Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Shane Black (2005)

Shane Black is not an unknown name here at Film Thoughts. I've already reviewed "Lethal Weapon" and "Predator." The most hot-shot-y of hot shot Hollywood screenwriters, Black had a distinctive style that was easy to identify. Reoccurring elements popped up through his scripts: Gritty crime stories, fast-paced dialogue, two guys starting out hating each other before learning to love each other, an odd obsession with Christmas. Considering he had such clear style, it's unsurprising that Black would eventually step into the director's chair. Though he's only directed three features thus far, Shane Black has already created some lovable cult favorites and at least one enormous blockbuster.

1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” was born out of failure. Following the frail box office response to “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” Shane Black's run as one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters came to an end. Black figured the secret to success might lie in a script outside the action genre. So he wrote a romantic-comedy. As he worked on the project, he still couldn't find a studio interested in making it. At that point, Black added a murder and turn the story, now called “You'll Never Die in This Town Again,” into an action movie after all. Around the same time, the veteran screenwriter decided to make his directorial debut with the film, now entitled “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” The movie would not become a huge commercial success but it received great reviews and quickly became a cult favorite.

Harry Lockhart came to Los Angeles to be a thief. Through happenstance, he ended up auditioning for a producer and earning a part in an upcoming movie. While at an industry party, he meets a woman he's pretty sure he recognizes. He later realizes she's Harmony, the girl he had a crush on back in high school. The next night, as research for his film role, he's sent on a drive along with private detective “Gay” Perry. They end up witnessing a car, with a dead girl in the trunk, thrown into a lake. Around the same time, Harmony – who believes Harry really is a detective – offers him a case. Her younger sister came to L.A. and killed herself but she believes it was murder. Both cases, Harry and Perry soon discover, are connected.

Right from its opening minutes, it's abundantly clear that Shane Black has lost none of his authorial voice when transitioning from writer to director. Lockhart's voice over narration speaks directly to the audience. He rambles off topic and then doubles back, apologizing for digressing too much. The film's narration, which is so obviously directly from Black's brain, is frequently hilarious. There's a poetic cadence to the words and a frequent smart-ass sarcasm. There's also a heavy meta element to the narration, as Lockhart's words often directly affect what the audience is seeing on screen. The voiceover is hilarious, immediately drawing the viewer in, while quickly establishing the film's irrelevant tone.

The meta element is also presented in the story's structure. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a detective story with characters who have read detective novels, a film noir with characters who have seen other film noir movies. Black would loosely draw inspiration from “Bodies Are Where You Find Them,” a hard-boiled detective novel in a long running series of books by Brett Halliday. The film frequently comments on the cliches and expectations of the genre. In the beginning, Harry comments how the two seemingly unrelated mysteries always connect by the end. There's also a mentioned of how, in the books, the protagonist is captured by the bad guys and tortured before escaping and killing everyone. Both of these events play out in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Essentially, this is a film noir, with a typically convoluted film noir plot, that comments on how convoluted it's plot is.

Even though Black commits fully to the detective story genre, you can still see “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's” roots as a romantic- comedy. Once you strip away the crazy story of murder, sex, betrayal, and Hollywood intrigue, this is ultimately a story about a guy and the girl that got away. Harry and Harmony grew up together. All throughout high school, he harbored a crush on her while she messed around with other guys. In the last place either expected, they meet and are thrown together on a crazy adventure. Naturally, the two ended up together. Through this lens, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” becomes a classical wish fulfillment story, of the nerd finally winning over the cheerleader. This contrasts nicely with the gritty crime story and lends the film a satisfying emotional arc.

As for the comedy half of the romantic-comedy equation, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is a consistently hilarious movie. Much of that humor comes from Black's fast-paced dialogue, traded back and forth between his protagonists. Harry and Perry often shoot pointed barbs at one another, baiting each other and cutting down their flaws. That makes “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” akin to the buddy cop movies Black made his career writing, though the relationship remains highly caustic even after the two become friends. There's also a thread of likable absurdity to the film's story. Such as Harry constantly loosing a finger throughout the film, until it's finally eaten by a dog.

The comedy honestly takes the front seat throughout most of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” This is not as explosive an action movie as “Lethal Weapon” or “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” (Though it is set at Christmas time, like those films, as if there was any doubt this was entirely Black's project.) The action scenes come in burst. A car careens over a cliff and into a lake. A gun is fired from a hidden place in someone's pants. Heroes barely escape detection by the bad guys. The film concludes with a big car chase and shoot-out, ending with our hero dangling over a highway overpass. For a first time director, Black acquits himself well with these action scenes. The action is always clearly and stylishly directed.

Ultimately though, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's” approach to action movie tropes is more smart-assed. Harry Lockhart is not an action hero. He spends pretty much the whole movie getting the shit beat out of him. The amputated finger is just one example of the abuse he takes throughout the film. He stumbles into this adventure and stumbles back out, barely alive. Near the end, the movie swiftly deconstructs the old cliché about a seemingly fatal bullet wound being stopped by a book. Despite the film's overall flippant tone, it also deals with the weight of violence. After killing a bad guy for the first time, the violent act weighs on Harry's mind. Sexual abuse and violence, usually perpetrated on children by their parents, is another theme throughout the film. It seems that action movie violence has consequences in this world... Except when it doesn't, like when a random orderly gets gunned down without much warning.

In 2005, Robert Downey Jr. was attempting a comeback. His years as an up-and-coming talent had largely been eclipsed by his struggles with drugs and run-ins with the law. If you disregard that Elton John music video, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was Downey's first leading role since his stint in rehab. It turns out, Downey and Shane Black were an ideal pairing. Downey's fast-paced delivery and gift for sardonic quips makes him the perfect leading man for a Black screenplay. He's hilarious and charismatic but also likable, lacking the smarminess that Downey would, perhaps, start to rely too much in his later roles. Downey, perhaps paying penance for his bad behavior, seems to revel in the abuse his character takes. Of course, this movie would proceed Downey getting buzzy roles in “Zodiac” and “Tropic Thunder,” ultimately leading to his rebirth as a superhero.

Co-starring in the film is Val Kilmer, another leading man who hadn't had a hit in a while by 2005. Kilmer plays “Gay” Perry. Kilmer is also fantastically suited to Black's hyper-verbal, sarcastic style. Kilmer's strength for smart-ass comebacks make him perfect for the role of someone who is constantly calling Harry on his bullshit. Perry being gay is meant as something of a subversion. He's a bad-ass action hero, shooting the bad guy, taking hits, and outsmarting his enemies. Yet the way the movie frequently, and crudely, calls attention to his homosexuality would probably be considered problematic in the modern vernacular. But it's also pretty funny and there's nothing especially mean-spirited about it either.

Michelle Monaghan appears as Harmony, a year before coming to wider recognition in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. She's well-suited to Black's style, having no problem with the wacky dialogue. She also has fantastic chemistry with Downey, the two's sexual tension playing out in a novel way. Just when it seems like the two are ready to get together, past mistakes force them apart again. Moreover, Monaghan is willing to roll and tumble throughout the film's adventure, proving to be a decent action heroine in her own right. I've also got to give a shout-out to Corbin Bernsen as the film's bad guy, who is extra sleazy in the part.

For most of its run time, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” is a total delight. The characters are memorable,  the actors are great, the dialogue is really funny. The plot is convoluted enough that you start to wonder if it actually makes any sense from a distance. But that's not really a problem when you're enjoying the experience so much. After a really entertaining climax, the movie features a totally suitable denouncement. It then keeps going, with an oddly placed epilogue set back in Harry and Harmony's home town. All the lead characters are kept out of this except for Perry, which is an odd decision. The script lampshades this, referencing the famously ending-adverse “Lord of the Rings” movies, but that doesn't prevent this from being a kind of shaggy way to wrap things up.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is one of those movies people have been telling me to watch for years. I wasn't too sure about it. Before “Iron Man,” I was skeptical of Robert Downey Jr.'s comeback tour. Though I love many of his films, Shane Black's work sometimes irritates me. Having seen the movie now, I really should've gotten to it a lot sooner. The movie is fantastically entertaining from beginning to end, every smart-ass line being memorable and funny. Black's directorial debut gives the audience something funny, cool, or both to chew on every minute of its run time. [Grade: A-]