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IRON MAN 3

Few releases this year are as critic-proof as this one; “Iron Man 3” will be a huge success no matter what anyone writes about it. But the unhappy fact is that compared to “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers” (just to mention the recent Marvel super-hero flicks), which were such good fun, this dark, gloomy, chaotic and basically misanthropic film is a real bummer—Iron Man in Dark Knight territory, and all the worse for it.

The script, by director Shane Black and Drew Pearce, is set shortly after the events of “The Avengers,” though there’s a brief prologue referencing a New Year’s party back in 1999. After saving the world, though seemingly his old, snarky Robert Downey, Jr., self, Tony Stark is actually in emotional turmoil, suffering from insomnia and panic attacks. That’s hardly improved when his firm’s security chief, Happy (Jon Favreau)—an intense doofus whom any other boss would surely fire—is seriously injured in an explosion at the Hollywood Chinese Theatre, where he’s tailed a suspicious-looking guy. The blast is apparently connected to a series of terrorist attacks masterminded by The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), who periodically coopts the world’s broadcasting facilities to issue threats against the US President (William Sadler). Happy’s condition leads Stark to issue an invitation to The Mandarin to come after him, which leads to an assault on his mountaintop mansion and initiates his quest for revenge, despite reports of his own demise and the loss of all his technological goodies, including his Iron Man duds.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about what follows. Suffice it to say that the complications include an Iron Man clone in the service of the state and called Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle); Tony’s partner both in business and at home, the lovely Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow); Maya (Rebecca Hall), Stark’s 1999 girlfriend who’s into advanced genetic research; and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), an odd scientist whose pet project has to do with experiments intended to restore lost limbs and other appendages to the ill and injured.

But all these elements are mixed into a brew that’s, with few exceptions, almost unrelievedly grim and curiously unpleasant. The overall world-view is one of deep, pervasive corruption that extends to the highest levels, and apart from Stark’s immediate circle, there aren’t many characters one would find particularly admirable. Tony is out of suit for much of the running-time, and subjected to pummeling after pummeling so that Downey, despite all the quips, comes to seem like a human punching-bag when he’s not hung up on chains to endure the villain’s mockery. But even that’s a modest indignity compared to what happens to Paltrow. She’s captured and trussed up on a torture table while extravagantly suffering the application of the villain’s torments, turned into a wimpering damsel-in-distress role that’s really beneath the dignity of a fine actress.

And then there are the explosions and noise—a cascade of battles, gunfights, bombings and airborne assaults, culminating in a long dockside confrontation involving Downey, Cheadle, Paltrow, scads of Iron man suits and a small army of super-powered humans who can perk back to life after being terminated with extreme prejudice. Apart from the fact that few things in this sort of action movie are duller and less interesting than villains that can repeatedly regenerate (according to principles that the film never bothers to explain adequately, since sometimes they just don’t), the avalanche of effects-heavy sequences quickly grows tiresome, especially since they’re not choreographed or edited with any special panache and are accompanied by Brian Tyler’s ear-splitting score.

Nonetheless there are oases of pleasure in the desert. The scenes with Kingsley, played at full throttle, are quite amusing, especially since they also provide one of the script’s best twists. And a Tennessee-set sequence in which Stark is compelled to join up with a smart-aleck kid (engaging Ty Simpkins, an adept scene-stealer) is satisfying, not least because it avoids succumbing to the sentimentality the encounter invites (though the part of the coda referring back to it comes off as rather lame).

Technically “Iron Man 3” is accomplished, even if it doesn’t really break any new ground. (A sequence in which Iron Man saves a baker’s dozen of passengers falling from an injured plane isn’t much beyond the sort of stuff that’s been done more excitingly in James Bond movies.) But cinematographer John Toll, production designer Bill Brzeski and art director Brian Stultz have clearly done yeoman work, though the dankness of atmosphere after the first reel or so mutes the impact of their effort.

There’s no doubt that this will be an early-summer blockbuster and rake in many hundreds of million of dollars. But in due course it’s likely to fall into the pattern of pictures like “Return of the Jedi” and “Spiderman 3”—third installments of franchises that were originally welcomed enthusiastically but, as time passed, came to be viewed even by fans as disappointments.

THE NUMBERS STATION

Claustrophobic and repetitive, “The Numbers Station” is a numbingly tedious would-be thriller that wastes the considerable talents of John Cusack.

He plays Emerson, a demoralized US intelligence agent, a recovering alcoholic who hits rock bottom after completing his latest mission, in which he wastes the entire population of a bar before trailing a witness home and eliminating him and failing to save the man’s innocent wife from execution by his boss Grey (Liam Cunningham). It’s a far cry from the far less conflicted that Cusack played so memorably in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” and frankly the actor looks as uncomfortable as the character—not a testimony to his identification with Emerson, but his apparent ennui.

At the base, a concrete bunker sort of thing in northern England where encrypted messages are dispatched to agents and received and decoded in turn, Emerson is partnered with Katherine (Malin Ackerman), a pretty blonde who’s there out of a sense of duty to her country. But arriving for work one morning the find themselves—and the whole place—under assault from a squad of bad-guys. The rest of the running-time is devoted to their effort to stay alive and hold out until reinforcements arrive.

It’s a tedious business, not invigorated by what feels like a good deal of padding despite a short (88- minute) running-time. The action is frequently interrupted by scenes of other workers in the facility being brutalized and killed by the invaders, and there’s a fractured quality to these, which are sometimes shown in real-time, and elsewhere in flashback snatches. The effect is disorienting in an unnecessarily arty way.

Still, from a technical standpoint “The Numbers Station” is competently made for the most part. Ottar Guttnason’s cinematography is atmospheric, and Ged Clarke’s production design does what it needs to. The picture’s faults like primarily on the narrative side, with a script (by F. Scott Frazier) that isn’t distinctive or surprising enough and direction by Kasper Barfoed that’s on the flaccid side. As for the cast, apart from Cusack Akerman has the only meaty role, and she does well enough showing her mixture of vulnerability, strength and pain (since she’s seriously wounded early on). That’s true even though she’s saddled with some monologues that rather clumsily deliver expository material that might have been handled more cannily. The villainous interlopers all seem to have come out of central casting.

In sum, “The Numbers Station” is a wearyingly ordinary attempt at a confined-space thriller that doesn’t so much take advantage of its locale as reflect its limitations. By the time it finishes, you’re likely to feel as exhausted and out of sorts as Emerson (or Cusack) looks.