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film ironmanDowney puts the irony in entertaining ‘Iron Man 3’

Forget the armor-plated body suit and CGI. The secret weapon in the Iron Man franchise has always been Robert Downey Jr., whose ironic, deadpan aplomb in the face of utter chaos has fueled more memorable series moments than an entire army of jet-propelled suits. What makes Iron Man 3 such an entertaining load of hooey is that incoming director Shane Black gives Downey plenty of room to deliver his special brand of crisp, pungent commentary. Sure, it’s too long, and too full of random stuff blowing up, but Black keeps the focus on the character of Tony Stark, creating ample opportunity for Downey to rise to the occasion—and keep the franchise afloat.

Black is an inspired choice to take over from original series director Jon Favreau. Having launched his career writing the first, funny Lethal Weapon movie, Black also gave Downey one of his best ever screen roles in the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Co-writing the script here with Drew Pearce, Black imagines an intriguing trajectory for pampered, zillionaire “tinkerer” Stark when he loses his invincibility and has to literally pick himself up and rebuild his equipment and his psyche from scratch.

In IM3, the western world is on alert against a bearded terrorist of unknown origin calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is excellent). He commandeers international media to deliver anti-U.S. broadcasts, and sets off bombs in public places. Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Downey) lurks in the high-tech lab of his lavish, beachfront Malibu estate tinkering with an army of iron-clad suits (each with a robotic life of its own), trading bons mots with the computer entity he calls Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), who keeps the equipment running smoothly, and fighting off the occasional panic attack that he won’t be strong enough to save the world next time.

But when his former bodyguard, now Stark Industries security chief, Happy Hogan (a big supporting role for Favreau—maybe a bit too big, given the film’s length) is injured in one of the blasts, Tony goes into action. (“No politics, here,” he tells the press, “just good old-fashioned revenge.”) Little does he know that revenge—against him—is the driving motive behind the attacks. After a spectacular assault on Tony’s estate—you know, one of those immense movie conflagrations when everything within 10 miles ought to be incinerated, yet we see survivors calmly driving away—Tony finds himself out in the middle of nowhere, his armor in fragments, and (with Jarvis offline) virtually helpless.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back as spunky girlfriend Pepper Potts, and there’s a nifty twist to her designated damsel-in-distress role in the late innings. The ever-watchable Guy Pearce is on board as the slick head of a sort of reverse-X-Men program that turns ordinary disabled people into self-regenerating mutants. Don Cheadle returns as Col. James Rhodes, patrolling global hot spots in his own iron suit (he and Tony have a funny running debate on whether the original “War Machine” or newly-minted “Iron Patriot” is the cooler name for his persona).

But best of all is Downey himself, whether Tony is investigating a life-sized hologram of a crime scene in the privacy of his lab, or trading wisecracks with a bright little kid (Ty Simpkins) who hides him in his garage while Tony repairs his suit. (Unlike other masked superheroes, Tony counts on people recognizing him to create a community of allies.) On his own, separated from his billions, Tony has to get resourceful—although it’s a little disturbing to see him go into a big-box hardware store to buy all the fixings for explosives. (At least he doesn’t provide a recipe.) And in the final showdown, Black gets a lot of comic mileage out of the fact that Tony can’t quite get all his armored parts online at the same time.

The villains’ various agendas get a bit murky by the finale, which devolves into a Clone Wars situation with robotic armor and mutant cyborgs whaling away at each other. But Downey’s cheeky asides save the day. When a female assassin taunts him for using “a trick and a cheesy one-liner,” he cracks, “That could be the title of my autobiography.” As usual, it’s all in the delivery. 

IRON MAN 3

★★★ (out of four)

With Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, and Ben Kingsley.
Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Directed by Shane Black.
A Paramount release. Rated PG-13. 130 minutes.

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