DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of "Iron Man 3," starring Robert Downey Jr. as the man in the metal suit; Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering, assistant-turned-girlfriend; and a cast that includes Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The third time might be the charm for some things, but No. 3 after a movie title is typically shorthand for a deal with the devil. The studio thinks there's more money to be squeezed from a particular property, and voila: "Spider-Man 3," "Superman III," "Godfather - God help us - Part III." OK, "Godfather's" a special case.
Other threes, though, are what happens when a too-thin plot meets a too-fat budget. "Iron Man 3" conquers the curse of the three in a novel way; it pretty much takes Iron Man out of the equation. He's in there, obviously. People would tear down the theater, if he weren't.
But Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire industrialist Tony Stark doesn't spend much time in that computer-generated Iron Man suit, which means fewer cut-ins of Downey's little head inside, reacting to battles that we know - no matter how much we want to believe - have no human component whatsoever.
The excellent idea of director Shane Black, who co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce, is to kick Stark out of his comfort zone. Instead of throwing money at every problem, Stark has to function as a lone gumshoe, think like a garage mechanic and when necessary, jury-rig something crude - or, as we like to say nowadays, "MacGyver" it.
Black directed Downey in 2005, in one of the actor's first post-prison vehicles - "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," a good, tense, Hollywood private-eye spoof. He knows Downey's best characters have a morbid edge, a mixture of arrogance and self-disgust.
"Iron Man 3" begins with a flashback. Stark is telling his story, explaining how his bad behavior created the demons that would change his life. There was a conference in 1999; he was trying to seduce a botanist, played by Rebecca Hall; and he boorishly blew off a long-haired, partially paralyzed science nerd named Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. Killian did not, to say the least, forget the slight.
Stark behaves no more wisely a decade later. After an explosion in a shopping mall - credited to a terrorist mastermind called The Mandarin - he sends a message via TV news cameras.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRON MAN 3")
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark) Here's a little holiday greeting I've been wanting to send to The Mandarin. I just didn't know how to phrase it until now. My name is Tony Stark, and I'm not afraid of you. I know you're a coward. So I've decided that you just died, pal. I'm going to come get the body.
There's no politics here. It's just good, old-fashioned revenge. There's no Pentagon. It's just you and me. And on the off chance you're a man, here's my home address: 10880 Malibu Point, 90265. I'll leave the door unlocked.
EDELSTEIN: It turns out that The Mandarin - or whoever is behind him - didn't need the door unlocked since his attack helicopters fire missiles through the windows of Stark's high-tech, cliffside manse. The bombardment has been the stuff of trailers and TV spots for the last six months, and I can only add that it's even more impressive in 3-D; that it's fun to see Stark's girlfriend, Pepper Potts - played by Gwyneth Paltrow - in the Iron Man suit briefly or at least, her little head inside, pretending she's in it; and that the shot where the camera seems to plummet alongside Stark, and what's left of his house, is not just a wowza(ph) but a triple-decker wowza with cheese.
Thereafter, Stark is on his own, without an Iron Man suit or most other superhero paraphernalia. And he's still having anxiety attacks from the battle in last summer's "The Avengers." It takes a precocious Tennessee adolescent named Harley - played by Ty Simpkins - to push Stark to rediscover his inner garage-workshop tinkerer.
As to the nature of the supervillain and his - literally - fire-breathing minions, I won't spoil anything. I couldn't if I wanted to, since I never fully understood their powers. I didn't care, though. "Iron Man 3" has one rollicking set piece after another, and unusually good performances from Downey; Pearce; Don Cheadle, as Stark's gung-ho buddy, Col. Rhodes; and especially Ben Kingsley, as The Mandarin, the true nature of whom I shall not reveal.
Unlike most comic-book directors, Shane Black doesn't stint on killing. An attack on Air Force One has the high body count of the movie "Air Force One." It must be said that the timing wouldn't seem to be great for a popcorn blockbuster featuring explosions in American cities. But for better or worse, this kind of picture always seems to get a pass. The audience needs its fix; nothing gets between us and our superheroes.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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