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"Iron Man" comes pre-loaded with special effects, as befitting the first blockbuster of the summer, but the coolest effect is the one you see first: the jaded face of Robert Downey Jr.

In this adaptation of the Marvel Comics title, Downey employs his dark wit and bad-boy persona to brilliant effect in the role of Tony Stark, wunderkind engineer and arrogant weapon-manufacturing icon. Stark is first shown in the back of a Humvee, dressed in a natty suit and sipping scotch, surrounded by U.S. military in a convoy in Afghanistan. But when the convoy is attacked by mortars and machine-gun fire, his world turns upside-down.

Stark wakes up in a terrorist prison with a physician cellmate, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who has attached an electromagnet to Stark's chest to keep shrapnel from piercing his heart. He learns these mercenary terrorists are regular customers of Stark Industries, and they want him to build a copy of his latest product, the Jericho missile. Instead, Stark fashions a wrought-iron suit of armor with flame throwers and other killer attachments, which he uses to escape.

Back home in California, Stark secretly works on a Mark II version of the armor. And, his eyes opened by the carnage caused by his company's handiwork, he decrees that Stark Industries is getting out of the arms business - a move resisted by his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who turns out to be a more ruthless foe than the terrorists.

Within the "give peace a chance" plot turn and Downey's fierce performance as the repentant warmonger are the makings of an intriguing notion: the first pacifist superhero. Alas, director Jon Favreau ("Elf") and a tag-teamed script shy away from this political subtext as quickly as they introduce it - and, in the explosion-heavy finale required of a summer blockbuster, make Stark a talk-peace-but-fight-anyway hypocrite.

For all of the way-cool computer-animated effects and fidelity to the comic books (or so I'm told by my comic-reading buddies), "Iron Man" rises and falls on Downey's performance. His best stuff is in the first hour, as he establishes Stark's hard-partying and womanizing habits, and later when bantering with his ever-loyal assistant "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who returns serve exceptionally well). In the second half, when the red-and-gold suit does the heavy lifting (sometimes literally), "Iron Man" stops being a great blockbuster and settles for being merely a good one.


* SEAN P. MEANS can be reached at or 801-257-8602. Send comments about this review to

Iron Man

* WHERE: Theaters everywhere.

* WHEN: Opens today.

* RATING: PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

* RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes.

* BOTTOM LINE: Robert Downey Jr.'s bad-boy performance enlivens this comic-book saga of an armor-plated superhero.