has him struggling with his fatal condition. It's a messy attempt to justify the protagonist's asshole behavior. It's also a fairly facile attempt to continue a hero's journey that more-or-less concluded in the first movie. Robert Downey Jr. is still massively entertaining in the role but even his charms can't overcome a sloppy screenplay.

Further muddling the waters, this is not the only story point the movie cooks up for Tony. Daddy issues is a reoccurring theme in the sequel. (And, we'll later discover, in pretty much the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.) In the first scene, Tony presents footage of his dad, who has been re-imagined as a Walt Disney-like figure. This is an odd move for a weapons designer but it shows how Tony still lives in the shadow of a distant, controlling father. His father's mistakes revisit him in the form of Vanko, who is punishing Stark for his dad's sins. Despite all the resentment Tony feels towards his dad, the elder Stark still comes out on top. He saves his boy's life from beyond the grave, in an especially unlikely plot turn. Maybe the sequel should've just admitted that sometimes dads' fucking suck for no reason?

The first “Iron Man” had slightly shaky politics. It almost made the idea of a weapons manufacturer making the world a better place by building the coolest weapon ever seem plausible. The sequel, however, doubles down on the wobbliest aspects of the first's philosophies. Iron Man is apparently enough of a deterrent that wars the world over have slowed down. I guess that answers the question of why the Iraq War, a big part of the first film, is never mentioned again. When the government not unreasonably wonders if one person should have that kind of power, Tony refuses to relinquish the suit. This leads to some maybe unintentional, maybe not Randian undertones. The film mostly abandons politics after that but seems to stick with the thesis that extraordinary individuals – like, I don't know, egomaniac billionaires – should just be allowed to do whatever they want. Which is okay, I guess, in a fictional superhero universe but absolutely makes things worse in real life.

The movie also has fairly weak villains, a problem Marvel's movies would have going forward. Ivan Vanko mashes together two characters: Crimson Dynamo, Iron Man's Soviet counterpart and one of his greatest foes, and Blacklash, a guy who thinks a whip is an appropriate weapon to fight Iron Man with. Vanko is essentially Crimson Dynamo with a heavily modified version of Whiplash's trademark weapon. And, yeah, it looks cool. Electro whips are a memorable visual. The character has almost no personality though. He only interacts with Stark three times, his motivation is explained via one montage, and makes almost no impression on the audience. Mickey Rourke mumbles in a heavy accent throughout the film. The supporting villain is Sam Hammer, played by an entertaining Sam Rockwell, but he's a buffoon that's never meant to be taken seriously.

Over the course of future films, Scarlet Johannson's Black Widow would become an iconic character. After becoming a fan favorite over several sequels, it looks like she's finally getting her own movie. You'd never expect that reaction from her scenes here. The loaded script gives Johannson little to work with. She has a few personable scenes, such as a charming exchange with Downey, but she's mostly just pushed around by the whims of the script. We really learn nothing about Natasha Romanov's personality throughout “Iron Man 2.” Other than her being a total bad ass, portrayed during a fluid melee with some security guards. Ultimately, that's a factoid we could've gleamed on account of her being a superhero. Future films would largely establish Black Widow as a character.

Though it has the appearance of being a fine-tuned machine, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to work out a few kinks in its early entries. The first of a few high-profile re-castings occurred here. Don Cheadle steps in for Terence Howard. It's a considerable improvement. Cheadle is way more charming and funny than Howard and also has far more chemistry with Downey. Sadly, Cheadle is also jerked around by the script. Cheadle dons the War Machine suit because Tony gets drunk at a party, which naturally only escalates things. All the fist fights and alliances with subpar villains are forgiven once the explosion-filled last act kicks in. It's kind of like Marvel just insisted War Machine be in “Iron Man 2,” regardless of whether it made much sense or not.

Despite all the many problems “Iron Man 2” has, it's action scenes are consistently awesome. The first fight between Whiplash and Stark occurs on a race track. Race cars being cleaved in half make for a memorable sight. So does Tony slipping on a suit that can fit inside a suitcase. The drunken brawl between Rhodey and Tony might be hard to justify for plot reasons. Watching two guys in super-suits toss each other through a mansion is a lot of fun though. Once Vanko activates an army of heavily-armed robot drones, “Iron Man 2” kicks really features some high octane action. There's an impressive air chase, winding through the concrete pillars of a parking garage. The huge showdown between Iron Man, War Machine, and an army of robots is by far the coolest action beat of the film. Favreau's skills as an action director have improved considerably from the first film, as there's no shaky-cam here at all.

After making up for a lot of its flaws with those whiz-bang action scenes, “Iron Man 2” totally chokes at the last minute. Ivan Vanko continues to be a lame adversary up to the end. Whiplash's final fight with Iron Man and War Machine is underwhelming. He snares the heroes with his whips a few times. They then knock him out by combining their laser blasts, after which he commits suicide. Lame. The fight doesn't even satisfy as a nerd-pleasing spectacle. We got to see Iron Man fight an evil dude in another suit of robot-armor in the first movie. Marvel didn't even go to the effort of Vanko wearing red armor in the last scene, making the character a failed adaptation of the Crimson Dynamo.

This would not be the last time one of Marvel's high-profile sequels would be scrambled by setting up future films. When you're laying the bricks for an on-going universe of adventures, it seems some entries will inevitably be bumpy. “Iron Man 2's” likable cast goes a long way. The few scenes Robert Downey Jr. has with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts are really charming. It's action scenes are mostly really fun. However, the sequel is badly hampered by a messy, overcrowded script and a forgettable antagonist. [5/10] 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Iron Man (2008)

Think back on what a risk the original “Iron Man” was. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been part of our lives for a decade and has changed, not just superhero movies, but Hollywood cinema forever. Despite the occasional cry of “superhero fatigue,” it doesn't look like it'll be slowing down any time soon. None of this was a sure shot back in 2008. It was a film based on a comic book character that was considered a B-lister, at best. It starred a leading man still better known for his legal troubles than his acting. It was a big budget action flick directed by the guy best known for “Swingers.” The idea of a wider cinematic universe was just a far-off glint in Kevin Feige's eyes. Of course, this idea proved to just crazy enough to work. “Iron Man” was a hit and popcorn movie history was made.

You know the plot of “Iron Man” already but I'll refresh your memory, just in case. Tony Stark is a genius weapons designer, playboy billionaire, and all-around smart-ass. While in Iraq to help sell his latest super-weapon to the U.S. army, his Jeep is destroyed by a roadside bomb. Shrapnel is shoved into his heart, which will kill him without the assistance of a powerful magnet. He's captured by terrorists, who demands he builds a missile for them. Instead, he builds himself a bullet-proof, flying suit of armor. He escapes, returns home, and decides Stark Industries will no longer make weapons. He also continues to perfect his latest invention, transforming himself into Iron Man.

Marvel likes to say they have everything planned out years in advance. If you actually look back at their in-house movies, it's clear they handle stuff on a more film-by-film basis. “Iron Man” shows the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its infancy. Unlike later films, which would be thoroughly set in a fictional world, the first “Iron Man” is very much rooted in our universe. This is, after all, a silly superhero movie set in the shadow of the Iraq War. By the time you get to “The Avengers,” it's hard to imagine the conflict in the Middle East existing alongside Captain America and Asgard. You can also see how this first film is inconsistent with quite a few later ones. S.H.I.E.L.D. is depicted here as a brand new organization. Later, it would be established to have a long history. And, boy, that Ten Rings business sure wouldn't pay off, would it?

But let's put aside all that talk about universes and crossovers for now. I think there's another reason audiences flocked to “Iron Man” in 2008, beyond the rising popularity of superhero movies in general and that bad-ass trailer. Like all populist, action movies, “Iron Man” is about exorcising real world demons in a fictional context. Setting the movie in Iraq wasn't just an update of Tony Stark's Vietnam War-based comic book origin. Tony is captured by middle eastern bad guys cloaked in generic terrorist get-ups. Later, after experiencing the cruelty and violence of the area first hand, he builds himself a super suit. Within one day, he flies over to a war zone and single-handedly destroys the bad people, saving the good people. This is a powerful escapist fantasy for a reason. The idea of wiping out real world evil all by yourself, untethered by the law and real life ramifications, is a powerful, incredibly satisfying concept.

Yeah, the politics of this idea are shaky, at best. A white billionaire declaring himself above the law and murdering a bunch of brown people does not seem as fun in 2018. “Iron Man” tries to craft a sensible moral. Tony Stark is a war profiteer who, upon seeing the actual effect the weapons he's made has on the world, decides to give it all up. He says he's going to redirect his whole company to providing clean energy to the world. He then makes the most awesome weapon ever, keeps it to himself, and creates way more chaos and destruction. Any point “Iron Man” is trying to make about the role weapons manufacturers play in the death and destruction of war is quickly forgotten in favor of action movie theatrics.

Putting all politics aside, “Iron Man” is also just a fantastically plotted blockbuster. The script structure is clean and concise. All the plot points roll into place smoothly. It has a perfect first act, opening with Tony's capture, flashing back to the character-establishing previous day. The build-up to the reveal of the first Iron Man suit is fantastically balanced. Seeing Tony transform from a spoiled rich bad boy to a (mostly) selfless hero is really well done. The pay-off of Obadiah Stane's betrayal is handled well. The role towards the third act, with the circumstances involving Pepper Potts becoming endangered, hits every beat correctly. There's actually only a few sequences of Tony in the Iron Man suit throughout the film. Each one, however, builds wonderfully on the one before it. “Iron Man” is just a satisfying movie to watch.

I should say, the film is fantastically plotted up until that last act. What exactly is Obadiah Stane's end game? He initially tries to kill Tony so he can take over the company, sure. When it looks like his treachery is about to be uncovered, he decides to murder Tony himself. Somewhere in there, he builds a giant version of the Iron Man suit, becoming the supervillain Iron Monger. He then... Goes on a rampage throughout Malibu? If he wants to mass-produce Tony's suit, destroying a whole city block with the prototype doesn't seem like a very smart move. If he wants to un-incriminate himself, that move makes no sense either. The truth is the movie had to end with a big showdown between superhero and supervillian. The film tries to hand-wave this chaos by saying Stane has gone crazy. Yeah, the big fight is cool and Jeffrey Bridges nicely hams it up. It just leaves me scratching my head a little, from a narrative perspective.

In 2018, Robert Downey Jr. is a huge box office star. Honestly, he's the only MCU leading man to see much success outside his superhero franchise. Ten years ago, Robert Downey Jr. was trying to rebuild a promising career that had been destroyed by bad decisions. Most assumed he was cast as Iron Man because the character's history of alcoholism mirrors Downey's own substance abuse problems. The truth is Downey was just perfect for the role. Few stars are so able to make a smarmy asshole lovable. Tony's redemption arc softens his edges a little but he's still a smart-ass rich boy. Downey's magical way with dialogue and one-liners makes all the difference. Downey has chemistry with everyone, including a one-armed robot and a body-less artificial intelligence.

The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Every time Gwyneth Paltrow opens her mouth in real life, she becomes more insufferable. As Pepper Potts, she's incredibly likable. Her mellower energy balances with Downey's sarcasm very nice. The two are genuinely charming as a couple. Their romantic scenes together have a quiet humor that I really like. Watching “Iron Man” in 2018, in light of everything that came after, is weird for another reason too. We're so used to Don Cheadle's portrayal of Rhodey that seeing Terence Howard in the part feels weird. Howard's foppish take on the character is certainly way less endearing than what would come. Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan is practically a cameo in this movie, which also feels odd.

As an action movie, “Iron Man” is pretty damn great too. The first Iron Man scene, where Tony fights his way out of an Iraqi cave in a tin man-style suit, is fucking cool. The tight corridors of the cave create some tension while each punch and explosion is executed with maximum impact. The sequence devoted to Tony learning to fly is thrilling, exciting, and freeing most of all. His attack on the terrorist camp, and the subsequent escape from the jet fighters, features so many cool shots. The special effects hold up pretty well, though some of the CGI is already starting to stick out. The Iron Man suits, the last job Stan Winston completed before his untimely death, all look super cool. Jon Favreau's direction is a little unsteady at times. He utilizes rough zooms and some shaky-cam occasionally but over all it's fine.

Now a days, the post-credit scene is such a standard feature of summer blockbusters that we're disappointed when they don't appear. In 2008, Samuel L. Jackson making an appearance as Nick Fury at the end of the credits, asking about the Avengers Initiative, was the coolest fucking surprise imaginable. Teasers for event movies like this are so common now, they're kind of boring. It was a totally unexpected and absolutely delightful event when first seen in theaters. “Iron Man” still holds up extremely well, as a mostly really well-written superhero epic with a perfectly cast leading man and some kick-ass action. [9/10]