Robert Downey Jr. has recently become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars with his blockbuster hits like The Avengers, but he has been an active part of the industry since the 1980s. Known for his witty charm as well as his ability to sink himself into a role, he has become one of the most versatile performers working today. Having mastered drama, comedy and action, and been nominated for two Academy Awards, Downey seems to be able to play any role.
Born to cult underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., the actor started him film career early acting in his father’s movies, first appearing at the age of 5 in Pound playing a puppy. His career rose from there, earning roles in brat pack films like Weird Science and he held a brief position as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. He soon rose in status, gaining roles in bigger, mainstream films like Air America with Mel Gibson, which led to his first Academy Award nominated role in Chaplin.
Unfortunately, during the 1990s, Downey became addicted to heroin as well as many other substances which affected his professional career. He was arrested several times and had to go to rehab for large amounts of time, leaving his career in a slump. His only major role during this time was an acclaimed appearance on the TV show Ally McBeal, but he was soon let go do to more drug use.
Only in 2001 did he finally commit to sobriety and get his life back on track. He slowly worked his way back up in Hollywood with smaller films until his reemergence as a star in 2008 with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, and is now more famous and successful than ever.
12. The Judge (David Dobkin, 2014)
In this courtroom and family drama, Robert Downey Jr. plays bigshot lawyer Hank Palmer who returns to his small hometown when his mother dies. He catches up with brother, played by Vincent D’onofrio, and his father Judge Joseph Palmer, played by Robert Duvall, who Hank has not seen for a long time.
When he is about to leave back home, however, his father is arrested as the main suspect in a hit and run accident where a criminal, that Joseph imprisoned years earlier, had been killed. Hank decides to stay to defend his father in the trial, as well as come to grasps with his past that he left behind as a younger man.
The Judge is not a wildly original plot and has similarly underwhelming progression of side plot and characters. The main performances by Downey and Duvall, however, are great as the feuding father and son who, due to lots of troubled history, learn to get over past conflicts and realize their importance to each other.
Downey, in his first dramatic role in half a decade, plays the smart, successful but self-centered professional who feels out of place in his hometown. Duvall, in an Oscar nominated role, plays the crotchety, stubborn and respected judge worried about his reputation and his relationship with his family.
While the roles are not exactly a change of pace for these actors, who have played many characters similar to these before, they allow Downey and Duvall to shine. Their performances carry the film, and make what would have been a forgettable and formulaic drama memorable, making the film much better than it probably should have been. The Judge is not as intriguing and complex as many films on this list, but it is an entertaining drama that highlights Downey in the type of role he plays so well.
11. Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
Short Cuts is an original and unconventional ensemble film, featuring a heavy main cast of 22 actors. Each character has their own distinguishable story that the film tells, intertwining them within each others lives in Los Angeles. With no overarching plot, the movie instead connects the common themes of the stories, like death and adultery, into a powerful commentary on the fragility of our lives.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Bill Bush, a pot smoking make-up artist in training. He also is unfaithful to his wife Honey, played by Lili Taylor, who spends her days taking care of their neighbor’s fish. Honey and Bill are good friends with the couple Lois and Jerry, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and the late Chris Penn. Lois works as a phone sex worker at home, while taking care of their kids and Jerry is a sexually frustrated pool cleaner, who works for many of the other characters in the film.
Downey’s performance is realistic and believable as the headstrong and too carefree Bill who is simply is trying to enjoy life as much as possible. Despite having deep flaws in his personality, Bill is, for the majority of the film, one of the least troubled individuals in the ensemble, acting as a relatively composed characters, which enhances many of the other, more dire, situations.
Altman based this complexly structured film off of some short works by author and poet Raymond Carver, while connecting the various stories to a central message. Boasting one of the largest and most talented ensemble casts ever assembled, Short Cuts is a unique and emotional film about humanity that stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.
10. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)
One of largest, most ambitious comic book movies of all time, The Avengers features the group of Marvel superheroes that includes Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow. The group is formed by the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who gathers the heroes in order to protect the world from a powerful alien evil, led by Thor’s brother Loki. The heroes have to learn to get over their differences, and egos, in order to fight together and save earth from destruction.
The film stars Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlet Johansson, all returning in roles from their previous entries in the Marvel film universe. The only notable change in cast is the replacement of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner by Mark Ruffalo due to a conflict between Norton and the producers. Even though the characters are the same, the performances are not as they have to try to share the glory with others.
This is hardest for the narcissistic Tony Stark and Thor, but this is more understandable because he is actually a Norse god. Because of the shift in focus, Downey’s performance varies from the original, showing his transition from a self-centered ego-maniac into more of a team player.
Joss Whedon’s film was a massive success, earning a spot as the third highest grossing film of all time due to the audience’s familiarity with all of the characters. Although much of the film is explosive spectacle, the chemistry between the main heroes is excellent, always easing the tension and keeping it light enough for a blockbuster. A defining film of one of the largest genres in modern film, The Avengers is an essential viewing.
9. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
Based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, A Scanner Darkly stars Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, an undercover operative who’s mission is to infiltrate the drug world and suppliers of
Substance D, the most prevalent and addictive drug in the film’s reality. It is set in the a near future society where the government keep heavy surveillance over everybody. Arctor’s two druggie housemates, Barris and Luckman, are played by Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson.
While Arctor is busy befriending the local supplier Donna, played by Winona Rider, Barris and Luckman spend the days lounging around and having exceedingly pointless and eccentric conversations. Arctor’s situation becomes more complicated when he becomes more deeply involved with the people he’s investigating.
This science fiction thriller is filmed in rotoscope, a technique previously used by Linklater in Waking Life, where animators trace over the actors in the film creating a hallucinatory feeling similar to drug use. The scary, manic performances by Downey and Harrelson also increase the paranoid atmosphere of the story, as well as provide a comic aspect to the film. The bizarre mix of themes and events are meant to show the otherworldly, dystopian future that the film condemns.
One of Linklater’s most ambitious films, at least in content. A Scanner Darkly maintains the director’s trademark lengthy philosophical conversations, while adding intriguing new futuristic concepts. The film successfully captures the unnerving feel of Dick’s work, as do its actor’s zany characterizations. Although the strange animation style can take some getting used to, A Scanner Darkly is a refreshing addition to the sci-fi genre for anyone looking for something unique.
8. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
Oliver Stone’s controversial, psychedelic take on Bonnie and Clyde stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as the central murderous couple, Mickey and Mallory, who, devoid of morals, go on a cross country rampage.
Robert Downey Jr plays Australian sensationalist reporter Wayne Gale who follows the couple across the country, promoting the name of both him and the killers. Gale’s character embodies the main evil in Stone’s film, which is not the obvious pair of criminals, but the mass media and culture of society that causes people like them.
Natural Born Killers is stylistically unique, implementing an array of different effects and montages from all kinds of popular culture, including a disturbing sitcom-esque scene featuring Rodney Dangerfield, in a expectation shattering role, as Mallory’s abusive father.
The characters in the film are just as goofy and absurd as the effects. Mickey and Mallory almost seem inhuman in their scenes of carnage and are not easy to watch. Downey plays a scenery chewing, cartoonish Gale who is more of a caricature than a real person.
Filled with not only disturbing characters but intensely graphic and brutal violence, Natural Born Killers is certainly not for everyone and due to the constant effects the movie makes you question whether you are as crazy as the characters. If you can stomach the kaleidoscopic bloodbaths, however, the film has a powerful message and is one of Stone’s most raw and concentrated efforts.
7. Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009)
Though not the most serious or cynical of the many portrayals of Doyle’s detective, Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most fun. His quick wit and disregard for civil decency make him a hilarious and likable jerk. Jude Law also does a great job playing the composed Watson, who balances Downey’s eccentricity. Mark Strong and Rachel McAdams also deliver solid supporting performances as the bad guy and the love interest.
Guy Ritchie, director of gritty British gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch., bring his signature over-the-top stylized look to the classic characters, including several slow-motion fight sequences that outline the detectives instinctive skills that set him apart as the best.
The rest of the production is equally polished with an impeccable set design of Victorian Era London and a thrilling score by Hans Zimmer. The plot does not approaching the inventiveness or intrigue of Doyle’s stories, but is very entertaining and action packed.
At the height of his career revival, Downey struck another blockbuster hit with Holmes, spawning an equally entertaining sequel. It’s sacrifice of some of the more mysterious elements of the story for added explosions might not have pleased all of the critics, but certainly drew a larger audience. Carried by enjoyable performances and ambitious production, Sherlock Holmes is an exciting and engaging adventure film.