- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Thinking of Liam Neeson’s recent turn as an aggrieved father out for revenge in “Taken,” the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane asked whether “stars degrade themselves when they take a role in trash, or does their very presence redeem the folly, turning up something that glitters amid the dross?”

A similar question could be asked of fine actors and big-budget action fare. Can Oscar-worthy actors turn a mainstream blockbuster into a more lasting work of art? Or are they merely debasing themselves for a paycheck, allowing the studios to pay for the house in the Hollywood Hills that indie fare can never hope to buy them?

The answer, as with so many of life’s most vexing questions, is “It depends.” Consider the case of Christian Bale.

Though not an Oscar winner himself, Mr. Bale is inarguably one of the finest young talents working today. He has consistently garnered critical acclaim in everything from hard-edged independent productions such as “American Psycho” and “Rescue Dawn” to midlevel studio fare including “The Prestige” to the second-highest-grossing film in history, “The Dark Knight.”

There’s little doubt that Mr. Bale’s presence — along with that of six-time Oscar nominee Michael Caine and critical fave Gary Oldman — contributed to the perception of “The Dark Knight” and its predecessor, “Batman Begins,” as formidable pieces of filmmaking.

Mr. Bale’s talents are not enough, however, to save “Terminator Salvation.” An artistic misfire, the latest entry in the killer-robot series can’t be redeemed by Mr. Bale’s solid, if unremarkable, performance. The script simply isn’t there.

In the new era of comic-book and action-adventure blockbusters searching for both critical and commercial success, brilliant actors have been recruited to fill roles both big and small. However, their luster only shines through when they’re given the proper material to bring their brilliance to its full sheen.

The “X-Men” series is an instructive example in this regard.

The first three movies in the series — “X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” — all starred Shakespearean stalwarts Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. (Mr. McKellen also has a pair of Oscar nominations in the past decade.) Their turns as the elder statesmen of the mutant rights movement lent the proceedings an added gravitas and instant credibility that otherwise would have been lacking.

Yet only the first two entries in the series were met with anything close to critical acclaim. “X2,” in particular, was celebrated for its striking pathos and an emotional depth uncommon to the genre. Before “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” it was widely regarded as one of, if not the, best comic-book film of all time.

The final entry in the series is a miss, however. The assembled talents couldn’t save “The Last Stand” from turning into a muddled mess. “The Last Stand” has a couple of things in common with “Terminator Salvation”: The script was lacking, and a change in director did violence to the progress the series had been making.

Actors alone can’t bring life to a character or a story line if the creations are cardboard cutouts and the plot is a silly mess. Even the most talented among them need good material with which to work and a steady hand to guide them in front of the camera. Christopher Nolan’s Batman pictures bear his imprint and share the clever ambiguities that recur in his work. Ditto with Bryan Singer’s efforts on the first two X-Men pictures.

Jon Favreau is another talented, if underrated, filmmaker whose sensibility added a great deal to a recent blockbuster: last summer’s “Iron Man.” Directing Robert Downey Jr., a troubled talent now firmly back in the public’s good graces, Mr. Favreau allowed Mr. Downey to fully explore the playboy persona of billionaire arms dealer Tony Stark while keeping a handle on the movie’s more ridiculous elements.

With “Iron Man,” we have almost the perfect synthesis of a talented actor and a talented director tackling a relatively silly movie — it is about a man who dons a rocket suit and fights terrorists and evil corporate interests, after all — and turning it into something larger. It’s almost the perfect popcorn picture, an enduring testament to the power of cinema to entertain and surprise the audience.

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