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American Gangster (2007), Iron Man (2008) and The Crazies (1973)

crazies.jpgWhat makes a good movie? Is it the technical quality? The originality? Or is cinematic goodness something that you know it when you see it?

American Gangster, the “inspired by true events” story of crime lord Frank Lucas isn’t particularly good or bad, but it mostly had me playing “spot the influence”. Here’s the Godfather scene; here’s another Goodfellas scene; ah, that’s from Scarface. I didn’t mind watching it — the acting, directing and art direction are all top-notch — but while I was watching it, I kind of felt I was at the point in my filmgoing life where I’d rather see an honest failure than a derivative success. But would I? I got to but that theory to the test on the next two movies I saw: the big-budget superhero blockbuster Iron Man, and the nearly-forgotten Vietnam-era horror flick,The Crazies.

I don’t have a lot to say about Iron Man that you probably haven’t heard already — it’s good. Real good. The putative story is a bit underwhelming — reform-minded industrialist Tony Stark and his shiny, shiny robosuit take on Evil Bald Corporate Guy. But the story of Tony Stark, as played by Robert Downey Junior, as he goes from irresponsible playboy to radicalized moral crusader, I found totally compelling. It doesn’t have the mythic undertones of a Superman or a Batman, but that’s okay — this is the story of a man, not a god.

Only thing is — I’m not sure it could really be considered very original. Parts of it felt genuinely novel, but I’m sure picking them apart, you could find their genesis elsewhere. And have no doubt — this is still utterly identifiable as a late-2000s superhero movie, complete with origin story, A-list cast, and impressive CGI. And yet I liked it much more than American Gangster. So maybe it’s not originality I’m after, but some spark of inspiration — some artistic conviction that makes a movie like Iron Man rise above its source material, but keeps American Gangster earthbound.

If so, where does that leave The Crazies? It was made by indie goremaster George A Romero, in between his twin masterpieces, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and it fits perfectly into Romero’s career trajectory. In The Crazies, you can see him following up on the blood-and-intestine-flavoured paranoia of Night, while also exercising the satirical and political wit he would deploy in Dawn. It’s the story of a small midwestern town that is accidentally infected with a secret military weapon that (surprise!) turn the townfolk into bloodthirsty killers. In typical 1970s style, the military are the villains of the piece, but Romero has more on his mind than just making them the bad guys. The movie alternates between the townspeople, going crazy and/or trying to avoid the crazies and military, and the soldiers and scientists who are trying to maintain the quarantine but who are, for the most part, just as scared and outraged as the townspeople. It’s not the people who are the villains, you see, it’s the system that could allow this weapon to be created and so carelessly handled. Pretty heady stuff, and a cut above the kind of knee-jerk politics you’d expect.

Only one problem — The Crazies really isn’t very good. It’s bad on pretty much every technical level, and numbingly repetitive to boot. Which leaves my search for a grand unified theory of What Eric Likes in a Movie unresolved. Much like the Grand Unified Theory of physics itself. At least that makes me feel a little better. If all those physicists can’t figure their models out, what hope do I have?

And so, in conclusion, go see Iron Man. It’s a lot of fun.