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Robert Downey Jr. supposedly spent several weeks getting in shape for the strenuous duty of lurching around in a superhero costume for his role as an armored crusader in "Iron Man." Luckily, he had decades to prepare for his role as the hero's alter ego, billionaire playboy weapons manufacturer Tony Stark, who idles his time between what amount to acting gigs (showmanship sells warheads, the movie tells us), gulping down mixed drinks and leggy starlets. When Downey sits down on the floor in front of a bunch of reporters to announce that he has had a problem with something but plans to quit and turn over a new leaf, you almost have to pinch yourself to remember he's talking about gazillion-dollar war toys. The sometimes troubled actor does bring some credence to the role of an arrogant, tempestuous young man who becomes enlightened from his dangerous ignorance, though at times he crosses the line between realism and spoof.

"Iron Man" seems not to care which is achieved as long as the good times roll. The movie goes after the entertainment nodes of the brain in much the same fashion as Stark Industries' new Jericho missiles go after multiple mountain hideouts at a blow. Action, politics, tongue-in-cheek humor, technology, sex, booze and rock 'n' roll explode across the screen in a finely choreographed, bedazzling chaos that might leave you trying to figure out exactly what happened. The film's back story has been transposed from communist-era Vietnam to present-day Afghanistan, where Stark builds the Iron Man prototype out of scraps to escape his captors. Back in the States, convinced by his recent ordeal of the error in making arms, Stark hones his robotic suit idea to futuristic perfection in order to search out and destroy his former creations. This new philosophy brings him closer to his pert but wary secretary Penny (Gwyneth Paltrow), but puts him at odds with his stern business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Bridges is another unconventional casting coup for director Jon Favreau, but the opportunity is not as fully realized as Downey's. While the maturing actor looks menacing under his freshly shaved dome and crazy-guy beard, Stane never develops into a truly loathsome nemesis because he isn't given nearly as much attention. Similar lack of development nags the rest of the characters, as most of the supporting cast are allowed to lend little but extra star presence to the whiz-bang proceedings. Terrence Howard, as Stark's BFF military man, spends most of his time scolding Stark or clapping for him, like a walking audience prompt. Paltrow's character, unfortunately, is a standard damsel of action movies past, a worrier who's great at taking notes but always comically squeamish or flailing about on precariously high heels whenever danger is afoot.

As a thrill ride, however, "Iron Man" is what last year's "Transformers" wanted to be, a slam-bang action extravaganza about flying, warring metal giants armed with fancy weaponry and barbed one-liners, zipping around to a gung-ho, rock-guitar soundtrack that at least isn't as forced-sounding as it is unoriginal. Favreau has added a personal, creative touch to many elements, from the introduction of the main character to the end credits. His movie is not only fast and furious but irreverent and precocious, even when it's being silly or totally preposterous, which is often. It's only hard to like when one thinks about its contemporary underpinnings.

"Iron Man" wants a realistic hero, but surrounds him with hokey enemies and friends hamming it up in an old-fashioned oversimplification of current events. Those terrorists over in Afghanistan are simply evildoers of no particular persuasion. Similarly, if they receive aid from any of us, it's only to enrich the pockets of a single greedy homegrown evildoer, a rogue operating completely on his own. Such a quaint picture of things can lead even the most well-meaning summer blockbuster astray. The death scene of Stark's fellow prisoner in Afghanistan, for example, intended to be a heart-string-tugging moment about senseless killing, comes after and before several minutes of Iron Man mowing down their captors to a rousing score.

Future installations (reportedly two sequels are already planned) are supposed to delve into darker aspects of the characters -- alcoholism, for one thing, an issue Downey should be able to tackle. But what about the darker aspects of the world these people lord over? For now the thickest armor in the franchise — an impression reinforced by all the gaudy product placement for cars and fast food chains, the same as in most movies of this sort — is the one keeping out the discomfortingly harsh and complex realities that lurk there. (PG-13) 126 min. S



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