Iron Man 2: Heavy metal

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By Matt Brunson

IRON MAN 2

**1/2

DIRECTED BY Jon Favreau

STARS Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow

Iron Man 2 doesn't quite degenerate into Transformers 3, but those of us who thought the weakest part of the vastly enjoyable original was the title hero's climactic showdown with Iron Monger will doubly wince upon seeing the battle royale chosen to end this second installment. In a variation of the axiom about too many chefs spoiling the broth, this culminates in a heavy-metal act that almost spoils the sequel.

Even before this supersized slugfest, this follow-up to the 2008 blockbuster has its fair share of problems. Recommended with major reservations, Iron Man 2 serves up the larger-than-life fun we expect from our summer flicks without ever quite coming into its own. Whereas its predecessor kept its eye on the narrative ball, this one ends up all over the place, impatiently cramming in extraneous subplots and supporting characters that might have been better served by being placed in a holding pattern until the next film.

Set six months after the conclusion of the first film — the moment when billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) announces to the world that "I am Iron Man" — this opens with the government (repped by Garry Shandling's Senator Stern) trying to get its hands on Stark's design for the Iron Man suit so the U.S. military can use it as a weapon against its enemies. Stark flat-out refuses, noting with no trace of modesty that he has basically instigated an era of world peace via his role as global enforcer. Yet not long after the narcissistic playboy makes this claim, he finds himself nearly defeated by a newcomer to the scene: Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian ex-con whose own body armor — nearly identical to Stark's — allows him to confront Iron Man in the guise of the supervillain Whiplash.

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Stark's near-fatal encounter with Vanko places him in a precarious position — even his right-hand woman Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) begin to question the decisions he makes — and a rival weapons manufacturer, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), decides to secretly employ Vanko in an attempt to stick it to both Tony Stark and his alter ego.

This is enough plot to propel the film, but wait! There's more! Stark ends up hiring a personal assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), but there might be more to this bombshell than meets the lusting eye. Meanwhile, secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), briefly seen in the first picture (after the end credits, to be exact), returns to offer Stark some career advice. On top of this, Tony also has some daddy issues to sort out. And as if all this isn't enough, it also turns out that the power source in his chest that's keeping him alive is also, paradoxically enough, killing him, and he has to work against the clock to find a cure. Oh, and did I mention that another ironclad superhero ends up stealing some of Iron Man's thunder?

That's a lot for one film to chew, and Iron Man 2 only manages to digest parts of it. The story strand involving Stark's efforts to locate a cure for what ails him proves to be the deadliest, leading to tedious tinkering-in-the-lab moments. And even some of what's carried over from the first film doesn't work as well: For example, the bantering between Tony and Pepper, so delightful in the original, here comes across as forced rather than playful, thereby stripping their burgeoning romance of much of its charm.

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On the other hand, Rourke makes for a spectacular villain, and the film really hums whenever he's on screen. Also memorable is Rockwell, who adds some salty humor as the high-powered nerd who believes himself to be as cool as Stark. Mainly, though, there's Downey, who once again invests himself completely in his character. Not afraid to embrace Stark's less appealing qualities, the actor repeatedly tests the limits of how much ill behavior audiences will accept from their heroes — his Stark is at times a drunken lout, an egotistical prick and a poor friend. Downey takes the role to the edge before snapping him back into place, a high-wire act that's thrilling to behold. In fact, Downey's so good as Tony Stark that we miss him whenever he becomes the man in the iron mask. Then again, it wouldn't be a superhero movie if the superhero never bothered to show up, would it?

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