Comic book adaptations are notoriously difficult to achieve with exceptional results. The two outstanding contributions to the cinematic world of superhero films are Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy. Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins is serviceable (granted, to many it is an exceptional film), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men flicks work on at least a mechanical level. What is noteworthy, however, is that the artistic success of these films is directly related to the inherent artistry of its director, in general. Iron Man director Jon Favreau, is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a cinema artist, and the picture suffers because of this.
Raimi and Del Toro are known as cinema stylists for their work in such films as Darkman and The Devil’s Backbone, respectively. Nolan, thanks to Memento and Insomnia, is known for his commitment to character development, as well as plot contrivance. And Singer (X-Men 1 & 2, and Superman Returns) is increasingly becoming a reliable studio hired hand. What these guys all have in common, however, is that they are directors, first and foremost. They are directors with preoccupations, themes they hope to research and investigate and delve into, aesthetic ideas they explore over and over again in their movies.
Favreau, on the other hand, is just a guy, an actor, who sometimes directs a picture here and there, because he likes to. And he does it well. Made is an interesting little picture, and Elf works (in large part because of the cast). How Favreau landed the helming role on such a tent pole picture as Iron Man though, I have no idea. But I guess the proof is in the pudding. The box office is boffo, and as far as I can tell, audiences are loving it. Which is too bad, because it is an utterly forgettable motion picture. I would go so far as to call it boring, bland, and unimaginative. The most impressive thing in Iron Man is Tony Stark’s suit. And you can see that for free in the Arclight lobby.
Iron Man is boring because it plays it safe every step of the way. In terms of production, cinematography, performance and narrative construction, the film delivers nothing that anyone would describe as exciting or thrilling or wild or crazy or super or fun or amazing or heart breaking or tragic. Iron Man’s greatest offense is that it is not offensive at all. It is wholly lacking in provocation. It is the very definition of fast food cinema.
The film’s uniform blandness is the reason they open the film with an action sequence – because there is no other, formal, reason to start with “a bang”, so to speak. If the filmmakers had set that opening action scene in the movie where it belongs in the narrative, then people would have been walking out in droves, because nothing, absolutely nothing interesting happens for the first fifteen minutes. The audience would have realized they were trapped in a yak fest disguised as a superhero film, and they would have bailed. With Iron Man, the audience is repeatedly tricked and seduced into thinking that just around the corner the shit you’ve all been waiting for is about to happen, but it never does.
In David Mamet’s Redbelt, however, the shit the audience is waiting for starts happening right from the jump. Those things that are missing most from Iron Man – narrative tension, character depth, formal unity, and uniqueness of vision – define every frame of Mamet’s picture about a mixed martial arts instructor whose personal code and life philosophy nearly destroys his life, as it does many of those around him.
The always-brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mike Terry, the mixed martial arts instructor who inspires his students with his discipline, and frustrates his family for the same resolve that makes him such an admirable figure in the ring and on the mat. His small dojo is in financial straits, and when too much Good starts coming his way, it isn’t too long before the Bad starts coming to keep the universe in balance.
Mamet is a purveyor of Man. His preferred subject matter is Man, and he works almost exclusively in Men’s milieus: the military (Spartan), high-end crime (Spanish Prisoner, Heist), film production (State And Maine). And like his subject matter, Mamet’s directing style is tough. His camera work is no-nonsense, muscular, direct and to the point, but decidedly stylish. He is not lazy with the camera in the way some writers allow themselves to be. Rather, he very forcefully uses the camera in ways that recall directors of the classic studio era: Howard Hawks, John Ford, Hitchcock.
Like those directors and their films, Mamet’s approach to storytelling is nuanced but not opaque, swift but not rushed, and powerful but not overbearing. This method of his is precisely why Redbelt succeeds so thoroughly. It is that rare film where the form and the content are united, where both the story and the way in which it is told hold equal value. While the studios are letting guys like Favreau direct Iron Man, they ought to be chasing down men like Mamet to direct these comic book adaptations.
If they really wanted to tell the story of Tony Stark, an alcoholic, womanizing, jet-setting arms dealer who uses an iron suit as a means of liberating his tortured soul, then they could have found few better qualified for the gig than David Mamet.