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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Iron Man 3'

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Special photo Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey Jr., opens today.

IRON MAN 3

(PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

Having already broken the record for an opening weekend by doing more than $195 million in Europe alone last week, "Iron Man 3" has not only made back its budget, it is positioned to become the highest grossing movie of all-time. At least it has one thing it can brag about.

In its first installment, the "Iron Man" franchise set a new bar for action-fantasy/superhero flicks. It was original, daring and -- thanks mostly to lead Robert Downey Jr. -- rich in acerbic wit. The second movie became an instant disappointment when it settled itself into a mindset of redundancy and mindless complacency, and "3" is almost a carbon copy of its predecessor.

Things start off well and lead us to believe this could be a prequel. Beginning on the last day of 1999, we see Tony Stark (Downey) as he was before Iron Man consumed him. A lounge lizard of epic proportions, Stark's only goal that night was to bed and then jettison Maya (Rebecca Hall), a research botanist working on some micro-rejuvenation something or other. In the same night Stark also managed to alienate Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a semi-deformed man with questionable hygiene and a big idea he wanted to pitch to Stark.

Jump ahead to the present day where the Muslim jihad terrorist Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is laying waste to America. Looking like Osama bin Laden but sounding like a good ol' Southern boy, Mandarin becomes an instant unintended joke whose ultimate goal is to kill the U.S. president on live TV.

Picking up essentially where "The Avengers" left off, Stark has gone from being an alcoholic, paranoid mess to an obsessed workaholic spending sleepless days at a time crafting new variations on the Iron Man suit. Instead of classic cars, his subterranean lair is adorned with multiple iron men, which has now officially pushed his new wife and former secretary Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) over the edge. Now the CEO of Stark's company, Pepper is ready to pack it all in if he doesn't start behaving semi-normally.

With all of the principal characters and motives firmly established, co-writer/director Shane Black clicks over the plot to auto-pilot and begins a steady narrative tail-spin. In addition to sticking to the letter of the blueprint of "2," Black (who worked with Downey previously on the superb crime comedy "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), essentially turns the Iron Man characters into an interchangeable bit player.

Appearing in costume during roughly a third of the torturous 129 minute running time, Stark is reduced to a generic action hero -- and not a very likeable one either. A sub-plot involving a young boy Stark meets while doing some sleuth work in Tennessee is a good case in point.

Out of his element and forced to make some crude weapons on the cheap, Stark holes himself up in the garage of the boy's family and speaks to him in a clipped, abusive tone usually reserved for adult subordinates or bad guys. Parents take note: in one scene, Stark -- as serious as he can be -- uses what is universally considered to be a profane euphemism for a female body part when berating the child. It is amazing Disney actually allowed this to remain in the final cut.

Probably without intending to do so, Black as also made Stark's Iron Man generic and irrelevant. If you have just one guy in just one Iron Man suit, you've got something unique. In "3" no less than six people (including Pepper and the president) don the suit and dozens of other robotic iron men are summoned to be nothing more than disposable killing machines.

After lots of thunderous clanging and bludgeoning CGI sequences, Black allows Stark the chance to salvage some dignity by having him take stock and get all reflective and such. Although anything is possible in the movies, "3" presents unmistakable, quasi-poetic closure. The oddest and most ironic thing about these final scenes -- they're probably the only part of the movie that will disappoint the masses. Most people don't want somber and serious, they want loud, pulverizing louder and obliterating loudest. If that's all you're looking for "Iron Man 3" will make you and your 8-year-old child very happy. (Disney)