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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Iron Man 2' can't follow first film's success

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Iron Man 2 (PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

Given the considerable strength and high quality of the first "Iron Man" and the derivative, watered-down nature of virtually every sequel ever produced, it's no surprise that "Iron Man 2" is a huge letdown.

While not nearly as pathetic and cacophonous as parent company Paramount's "Transformers" follow-up, "IM2" employs the same tedious, bludgeoning blueprint. Trivial things like wit, character development, a coherent plot and an interesting villain are abandoned in favor of manic CGI overkill, multiple unconnected and fragmented story threads, two unoriginal evil foils and a title character that has gone from appealingly droll and narcissistic to overbearingly smug and self-involved.

If all you want is straight-ahead action and mildly suggestive sexual banter, "IM2" will more than satisfy your cravings. Returning director Jon Favreau is the kind of guy who believes if one aspirin is good then 10 are better (and aspirin will be needed after watching the movie). The audio will rattle your teeth and the special effects, unoriginal as they may be, are dazzling. One particular scene toward the end featuring multiple laser-beams brought down the house during the preview screening. The visuals are to this movie what a shiny lure is to an unsuspecting fish -- flashy but lacking any nutritional value.

New addition Scarlett Johansson shows up as a monotone, leather-clad double agent and when not taking out scores of opponents with fancy, mixed martial arts moves, she turns Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) into a fumbling mess with her low-cut blouses, stiletto heels and double-entendre innuendo. Mind you, Johansson still can't act a lick but she looks good doing it.

With the departure of Jeff Bridges' truly menacing Obadiah Stane from the first installment, screenwriter and part-time actor Justin Theroux gives us two replacement antagonists and together they equal only about half of a Stane.

The usually dependable Sam Rockwell plays the smarmy, snake oil-oozing Justin Hammer, Tony's weapons-producing competitor who desperately craves lucrative Defense Department contracts and whose attempts to replicate the Iron Man suit have all failed. Hammer's outlook improves once he witnesses the near-death of Tony at the hands of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian ex-con with an axe to grind.

With good reason, Vanko thinks Tony's dad was the cause of his own father's downfall and wants revenge. Vanko fashions what looks like two frayed electrical cables that dangle from his wrists and act as whips that can slice through any substance. Once hired by Hammer to tweak a drone prototype, Vanko ignores his new boss' directives and churns out something that looks and performs like a mini-Transformer.

Just to make sure everyone gets the point and then some Favreau's makeup crew goes hog-wild with Rourke. Well over half his body is covered with tattoos, his natty hair is dripping grease and he is in possession of one gnarly set of metal-encased choppers. To remind us that his character is Russian, he's called on at least once to drink rot-gut Vodka straight from a bottle.

Picking up the considerable thespian slack are Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle replacing the mysteriously ousted Terrence Howard as James Rhodes. Aided by the fact these are the only two appealing characters in the film, the graceful Paltrow and rock-solid Cheadle do everything they can to lend the proceedings some air of class and dignity.

Finally there is Downey, and to his credit he does everything he's asked. The trouble is he's called on to do some pretty embarrassing and off-putting stuff. Theroux makes it abundantly clear there is a fine line between flamboyantly brash and obnoxiously irritating.

At one point, in a drunken stupor, Tony wets himself at his own birthday party. His once rooster-like confidence morphs into peacock-inspired strutting. The screenplay blames his irrational behavior on his escalating blood toxicity, something that is eventually cured by a new power source he synthesizes in the time it would take to make toast.

Throughout the movie the filmmakers push the suspension of disbelief far beyond the breaking point and as a result, turn what was an original and highly entertaining concept into a by-the-numbers cash-in. The audience and these characters deserve much more. (Paramount)