Iron Man Flattens Speed Racer

Proving even comic book movies need brains over flash.

By Steve Burgess 9 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films here every other Friday -- except he's about to return to his globe-trotting ways, dropping postcards to Tyee readers in the next few weeks.

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The Wachowskis' big spin out.

A certain comic book movie franchise trumpets the philosophy "With great power comes great responsibility." Two of this summer's early comic-to-film efforts illustrate the point cinematically.

Speed Racer is taken from a Japanese anime series, now brought to the screen by the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame. Like a fancy CGI shot, that fame is gradually morphing into infamy. Speed Racer is about a kid named Speed Racer (local actor Nicholas Elia for the young version, Emile Hirsch for the bigger model). He appears to have a near-fatal case of ADD. Maybe they saw that coming when they named him Speed. Speed idolizes his brother Crack -- sorry, Rex -- who's a champion racer. "Maybe you'll have to hit the books," Rex sneers at young Speed during a driving lesson. That's a threat. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon play the parents, the most wholesome people in the world unless you stop for a few milliseconds to review the plot.

It would be hard to overstate how obnoxious this film is. Virtually impossible to watch in its hyperkinetic action sequences, it uses a sort of floating-head-wipe technique in which people or objects move across the screen to change the scene. Again and again and again. "I don't know if I can watch this!" one character says -- as succinct a self-review as you'll ever hear at the movies.

Cliché is piled proudly upon cliché as if that's the whole point. Then the movie throws in a chimp. The chimp makes funny faces. Art direction in search of a movie, it represents the kind of state-of-the-art bad flick that is possible only through modern technology. Great power in the hands of filmmakers with no taste -- no sense of responsibility

Iron Man's heart

Iron Man, last week's box office superhero, is a very different beast. This movie's chief special effects are a clever script and Robert Downey Jr. As arms mogul/inventor Tony Stark, Downey is roguish, dissolute, middle-aged charm incarnate. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper Potts, Stark's faithful assistant and, gradually, love interest.

Stark experiences a very literal change of heart after a terrorist kidnapping leaves him with coronary damage even as it demonstrates the evil uses to which his weapons are being put (duh). He escapes by building himself a metal super suit. No radioactive scorpions here -- just an old guy with brains. Stark wants to change business plans -- his business partner (Jeff Bridges) wants a veto. Mayhem ensues. More importantly, Downey gets to wisecrack his way through the whole process. It's almost a disappointment when he puts his helmet on.

Iron Man is hardly without flaws -- the climactic superhero battle is a rather uninspired affair. And to be picky, the fact that Tony Stark appears to have invented genuine artificial intelligence -- in a walking fire extinguisher no less -- is probably more significant than a fancy metal suit. Plus the movie has a rather disturbing tendency to portray career women (Paltrow aside) as bimbos in business suits.

But Iron Man succeeds because the creative team behind the film, led by director Jon Favreau, understands what works for superhero movies. The comic book element guarantees that colour and plot will be built in regardless, allowing smart comic book filmmakers to concentrate on character. Joel Schumacher's disco Batman movies are proof of what happens when comic books are translated to film by people who think it's all about flash. The Wachowski brothers seem to think that an emphasis on cheese and cliché delivered with a nod and a wink will be accepted by audiences as part of the comic book legacy. But they forgot to make it interesting. Iron Man works because there's a heart inside the shiny metal. And some decent writing.

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