Robert Downey Jr.: an essential viewing guide

Image for Robert Downey Jr.: an essential viewing guide

It’s never a bad day to be Robert Downey Jr.. He’s co-headliner in the biggest superhero movies in the world, he’s got a massive trailer and great facial hair. Yes, he wears a suit to work but it’s a flying suit made of missiles and coolness. He’s also a twice Oscar-nominated powerhouse with enough charisma and screen presence to make you wish he was in a lot more movies. Or, better yet, all the movies. His CV is still peppered with a fair few gems and one or two near misses. As he goes head-to-head with Chris Evans in Captain America: Civil War, we compare their finest moments.

Essential viewing: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

With Shane Black around, sometimes they do make ‘em like they used to. Black's comedy-thriller, shaped in the spirit of blackly funny ’80s buddy movies like Midnight Run, pitches Robert Downey Jr. into a meta-mystery as a petty crim who stumbles out of a New York audition and, via the fickle hand of fate, into the seamier side of Hollywood. Like The Big Sleep razzed up on vodka and quaaludes, the movie gives RDJ a voiceover narrative that’s on first-name terms with the audience ("Don't worry”, he reassures us at one point, “I saw Lord Of The Rings; I'm not gonna end this 20 times”) and a noirish puzzle to solve. Alongside him, Val Kilmer grabs most of the best lines as camp ‘tec Gay Perry, but fast-mouthed as ever, Downey Jr. just about steals the movie.

Read Empire's review here

Essential viewing: Iron Man (2008)

‘Ol Shellhead may have been born in the age when the height of tech wizardry looked a bit like a giant metal piggy bank and answered to the name ‘Gort’, but thanks to Robert Downey Jr., he managed to carve out a whole new fanbase in the impress-me era of the Noughties. Director Jon Favreau wanted him to make the man behind the suit, billionaire tycoon Tony Stark, “a likeable asshole”, and his star obliged – although more often with the ‘likeable’ than the ‘asshole’ part. Sure, Downey Jr. radiates arrogance and conceit like a rogue arc reactor, but we still can’t help but root for him. Just try suppressing a cheer as he clanks out of that Afghan cave in that first ferrous flamethrower looking a bit like Ned Kelly on a very bad day.

Read Empire's review here

Essential viewing: Chaplin (1992)

Five years after Less Than Zero brought Downey Jr.’s skittish charisma to Hollywood’s attention, Chaplin gave him an even bigger breakthrough. Of course, Richard Attenborough’s often syrupy biopic has less than zero in common with the neon nightmare of the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, unless it's that both showed what the actor could do with a charismatic but troubled soul. Some critics hated it – one cruelly described it as a ‘disinterment’ of the silent era star – but RDJ’s commitment to the role, from learning to play tennis left-handed to mastering the violin, pays off onscreen. If the film has faults – and, trust us, it does – they can hardly be laid at the actor’s door. The Academy certainly saw it that way, handing him an Best Actor nomination.

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Curtis Hanson’s underrated adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel has plenty to recommend it: an Oscar-nominated script, sharp wit and a wonderfully ramshackle performance by Michael Douglas as weed-fuelled author Professor Grady Tripp, a writer whose latest tome makes War And Peace look like an NHS pamphlet. Into this fug of pot fumes and academe blows Downey Jr. as Tripp’s editor, now only one more flop from the scraphead himself. He’s in scene stealing form, first turning up with a transvestite in tow, then trying to make Tripp pony up his manuscript, before flirting shamelessly with Tobey Maguire’s mixed-up student - all in the first night. Right in the midst of Downey's brushes with LA County law enforcement, here he was delivering a performance that made it seem like he didn’t have a care in the world.

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Rivalling Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman, Downey Jr. takes this uneven action-comedy by the scruff of the neck and shakes it up with a turn so stupendously un-PC it must have given his agent a coronary. It had been a long time since a major Hollywood star ‘blacked-up’ – by our calculations, 1927 – but the controversy that briefly raged around it missed the point. Downey Jr.’s character was an actor – Australian Kirk Lazarus (or is it Russell Crowe?) – who was supposed to have more than his share of madness in his Method. If anyone’s sent up here, it’s self-important thesps – even RDJ himself. Anyone who can say the line, “I don’t read the script, the script reads me” and keep a straight face deserves a gong. He had to settle for an Oscar nomination instead.

Read Empire's review here

For the fan: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

The witty, bantersome bromance between Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson ushered Guy Ritchie's hyper-stylised Sherlock into franchisehood. Who knows what Arthur Conan Doyle would have made of all the action, but we’d wager a sovereign or two he’d have been seduced by the chemistry between his two greatest characters. The pair offer a Butch and Sundance for the hansom cab era. Downey Jr. was himself seduced by the erratic genius of Holmes (“When you read the description of the guy — quirky and kind of nuts — it could be a description of me," he explained) and makes hay with it, but he also exploits a rare chance to get his top off and kick substantially more Victorian butt than any of his onscreen predecessors.

Read Empire's review here

One to avoid: Johnny Be Good (1988)

There's a credible case to be made for sticking Due Date or the equally dismal Gothika in Downey Jr.’s Room 101, but this ‘80s monsterpiece sneaks in first. You could blame whichever bright spark cast Anthony Michael Hall, The Breakfast Club’s nerd in residence, as a high-school football hero so awesomely gifted that college recruiters queue up to secure his scrawl. You could blame Chicago Bears legend Jim McMahon, who cameos in his pants. Downey Jr. isn’t blame-free either, overplaying to such an extent that you could probably find his character listed on IMDb under ‘Annoying Best Friend #1’. Ultimately we’re with Roger Ebert who blamed everyone: “The people who made this movie should be ashamed of themselves."

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