In the film, the U.S. military wants to confiscate the armor of Iron Man for national defense, which puts Rhodey in a tense position as he tries to protect his friend. When Stark starts going off the rails in personal life, though, Rhodey feels betrayed, and he steals the War Machine suit while Stark is getting drunk at his own birthday party. Favreau said it's an essential part of the film's physics.
"One of the main tensions in this film is someone being an individual or part of a team — the lone gunslinger or the person who is ready to help his partners," the director said. "Rhodey, he's a character that came up through the Air Force, which is all about teamwork and support. No man can go it alone. Pilots are individuals, but they rely greatly on the technology and their trainers and the ground crew and their wingman. That's Rhodey's background. Then you have Tony Stark, who's gotten everything he's ever gotten by breaking rules, by being a loose cannon. We explore that theme."
Cheadle brings a very different energy to the character than the dashing yet frosty Howard; there's plenty of high-tech warfare in this film, but the most interesting conflicts seem to happen behind the eyes of Cheadle's less-aloof version of Rhodey.
Favreau admits that he was anxious about the departure of Howard from the cast, even though other films in the same sector weathered similar cast changes ( Michael Gambon took on the Dumbledore role in the " Harry Potter" franchise after the death of Richard Harris, and in "The Dark Knight" Maggie Gyllenhaal replaced Katie Holmes as Gotham prosecutor Rachel Dawes). In short order, though, Favreau found that his superhero machine was humming along nicely with the new part in place.
"Don and Robert have tremendous chemistry together," Favreau said.
On screen, the role handoff is handled with a wink. Early in the film, Stark is in front of a hostile congressional committee when a new witness is called — his best friend Rhodey. When it's Cheadle who walks in, not Howard, Downey says, "Hey buddy, didn't expect to see you here." The military man doesn't miss a beat: "Look, it's me, I'm here. Deal with it. Let's move on."
A few weeks after Cheadle got the role he (almost literally) ran into Howard in the NBC-Universal parking lot. "We had a talk and put it all to bed. I was glad it happened. I think people can kind of get cloudy in this business sometimes and think it's all about the job and success. It can be seductive to try to get every role. But if you don't have personal relationships, if you don't have blood beating in your body, what's it all about?"
Donald Frank Cheadle Jr. was born in Kansas City, Mo., three days after Thanksgiving in 1964, the son of a clinical psychologist father and a psychology teacher mother. He's a thinking-man's actor, but he grows restless with the notion of limiting his pursuits to just reading scripted lines. In addition to "Crash," he had producer credits on the 2008 thriller "Traitor" as well as the 2007 documentary "Darfur Now," which spoke to his impassioned work to bring attention to the genocide in the Sudan. He's also a renaissance man; he plays the saxophone, sings, composes music, and he once beat poker champ Phil Ivey in national heads-up event.
Cheadle has two daughters, Ayana Tai and Imani, with longtime girlfriend Bridgid Coulter (she played his wife in "Rosewood" in 1997, the same year they had their first child), and he brought the whole family to the "Iron Man 2" premiere.
"My girls, though, they have no interest in this Iron Man stuff," Cheadle said with a shrug. "I mean, c'mon, War Machine, that is a total boy thing. I mean, look at the guy. He's covered in guns. Kill, kill, shoot, shoot, fly, kill, shoot … that is so a boy thing."
Turning himself into a human action figure was a strange but ultimately satisfying experience, even if it was a little outside his comfort zone. Cheadle, most recently seen in the brutal "Brooklyn's Finest" as a deep-cover narcotics detective, will return to the hustlers and handcuffs sector with the 2011 release of "The Guard," which has him playing an FBI agent in a cast that also includes Brendan Gleeson and Mark Strong. It's familiar underworld turf for Cheadle, who made his breakthrough with the metal-toothed malice of a killer named Mouse Alexander in Carl Franklin's 1995 "Devil in a Blue Dress."
The actor says he seeks out great scripts and great directors, but he does try to keep some variety in the career mosaic he's shaping.
"Are we driven more by our near misses?" he asked when talking about picking his parts. "It's an interesting way to think about things. I enjoy doing comedic roles. I think those are roles I have done and people see it and it works for them, but they seem sort of surprised by it still. I did stand-up for a minute, and comedy is some of my favorite stuff to do. And it's some of the hardest stuff to do."