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movie review

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. are shown in Iron Man 2.Francois Duhamel

Iron Man 2

  • Directed by Jon Favreau
  • Written by Justin Theroux
  • Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson and Don Cheadle

With seemingly twice as much action, a whole new complex of villainy, competing Iron Man suits, robots and love interests, Iron Man 2 sequel cashes in hard on the unexpected success of the first Iron Man from 2007 and somehow loses much of its soul in the process.

On the positive side, there's just as much of Robert Downey's rakish performance as the multimillionaire arms dealer, Tony Stark, aka steel-suited crime fighter Iron Man. Without Downey's stylish turn - the goatee and pompadour, the impeccably tailored suits, the arched eye-brow, the baritone asides and sudden turns of puppy-eyed tenderness - the movie would be about as much fun as watching a trash compactor squash cars at the local wrecking yard.

In the original story of Iron Man, Stark, after getting captured in the desert, came back with a literal and figurative change of heart, who "realized I have more to offer the world than making things that blow up." In the much more fragmented script for Iron Man 2, written by Justin Theroux ( Tropic Thunder) blowing stuff up has risen on the agenda.

The opening sequence shows Stark on a televised press conference, watched by a greasy-haired Russian (Mickey Rourke) and a sickly older man. Under pressure from reporters, Stark suddenly admits that, yes, he is Iron Man.

Embracing his celebrity - including the attendant babes, the autograph seekers, the interview requests -- Tony re-opens his father's Stark Expo technology exhibit. He makes a spectacular entrance in full Iron Man suit to a group of gyrating Vegas-style dancers, to deliver his rah-rah speech. Shortly after, we learn that Stark's high-tech battery heart is slowly killing him, a crisis that both impels his careless playboy behaviour and threatens the world peace he has temporarily created.

The forces working against Iron Man take a while to line up. Against him is big government, with Garry Shandling playing a slimy U.S. Senator determined to reign in the cocky Stark, and claim his Iron Man "weapon" for the defense department. To do so, he enlists expert testimony from Stark's military friend, Rhodey (with Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard in the original).

The senator is aided by an oily rival arms manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who wants his own super-soldier suit. Rourke plays a Russian physicist, Ivan Vanko (Whiplash of the Marvel comics), who has a grudge against the Stark family, and a welding machine to make his own outfit, with lashing electric tentacles. Vanko finds an opportunity, during the Grand Prix auto race in Monaco, to upstage Stark in a highly public way.

In the ensuing corporate crisis at Stark Industries, Tony promotes his ever-loyal, ever-perky Girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO. Enter a new more erotic interest, the svelte Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), who, in the movie's most heavily marketed spoiler, can assume a secret identity when she trades in her pencil skirt and blouse and pours her curves into a black bodysuit to perform gymnastic martial arts.

Late in the game, Samuel L. Jackson (aka Marvel's Nick Fury) shows up as yet another player in Iron Man's life. He's wearing an eyepatch and carrying a bundle of papers, which he hands over to Downey's character like a messenger handling the afterthought of the second half of the script.

Finally, Iron Man 2 emerges as a movie that's at war, not between Iron Man and his surfeit of enemies, but between two different movie-making instincts. Downey and Favreau and screenwriter Theroux like the sarcastic screwball comedy cross-fire of talk and flirtation, the displays of attitude and absurdity of super-heroism, along with an occasionally sharp satire of corporate jargon.

On the other side, the filmmakers seem all too readily bow to their own corporate lords, feeding the fanboy frenzy for what has been pre-sold as the major blockbuster of the summer. Favreau has a gift for tart comedy but is only another action director, and the long climax has so much faceless military hardware zipping about and lighting up the night sky, it feels like watching an anxious teenager's screen capture of his top-scoring video game. Whoever controlled the buttons was apparently having fun, but for the rest of us, all the clanging and light bursts begins to feel like an overtime shift at the welding shop.