Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

So The Avengers — one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years — comes out today. Judging only by the trailers and promos, it does not look very good at all and I remain indifferent to even seeing Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics early summer blockbuster, even if it does co-star the stunning Scarlett Johansson. The film also marks the return of the character of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) played by none other than 47 year-old Robert Downey, Jr., one of America’s most talented, if not complex actors of his generation.

His resume is a long and impressive one, appearing in films for pretty much his entire life – since age 5 actually, when he had a role in his father’s film Pound. If you blinked, you missed his stint on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1985. He is usually associated with the 80’s “Brat Pack” gang for appearing in movies like Pretty in Pink, Tuff Turf, and The Pick-Up Artist – though I never really put him in that group. Of course he has had his troubles with the law and his drug addictions have been well-documented and publicized. But he has still managed to come out in the most spectacular of fashions – with 2008 bringing him to rock star/blockbuster status. Things were going so well for Downey that he even made it on The Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Makes the word ‘comeback’ sound like a ridiculous understatement. In fact, his popularity seems to be growing the last few years. Anyway, with the release of The Avengers, I thought it would be a fitting time to list what I find to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 5 performances thus far. As always, these are not a list of the best films he has been in – I am strictly looking at performance:

5. Zodiac (2007)

I have no problems with saying I did not enjoy this film, despite my admiration for director David Fincher and its appearance on a multitude of Top 10 lists of that year. I had problems with the script and its dreary pacing. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s always a bit sad and painful to watch poor Jake try his heart out to less than adequate results. Having said that, I cannot deny Downey’s impressive performance here in which he plays newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery who begins to share information with a political cartoonist, as the two try to decode letters that have been sent to the paper by who they believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Downey almost always plays characters with tremendous egos with little humility and there is no exception here. But it is his performance that kept me (at least somewhat) interested. His sarcastic sense of humor helps this otherwise bleak film and he manages to wear the style and mannerisms of a beat reporter in effortless fashion.

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)

You may laugh at and mock me, but I don’t care. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Downey over the late Heath Ledger (I know – blasphemy!) for playing five-time Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus in this intelligent and amazingly funny Ben Stiller comedy. I know his casting here raised some eyebrows initially, but Downey does comedy extremely well, partly because he plays it completely straight. His Lazarus gets a pigmentation alteration surgery to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam film. What makes it even funnier is that, because he is such a dedicated Method actor, he refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in “Black English.” As Stiller’s acting rival, Downey is nothing short of hysterical. A brave role for him to take on and he was rewarded with his 2nd Oscar nomination for doing so (which, as we all know, he should have won). You see? Going full retard, can pay off Robert!

3. Less Than Zero (1987)

A very 1980’s look at the culture of the spoiled and the young in Los Angeles based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film surely has its many flaws and looks pretty dated by today’s standards, but one shining light in it is Downey’s performance as Julian, a young drug addict disintegrating before our very eyes. The movie’s portrait of drug use does seem genuine and at times, downright scary. The same can be said of what Downey does here….his commendable knack for making you laugh one moment and feel incredible sadness the next is clearly on display in this film that really cemented him as a true player in Hollywood. He played some great supporting roles before this (Back to School, Weird Science) and made the most of his screen time. But this truly made him legit and opened everyone’s eyes. Today, when people think of this movie, they first think of Downey’s harrowing and intense work. It should also be noted that it is so easy to fall into the hole of going over-the-top when playing such a character (as many often do)…but I see a lot of subtlety in his work here.

2. Iron Man (2008)

When I first learned that Downey would be starring as a superhero in Jon Favreau’s mega-blockbuster, I thought it a very peculiar casting choice to say the very least. I just didn’t see it — and I am sure many others felt the very same way. But after years of being very successful in film and TV, this is where Mr. Downey hit gold. Now it’s next-to impossible to think of Tony Stark and not picture the the brash Thespian. Tony Stark is an ego-maniac, and we love him anyway. He is eccentric, brilliant, self-promoting, cocky, sarcastic, and courageous. Downey is a master at playing these quirky and gregarious characters – but what makes him so special is that he is also able to show us the vulnerable and the frightened. Whoever thought of casting him at the center of the Hollywood heavyweight surely has more foresight than me. The first Iron Man flick worked in so many ways (unlike the obligatory sequel which was weighed down by an unfocused script), and Downey was indeed a huge part of that. He said of landing the role: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.” Whatever he did worked — and he has brought life to one of the more fascinating superheroes to come to the silver screen.

1. Chaplin (1992)

This selection is a no-brainer for me, even with Downey’s many great performances. You can count the number of geniuses who have worked in film on one, perhaps two hands — and Charles Chaplin is indeed one of them. Talk about enormous shoes to fill. Richard Attenborough’s movie left a lot to be desired, but you can’t say that about Downey and his efforts…he gives a tour de force performance and unlike anything he had ever done to that point. Of the project, Downey stated it was, “The biggest humiliation I’ve ever experienced. It was like winning the lottery, then going to prison. I realized that nothing that had worked for me before was going to work here.”  Downey does a brilliant job at not only nailing the monumental moments, but also, at capturing the tiniest of Chaplin’s nuances. He received his first Oscar nomination for his work here and solidified his stature as a leading man. Watch the video below — it is the magical (albeit fictional) moment when Chaplin experiences a life-changing epiphany and creates one of film’s most iconic characters – The Little Tramp. It is a wonder to watch and it gives you just a small glimmer of the masterful work Downey does here. Watch his eyes, his body language, the brows…it’s remarkable work. His best to date, in my opinion. But with the roll he is on, there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

A quick P.S. — I loved Mr. Downey’s work in Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and especially Wonder Boys…but as always, 5 slots goes by way too quickly.

Fan Poll: What’s Your Favorite Superhero Movie?

Iron Man 2” was released early this month and has not given up the top spot at the box-office just yet. A good action-packed superhero movie is almost a surefire box-office smash usually results in a sequel or two to follow. With the widely anticipated Green Hornet movie coming out later this year and others in post-production, I wanted to see what your favorite superhero movie is. If I left your favorite off the list, just write me a nasty comment below. I have a tough skin…made of steel!

What is Your Favorite Superhero Movie?
Superman: The Movie
Batman (1989)
The Dark Knight
Spiderman
Spiderman 2
The Incredibles
Dick Tracy
Iron Man
X-Men
X2: X-Men United
Hellboy
Blade
Batman Begins
Watchmen
A Film Not On This List

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Peter Eramo Reviews: “Iron Man 2″ (** 1/2)

I’d like to preface this review by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the first “Iron Man” film released in 2008. It was, in my opinion, one of the better action films I had seen and certainly one of the better films of the ‘superhero’ genre. Having said that, I feel that I can say with great confidence that anyone who truly enjoyed the first film will be severely disappointed in its sequel, “Iron Man 2.”

It is almost standard fare in Hollywood and we hear it almost every time a sequel is released — “It was good. Not better than the original at all, but it was good.” Very seldom does a sequel live up to all of the hype and it is even a rarer feat for the sequel to best its predecessor. Perhaps “Superman 2,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Aliens” and most certainly “The Godfather Part II” are members of that elite group, but that is always up for healthy debate. More times than not, before watching a sequel, my expectations are not very high. “Iron Man 2” was an exception though. I was in fact expecting more from this franchise, from director Jon Favreau, and from screenwriter Justin Theroux. I was disillusioned. And if you are one who sees this film and is not as disappointed as I was, then I will go out on a limb and almost guarantee that you will at least grant me the service of at least admitting that it comes nowhere near the original.

Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has a lot on his plate in this one.  Now that the entire world knows that he is in fact the Iron Man hero, he is facing tremendous pressure from the government (most notably from Senator Stern, played by comedian Garry Shandling) to hand over the powerful technology to the U.S. military. He has also discovered that the palladium in the arc reactor that is responsible for keeping him alive, is in fact, slowly killing him (ah, the irony) and all of his attempts to find a substitute element have failed. On top of this, Stark must deal with the opening of the grand Stark Expo (you never saw Flushing, NY look saw strikingly impressive), in the name of his deceased father — and most of all, he is confronted with his new arch enemy, the Russian physicist-turned-evil genius, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).

It seems that Ivan’s father worked alongside Stark’s father and the two of them were responsible for creating technology far ahead of its time. The two should have shared in the wealth and fame, but instead, Ivan’s father was pushed aside and was forced to live a life of misery, poverty and failure. Ivan wants revenge — he wants Tony Stark.

Rourke is great here, but that should be of no surprise to anyone. It’s always a pleasure to watch him work. Here, his Russian accent is near perfect and his tattooed body and appearance fit the villain caricature very well. He is well cast here and creates a mysterious foil to Stark with his gold teeth and great affinity for birds. What is terribly anti-climatic is that the whole film is building up to this grand face-off between the two and when it happens, it is just a shameful let-down. The confrontation is there, we’re awaiting this amazing finale, and it lasts perhaps a minute long and just like that, it is over…leaving the viewer let down…again.

Robert Downey, Jr. created a delightful, charming, charismatic Tony Stark in the first film. Here, he gets to do pretty much the same. Nothing new here – he makes his playful and witty remarks as often as he can. But we don’t see or feel any of the desperation that Stark had in the first one…not even when his life is on the line. In addition, his relationship with his former personal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) is a huge letdown. The two had such great chemistry in the first one. Here, he appoints Ms. Potts to be the CEO of his empire and they seem to be at odds throughout the entire film. The only time the two have a meaningful, endearing exchange is when they are on a video-conference-call and she finds out about his illness…it’s a sad commentary when the only time two actors have a true exchange is when they aren’t even on the same screen together.

In other subplots (of which there are far too many), Stark must also deal with his industry rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who enlists Ivan to work for him and ruin Stark for good. Rockwell is fun to watch. His Hammer is conniving and cowardly, the epitome of envy to the great Tony Stark.  Oh yeah, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Stark with a treasure-trove of old film and artifacts of the elder Stark. Fury also wants to see if he is S.H.I.E.L.D. material. Jackson is Jackson, except here, he wears an eye patch for good measure. Scarlett Johansson plays Natalie, who plays a newly employed Stark receptionist with a great deal to hide. Johansson doesn’t get to do much as far as honing her acting chops, but fits the role of sexy vixen who can kick the asses of 20 men quite admirably. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard in the role of Lt. Colonel James Rhodes. We don’t miss Howard for a second, but, with the exception of the big paycheck, he should be grateful not to be a part of the mess.

Listen, it is what it is. It’s a Hollywood summer blockbuster film. I get that. And if you are looking to sit back, have some popcorn and enjoy some action, some funny lines (though not nearly as humorous as the original) and take out the brain for two hours, then you will perhaps enjoy it. Again, I was expecting more from this particular franchise – and from Favreau who fell victim to the ‘Too Many Villains in A Single Movie’ catastrophe that has struck many directors before him. In the end, to me, it felt like: “OK, we have a title for the movie, we have our director…we have our star-studded cast….hmmm, we just need some kind of a story. Anything’ll do…the public will come.” And I am sure they will. I’m sure it’ll make $250-$350 million domestic….But you still can’t say it comes close to the original.

Film:           Iron Man 2

Year:           2010

Director:     Jon Favreau

Rating:        an extra 1/2-star for those who love summer blockbusters

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