From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kites - B

Not rated, 130 minutes (Indian version); 90 minutes (U.S./International version)

"Kites": Energetic but unoriginal Bollywood production

The new Indian film "Kites" brims with international flavor. It's an Indian production, filmed in the U.S. and the leads are Indian and Spanish. Much like Bollywood productions, it exudes a cheesy feel, in spite of decent chemistry between the leads and some nice visuals and action set pieces. Unfortunately, it's not terribly original or substantial, and much of the flavor is lost in a saggy, predictable second act.

J (Hrithik Roshan), a streetsmart Bollywood dance instructor in Las Vegas, is now on the wanted list is mortally wounded and left to die in the harsh Mexican desert. The only thing that keeps him alive is his quest to find Natasha (Barbara Mori), a woman engaged to another man, but destined to be his. While Natasha speaks only Spanish, J does not understand a word of Spanish but the two are able to communicate through the language of love and passion.

"Kites" is often a fun, interesting film to watch, filled with some enjoyable moments. On the downside it's a little slight and shabby and the story feels borrowed from mostly Hollywood (not Bollywood) elements. There are two versions of the film, one in Hindi and one in English that will be shown in U.S. and outside of India. The English version deletes all the Bollywood dance numbers but retains the Bollywood score and songs and adds more action. Probably a good move though the underdeveloped script seems to incorporate too many well-worn elements: buddy-buddy on the run, western, action adventure, thriller, romantic comedy, even telenovela that it makes it feel too bland at times.

In spite of a second act that doesn't do much, the handsome leads have great chemistry together; Indian actor Roshan and Spanish actress Mori exude a nice sensuality that few couple have. Some of the direction by Indian director Anurag Basu ("Life in a Metro") feels choppy at times particularly halfway through, but he handles the action and visuals with aplomb, and outside of the leads, is the film's chief highlight.

"Kites" is modestly entertaining but bland, soapy Bollywood with some action and crime thrown in for good measure. It's worth a look but you're likely not to remember much of it after you've left the theater.

Prince of Persia - C+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, 116 minutes

"Prince of Persia": a handsome, entertaining, forgettable

"Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" is another one of those movies. One that is based on a video game. Now you know what to expect. Yes, it's entertaining. Yes, it's a big, expensive and handsome production with plenty of action and two appealing leads in Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brothers") and Gemma Arterton ("Clash of the Titans"). However, combine it with uninspired direction, a confusing story and third-rate dialogue, you have a forgettable, empty exercise in filmmaking.

The plot follows Dastan (Gyllenhaal), a street urchin in the Persian Empire in the sixth century who is adopted by the king. He grows up as part of the royal family with "no royal blood and no eye for the throne." Dastan leads an attack to a city ruled by Princess Tamina (Arterton) who is said to be a jewel. As it turns out, he must team up with Tamina to stop a common enemy - the villainous nobleman Nizam (Ben Kingsley) - and to take from him an ancient dagger known as "The Dagger of Time," (a valuable dagger with time traveling capabilities) and keep him from generating a sandstorm which could destroy the world.

"Prince of Persia" isn't necessarily a terrible film considering its source, it's enjoyable, fast-paced and otherwise fun, much like the video game it's based on. But also much like video games style tends to trump substance and that's the case with the film version too. The action set pieces and the impressive, colorful production are the clear highlight of the film, and many will also note that Gyllenhaal and Arterton are eye candy. But "Prince of Persia" leaves you with little to go on, with a muddled story that takes itself far, far too seriously for a video game. Good luck in also trying to figure out who's chasing who or the meaning of that dagger.

Gyllenhaal is a gamely bland action-hero lead and his British accent is passable, but it's a foolproof role that a hundred other actors in Hollywood could be exchanged for. Arterton is a little better though it'd be nice to have her wear a better fitting wig. The always-watchable Kingsley chews on the scenery as does character actor Alfred Molina (best known as the bad guy in "Spider Man 2") in a supporting part next to some ostriches, in what has to be the film's most amusing scene.

Mike Newell, who successfully helmed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," directs with uninspired flair here and is wise to let the action take center stage. If you've played the video games you have a good idea of what to expect and while it certainly is enjoyable at times, this something you can take or leave. You'll enjoy the action but you'll be hard-pressed to remember anything else.

Sex and the City 2 - C+

Rated R for some strong sexual content and language, 146 minutes

Overlong, vapid “SATC 2” is enjoyable – only for fans of the TV show

Much like the first “Sex and the City” film, if you’re a fan of the popular HBO TV series, you’ll enjoy this sequel, which reunites the cast for more erstwhile big city (and now global) adventures. For the rest of us, the overlong comedy can be a 2 hour and 20 minute beatdown, particularly in the opening chapters, which features a leggy Liza Minnelli performing an energetic version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” at a gay wedding no less. Even for fans, all of this seems remarkably tepid and redundant, and “SATC,” much like the lines on character Miranda’s face, seem tremendously stretched.

Two years after the first film, the swinging ladies of the Big Apple are continuing their escapades. Author and columnist Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is happily married to Big (Chris Noth) and the two are beginning to settle in as an old married couple, content to lay in bed and watch TV. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has her hands full with two precocious, small children, while career Mom and attorney Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) feels taken advantage of at her law firm and ferocious cougar Miranda (Kim Cattrall) continues to manage her PR firm and her sexuality, refusing to grow older. Miranda gets an all-expense trip to Abu Dahbi by an Arab sheik and potential client, and she takes the girls with her on a much-needed vacation, which take some unexpected turns along the way, including running into one of Carrie’s old flames, Aidan (John Corbett).

Overlong, colorless and mildly enjoyable, “SATC 2” is showing its age. Director and writer Michael Patrick King is seemingly running out of ideas: his thin story lacks a fresh approach or bold appeal. It all has a “been there done that” feeling with a few bright spots, such as amusingly and briefly seeing the 1980’s versions of the ladies. As long as the action stays centered in New York City, the film pleasantly plods along until it takes a misguided trip to the Middle East, a bad move on King’s part: it just doesn’t belong here. Carrie meets an old flame, Aidan (Corbett) and – gasp – they share a kiss. King and Parker treat it as something earth-shattering but really, absolutely nothing happens between the two old lovers.

More cameos are to “SATC 2” but it only shows up the weak, meandering story. Watch for Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum, Penelope Cruz (very pretty but blink and she’s gone), Miley Cyrus (amusing), Mariah Carey and of course, Minnelli, who nearly steals the show with her energetic number at the beginning. The girls chat on about this and that, nannies, wayward husbands, fashion, blah blah blah. Nothing new. As usual, the New York sights and the stylish clothes look fabulous and highlight an otherwise tired film.

The overrated Parker is looking longer in face than normal, my personal favorite Davis has little to do, and Nixon is at times creepily chatty, while Cattrall looks nice but is still too old for this. The Middle East episode (actually filmed in Morocco) goes on far too long as the girls get tied up in one stale episode after another. However, “SATC” fans will still be pleased as it all comes together predictably in the end, seemingly leaving it open for even another film.

Fans will get excited and rightfully so, as the ads state “Carrie on.” They will get their fill of Carrie & Co. in “Sex and the City 2” but even they may wonder what the point is. Harmless enough, but for fans only.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shrek Forever After - C+

Rated PG for mild action, some rude humor and brief language, 93 minutes

More of the same old schtick in the tired but mildly enjoyable "Shrek Forever After"

You've seen "Shrek Forever After" before, in the previous three "Shrek" movies. The same mixture of fairy tale themes and contemporary pop-culture humor. Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and Puss-n-Boots are all back too. In spite of a few fun moments and a memorable villain, the mildly enjoyable but overly familiar "Shrek Forever After" mines the same tired formula and jokes that should've been stopped after the second one; as a result, it's the weakest of the "Shrek" movies.

Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are living happily ever after with their three kids in Far, Far, Away. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and the Dragon have some kiddoes too and the brave Puss-n-Boots (Antonio Banderas) remains a close pal. But Shrek, tired and annoyed by family life and the fact he can't enjoy the life he once has as a "real" Ogre, makes a deadly pact with the evil magician Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) to have one day of his former life back, but little does Shrek know that in the process Rumpelstiltskin gets everything and Shrek loses everything, which can only be reversed by love's true kiss with Fiona.

"Shrek Forever After" is moderately entertaining and amusing animated film, though it considerably lacks the cleverness of the first two films, relying heavily on the same schtick as before. With an uneven, forced story, the franchise is showing its age, particularly with the addition of 3-D, which doesn't add much, and by needlessly filling the movie with an all-star cast of voices and mediocre '80s tunes. It doesn't help that much of the regular cast, especially Myers and Diaz, seem to phone it in. Murphy, who's garnered most of the laughs so far, is upstaged by Banderas' Puss-n-Boots, who in Shrek's revisionist alternate universe is a very overweight, lazy housecat who doesn't chase mice and can't reach his feet.

Even better, this "Shrek" features the franchise's most memorable villain since John Lithgrow with the troll-like Rumpelstiltskin, voiced with energy and kick by an unknown, "Shrek" animator and writer Walt Dohrn, who nearly walks off with the movie. Without Dohrn and Banderas providing some much-needed laughs, the film would've been mostly a bore; it doesn't help that its beguiling plot lags considerably in the second act, when Shrek is transported to a different universe filled with more Ogre's and some mouthy witches.

With the addition of those characters comes the addition of a bevy of voices from first-rate actors, most of whom get lost in the proceedings. Listen closely for Jane Lynch, Jon Hamm and Craig Robinson (who does get in a couple of decent lines) as the new Ogres and Kathy Griffin, Meredith Viera (yes, the "Today" show host), Kristen Schaal, Lake Bell and Mary Kay Place as some of the witches. Heck, if you listen close enough at the beginning you'll also hear "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest. When the writers have to rely upon Seacrest for laughs, you know you're in trouble.

Much like the other "Shrek's," "Forever After" ends predictably and happily enough to please the masses and the young ones. Producers of the film have told us that this will be the final installment, but if it's successful enough, it would be of no surprise if they somehow managed a fifth one. Even better will be the new Puss-n-Boots movie next year, which will be far more entertaining than another "Shrek" installment.

As it is, if this the true end of the "Shrek" series, "Shrek Forever After" goes out with a nice smile instead of a huge guffaw.

MacGruber - D

Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity, 99 minutes

Comedic "SNL" spoof "MacGruber" a bomb

I went into the new comedic spoof "MacGruber" with (false) high hopes. I do enjoy the goofiness of the sketches on "Saturday Night Live" lampooning the old '80s TV show "MacGyver" (and especially the recent one with Betty White) but I ended up sorely disappointed. Maybe because the best parts are in the trailers for the film; maybe it was the fact its profane tone in no way resembles the silly sketches or the TV show it makes fun of, or maybe it just wasn't funny at all. As for movies based on "SNL" sketches it isn't the worst, but then that isn't saying much. "MacGruber" is still a stink bomb of a movie, its comedic failure heightened by its strong "SNL" roots.

In the 10 years since his fiancee was killed, special op MacGruber (Will Forte) has dedicated his life to fighting and stopping crime with his bare hands. He's put back into action by his old boss, Col. Jim Faith (Powers Boothe), who needs him to help stop his old nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) from destroying Washington D.C. with a powerful nuclear warhead that's he's developed. With the help of old pal Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and young military upstart Piper (Ryan Phillippe) he hopes to bring Von Cunthe to justice.

"MacGruber" is a needless, low-brow attempt to bring another "SNL" sketch to the big screen. Guess what? As you might expect, it's far funnier in the 3-minute sketches on the small screen. Admittedly, there a couple of things that are inspired: the casting of a droll, spacey Kilmer as the villain, and his character's name, which is pronounced exactly as you think it might be. The rest of it is an unfortunate mess, from the misguided direction of "SNL" writer Jorma Taccone to the botched script, co-written by Taccone, Forte and their writing partner, John Solomon.

The goofy sensibility and charm of the sketches are noticeably absent and instead lots and lots of idiotic bathroom humor, sexist behavior and profane language is added, which really hurts the film. It's trying too hard to distinguish itself from "SNL" but that will be a big mistake for fans of the sketches. And the movie, which lampoons the old "MacGyver" series, seems to be in a time warp, it doesn't know whether it's in the '80s (a Presidential portrait of Ronald Reagan) or current day (cell phones) to the puzzling fact that MacGruber actually uses a gun in the film.

Forte tries too hard and the slightly amusing Wiig is underused, while it's truly unfortunate to see a woefully miscast Phillippe here trying his hand at comedy (note to Phillippe: find better material). Throw in a bunch of WWE wrestlers, who look terribly puzzled and confused (along with the audience), some blood, one badly executed sex scene and some explosions and "MacGruber" is a pretty loathsome film. There are long, long unfunny lags in the film, which for a film that needs energy and strong pacing, is not a good thing.

"MacGruber" may end up a curiosity piece for those "SNL" fans who want to see what the film is all about and it might be a modest hit, bringing back it's $10 million budget. In the right hands it could've been funny for more than 3 minutes, but a few comedic bits and pieces, in this case, sketches, don't really add up to a great movie. Not worth it at all.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Just Wright - C

Rated PG for some suggestive material and brief language, 100 minutes

Dull basketball-themed rom com "Just Wright" is all wrong

Well, not everything about the new Queen Latifah comedy "Just Wright" is wrong. A tired, predictable and formula story and a lazy Latifah performance highlight the enjoyable, crowd-pleasing rom com with the NBA team New Jersey Nets as the backdrop. In spite of a few engaging moments, it's about as believable as the Nets winning the championship.

Latifah is physical therapist Leslie Wright who by chance meets Nets player Scott McKnight (Common) at the gas station. He invites her to his birthday party, and she brings along her hot childhood friend Morgan (Paula Patton), who has aspirations to be an athlete's trophy wife. Scott and Morgan fall in love and get engaged. Scott gets hurt during the All-Star game, threatening his career. Morgan dumps him but Leslie helps rehabilatate Scott back to health and a decent career and the two fall in love, until Morgan shows up again to try to win him back.

"Just Wright" is a stale, by-the-numbers, ho-hum Latifah movie that attempts to score but comes up way short of being anything memorable. You know from the minute that the handsome Common and the funny Latifah meet how this story will go. And if you buy a minute this overly sentimental, highly improbable romance, then as George Strait would say, I have some ocean-front property to sell you. Unfortunately, Latifah herself seems misdirected, in one of the outspoken's actresses blandest roles yet.

At least the movie makes good use of a few pro basketball players, including Dwayne Wade and Dwight Howard, who appear as themselves (and those unfamiliar with basketball - which may be most of the women who see this - won't know them from Bugs Bunny). It's also nice seeing "Cosby Show" mom Phylicia Rashad as Common's mom, and especially fun seeing Pam Grier (yes, that '70s black icon Pam Grier, who still looks awesome) as Latifah's mom, both of whom give the film some much needed spunk.

Just as you'd expect, people fall in love, break up and get back together again in "Just Wright," just in time for the big game. Want to know who wins in the end? I won't give it away but you probably know just by seeing the ads and the trailer for the film. As the old sports saying goes, you can't win them all, and while this isn't a winning film, I always enjoy seeing the tremendously likable, affable Latifah, even if "Just Wright" lacks some skills.

Robin Hood - C+

Rated PG-13 for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content, 140 minutes

Spectacle, lush adventure in the hollow, unnecessary "Robin Hood"

The new "Robin Hood" is really a prequel of sorts, examining the rise of the popular legend that many doubt even existed at all. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe team up once again to bring to the silver screen one big, expensive backstory (oh, around $200 million) to add to the summer fanfare. While the production itself is impressive with a few well-placed action set pieces, this "Robin Hood" is largely an expendable, entertaining crowd-pleaser that reminds too much of "Braveheart."

It's the 12th Century, and Robin Longstride (Crowe) is a common archer in the Third Crusade. When Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is killed, Robin and three fellow soldiers attempt to return home. Impersonating a fallen solider, Robin ends up informing the French royal family of Richard's death, and Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is crowned king. He instantly proves to be a harsh king, and along with evil confidant Godfrey (Mark Strong), is behind an attempt to instill civil war and unrest in England, just as Robin is returning home to his native Nottingham. There he finds Marian (Cate Blanchett) and her father (Max Von Snydow) attempting to save their lands from the terrible Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfayden). Robin and his men heed the call to right injustices to save England and become the hero, outlaw and legend he later became robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

"Robin Hood" is a lush, epic action-adventure produced on grand scale. The action is well-handled by Scott and the sublime visuals and detailed production design highlight the film. But the story, more fiction than fact, is problematic and tends to slow the action down considerably. And while the film benefits from a strong cast, particularly a slimy antagonist Strong, a brave maid Marian played with panache by Blanchett (who adds to all the action in one fun scene) and a strong supporting part from veteran actor Von Snydow, "Robin Hood" is hurt by the casting of Crowe, who's too old, too serious and too stocky for the role. While Crowe ecks out a believable performance, he lacks the lithe, youthful energy of Errol Flynn, who was always remembered in the part.

The costumes, the sets and the music are impressive and the film's production design deserves praise, even if the script by "L.A. Confidential's" Brian Helgeland is too choppy, too familiar in a "Braveheart"-like way (particularly the scenes with the evil king and his assistant) and adds way too much filler, some of which could've been cut. The climactic, battle scenes pop with energy and should still please and the end credits give rise to the legend of the Robin Hood that we all became familiar with, but much of it's unnecessary given the fact that his adventures that followed were far more interesting than this.

Letters to Juliet - B

Rated PG for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking, 105 minutes

Warm, predictable "Letters to Juliet" features a magnificent Redgrave

Letters to Juliet” is a predictable, well-worn but wistful romantic comedy with some Italian flavor that works in large part due to a veteran actress in the cast. It’s a perfect late spring entry that will warm hearts before the onslaught of big summer blockbusters. Guys, do your duty and take your gal to see this after she sees “Iron Man 2” with you.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact-checker and writer-wannabe who works for the New Yorker magazine. Longing for a change, she and her busy fiancĂ© Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) take a vacation to Italy. While there, Sophie visits Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and visits the statue of Juliet, where many come to leave love letters hoping to find an answer. Sophie finds an old, 50-year unanswered letter and with the help of the “secretaries of Juliet” writes back. Sophie ends up helping the letter’s writer, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) trek across Italy to find her long-lost love Lorenzo and all are changed in the process.

Letters to Juliet” is the first appealing romantic comedy in recent memory that exudes genuine warmth and humanity. The direction from Gary Winick (“Bride Wars”) is lackluster. The romance between Sophie and Charlie is stale, undeveloped and doesn’t grab the audience as it should. Seyfried, of TV ‘s “Big Love” and the recent hit “Dear John,” and Egan, of TV’s “Kings” make for a rather bland pairing, but none of this is the main reason that “Letters to Juliet” works as well as it does.

The movie succeeds due to the affectionate, forlorn performance from veteran actress and Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave, who hold the movie together with her aplomb. It’s a larger part than the credits give her, and the magnificent Redgrave, playing against type in a conventional, mainstream film, steals every scene she’s in. When she does finally meet her long lost love, it provides the film’s most touching scene, a brief one played with minimal dialogue and amorous glances. It also helps that the older Lorenzo is played by renowned Italian actor Franco Nero, Redgrave’s real-life partner.

The Italian landscapes also play an important part in giving “Letters to Juliet” some beauty, and listen for that catchy Taylor Swift song that prominently mentions Juliet. Down the stretch, you won’t be surprised at all by the climax or the ending, but some of it’s fun getting there, especially in the road trip portion of the movie, as the trio (Seyfried, Egan and Redgrave) search for the right Lorenzo (“take him, TAKE HIM” says a wife humorously to them after they meet one of the Lorenzo’s). I wish the script also used a decent actor like Bernal better, but his underwritten (and a little annoying) part is nonessential to the story.

If it weren’t for the lovely, talented Redgrave, “Letters to Juliet” would be just another run-of-the-mill romantic comedy you’d have to suffer through, but fortunately she make it worth the price of admission. See it before the summer blockbusters invade the multiplexes.

Harry Brown - B

Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content, 103 minutes

"Harry Brown" is the British version of "Deathwish"

The new drama "Harry Brown" could easily be summed up as "Dirty Harry Brown." This revenge flick from across the pond is essentially Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson reimagined as an old codger that resembles Michael Caine. The magnificent Caine turns in another riveting performance and carries the entertaining film above a few plotholes and predictable turns.

Caine is Harry Brown, an elderly man living in South London, which has been overcome with youth crime. Harry, a former marine, goes to see his dying wife on a daily basis and plays chess in the local pub with his best friend Len (David Bradley). Len is brutally murdered by some of the gang of young drug dealers led by Noel (Ben Drew) and the police investigation, led investigator Frampton (Emily Mortimer) turns up a dead end. As a result, Harry begins to take things in his own hands, randomly but violently bringing them down one by one, something that will either cause considerable destruction or bring peace to the neighborhood.

"Harry Brown" is an electric, violent movie fueled by an energetic performance 77-year old Caine in full Eastwood/Bronson mode, speaking softly and carrying a big gun. It's amusing to see him carry on a conversation with a drug dealer he's about to kill or turn the tables on a dealer on the street. Unsurprisingly, the best moments have Caine bringing down the thugs who are half his age and gleefully torturing them. Some of the backstory is a little convoluted, a little improbable and takes too many predictable particularly in the final act, but Caine is wholly believable, fully realized and often heartbreaking as the old vigilante who's fed up and taking what might be his last stand.

Directed with panache by documentary Oscar nominee Daniel Barber, written with gusto by British newcomer Gary Young and produced by Matthew Vaughn of the recent hit "Kick-Ass," the film has a low-grade, unsentimental and gritty feel to it. The biggest drawbacks are a predictable, bloody climax and some plotholes that make the police look mighty dumb, but the final scene with Caine standing over his now peaceful neighborhood is unforgettable. Definitely worth a look.

Iron Man 2 - B+

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language, 124 minutes

"Iron Man" is back and he rocks (again)

One thing is for sure, "Iron Man 2" will keep you awake. With pulsating, energetic visuals, a pumping hard-rock soundtrack from rock band AC/DC and the coolest dude on the planet in Robert Downey Jr., this superhero won't give you time to nod off. While the novelty has worn off from the first one, "Iron Man 2" pulls out all the stops to make sure it entertains, and on that level it succeeds grandly.

"Iron Man 2" picks up where the first movie left off: billionaire Tony Stark (Downey) reveals his identity, and within 6 months, the U.S. Government is demanding he turn over the Iron Man hardware over. However, Stark is undergoing an identity crisis and health issues just as his nemesis, Russian scientist and slimeball Ivan Venko (Mickey Rourke) is out for revenge for past deeds. With the help of his trusted secretary Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Stark must face serious issues and powerful enemies, including fellow industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who's conspiring with Venko to destroy Stark and his company.

"Iron Man 2" is a gratifying, fast-paced joyride of an action-adventure superhero sequel from director Jon Favreau and Downey. The biggest question you may ask: is it better than the first "Iron Man?" No and yes. The edgy humanity from the 2008 blockbuster is lacking here in favor of bigger explosions, more machines, gadgets and one truly badass enemy in Rourke, ripe with tattoos, Russian accent and some deadly electrical whips. But then all this endows "Iron Man 2" with more verve, and the film's first-half action set piece, a showdown between Venko and Stark at a car race in Monaco, is its most electrifying and breathtaking scene.

Very loosely adapted from the Iron Man comic "Demon in a Bottle," "Iron Man 2" attempts to examine more of Stark's flaws and narcisstic behavior, but we all know it's not just about the man but his suit too, in this case a very hard-edged one. Downey's self-aware, loose personality is still very much intact and as likable as he is, he's more of a backseat in this outing to the first-rate special effects showcased in a high-powered climax in a battle between the machines.

The rest of the cast performs mostly well given the busy scenery. Scarlett Johansson is a pleasing but bland addition as Black Widow, though she proves she can kick butt with the best of them. Paltrow's the (whiny) voice of reason, Cheadle's an able, more lithe replacement for Terrence Howard, while Sam Rockwell is a rather milquetoast Stark antagonist, made considerably younger here than in the comics. Samuel L. Jackson is a steady but brief presence as Nick Fury, leader of the S.H.I.E.L.D, who's preparing Stark for bigger battles to come; Garry Shandling provides the tit-for-tat comic relief with Downey as a smart-aleck congressman, and director Favreau is also back as Stark's helpful driver.

"Iron Man 2" isn't a perfect superhero film. Detractors will find it excessively loud and busy (it is), while comic book enthusiasts will continue to revel in the cool weaponry and visuals (and it is pretty cool), along with the nifty Stan Lee cameo and end-of-credits scene that sets up more Stark adventures. Unsurprisingly, the self-indulgency of bigger budgets is evident and when all is said and done, the first one is still better, but "Iron Man 2" still ends up a vastly entertaining film that kicks off the summer movie-going season with a blast.