Robert Downey Jr is in an unusual position. Regarded for years as a wildly talented actor who couldn’t quite crack the A-list, he finally became a bona fide star when he strapped on the Iron Man armour.
Now, with a number of superhero adventures (not to mention a successful Sherlock Holmes franchise) to his name, RDJ has to re-establish his credibility as an actor.
And is there any better way to do that than a family drama/legal thriller combo that allows him to showcase his cheeky charm and acting prowess?
Actually, there probably is. Because The Judge is a bit of a mess.
Sprawling and unwieldy, this movie is frustrating because it manages to generate a fair amount of good will, thanks to a strong cast and an intriguing plot, before squandering that good will. It then wins some back before frittering it away again.
At the core of The Judge is a potentially compelling tale of personal and professional redemption, but it’s clouded by bad creative decisions and cluttered by unnecessary subplots.
Downey Jr’s Hank Palmer is a hotshot big-city lawyer whose sleek courtroom facade hides the fact that his private life is less than ideal.
The death of his mother sees his return to his small hometown for her funeral, and a confrontation with his estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the local judge.
After a brief and painful reunion, Hank is ready to leave and never look back. But then Joseph is arrested in connection with the death of a recently-released convict with whom the judge had an infamously bad history.
The local lawyer Joseph hires means well but is clearly out of his depth, and Hank soon steps in to defend his father.
But between their animosity and anger, the holes in the judge’s story and the efforts of a determined prosecutor (a well-cast Billy Bob Thornton), it’s far from an open-and-shut case.
The Judge’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t trust its audience. Director David Dobkin hammers home every plot twist and emotional beat with little regard for subtlety, and for every time his approach works there are maybe two or three where it just feels heavy-handed.
The same could be said for Downey Jr, who relies on many of his old tricks, some of which are starting to seem a bit old-hat.
However, there are scenes, especially when he has to spar with the talented likes of Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio or Duvall (who is superb here – both intimidating and heartbreaking), when you’re reminded that RDJ can be an actor to be reckoned with.