It must be nice being Robert Downey Jr. right now. Think about it: you’re Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes; you can switch from the multiplex blockbusters to screen-on-the-green indie fare with a flick of that megawatt charisma; you’re twice Oscar nominated, and your twinkly eyes can make even the steadiest pair of pins go a bit wobbly. Of course, it hasn't always been plain sailing being RDJ – and, no, we’re not just talking about Gothika – but his talents have helped see him through the darker days. As he takes up the fedora and, ahem, lipstick for a second outing as Sherlock Holmes, we’ve looked back at his film career to sort the best from the rest.
ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Here’s proof that, 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’s grabs most of the best lines as camp ‘tec Gay Perry, but fast-mouthed as ever, Downey Jr. just about steals the movie. His reunion with Black on Iron Man 3 should be worth the wait.
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 surpressing 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. The only problem? We wanted more Stark than story arc. Still, The Avengers and Iron Man 3 await – there’s plenty of both to get excited about.
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, would have impressed even Kirk Lazarus, and they pay off in buckets for every second he's 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. Not bad, considering Chapin himself only managed it once.
RECOMMENDED: Wonder Boys (2000)
Curtis Hanson’s criminally underrated adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel has plenty to recommend it: an Oscar-nominated script by Steve ‘Harry Potter’ Kloves, razor sharp wit and a wonderfully ramshackle performance by Michael Douglas as 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, Terry Crabtree, now only a flop from the scraphead himself. He’s is in scene-stealing form throughout, 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 Country law enforcement, here he was delivering a performance that made it seem like he didn’t have a care in the world. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.
RECOMMENDED: Tropic Thunder (2008)
Beating Tom Cruise’s hairy-handed mogul Les Grossman for the title of this film's MVP, Downey Jr. takes this fun if 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’s 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 spectacularly. 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 and Hollywood, big enough to take the joke, delivered at least nominations in buckets. Downey Jr. picked up his second Academy Award nod, though we kinda wished he really hadn’t dropped character until the DVD commentary. Now that would have jazzed up Oscars night.
FOR THE FAN: Sherlock Holmes (2009)
There were 529 million good reasons for Hollywood to usher Guy Ritchie’s crime caper into the realms of franchisehood, but only one really convincing reason to keep it there: that witty, bantersome bromance between Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson. 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. Suited and rebooted, the pair offer a Butch and Sundance for the handsom cab era. Downey Jr. was himself seduced by the erratic genius of Holmes (in his words: “When you read the description of the guy — quirky and kind of nuts — it could be a description of me") 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. Your move, Great Mouse Detective.
ONE TO AVOID: Johnny Be Good (1988)
You could make an entirely credible case for sticking the fairly horrible Due Date or the entirely horrible Gothika in Downey Jr.’s Room 101, but this ‘80s monsterpiece sneaks in just ahead of either. Why? Well, 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 literally queue up to secure his scrawl. You could blame Chicago Bears legend Jim McMahon, who turns up in his pants and gives the most wooden cameo this side of Fangorn. You could equally blame that terrible Chuck Berry pun or the corndog ‘message’, but Downey Jr. isn’t scot-free either, overplaying his hand 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.”