A few years back everyone was going crazy with the "re-discovery" of Johnny Depp -- just because the longtime performer scored a hit with a big-budget blockbuster. But movie geeks who grew up in the '80s and '90s were left a little bit confused by all the buzz. "Uh," we mused, "Johnny Depp's been kicking ass for over two decades now, and it takes the BOX OFFICE to tell us he's so cool??" And this summer it's Mr. Robert Downey Jr. After his powerful one-two punch of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder (and the Oscar-friendly The Soloist right around the corner), everyone seems to be falling all over the actor.
Granted, the actor's unpleasant history with drugs and prison certainly makes for a great "comeback" tale, and Downey really deserves it ... but even at his lowest and most drug-addled moments, this guy was delivering very good performances. I'll skip the obvious ones of Less Than Zero (his breakout) and Chaplin (his Oscar nom), but just to remind you that there was a lot of life before Tony Stark and Kirk Lazarus, I offer you seven of my very favorite Robert Downey Jr. performances.
Weird Science (1985) -- I distinctly remember seeing this movie during its theatrical run, and during the scene in which Downey dumps a slushee onto the heads of our heroes, I thought "This actor plays a really good jerkface." Little did I know I was watching the future Iron Man bully nerds -- plus his character was the one who recommended that "virtual girl" Kelly LeBrock receive "larger breasts," although that's not a direct quote from the film. (Bonus performance: Bill Paxton as ANOTHER big jerk.)
True Believer (1987) -- OK, so he's trapped behind some really goofy late-'80s eyewear, but here Downey plays an idealistic (?) young lawyer who teams up with the burnt-out James Woods to solve an eight-year-old murder. Written by Wesley Strick and directed by Joseph Ruben, this is most definitely one of those "under the radar" crime thriller / lawyer flicks that still stands up. Plus it's got Kurtwood Smith in it.
Soapdish (1991) -- Although he's damn good at the stern and somber stuff, my favorite Downey is the one who lightens up and makes with the quick wit. (Did you know the actor was a one-season regular on Saturday Night Live? Don't feel bad if you didn't; I doubt Mr. Downey barely even remembers 1985 himself.) Here he plays a slimy young producer who's trying to bounce Sally Field out of a soap opera. Andrew Bergman's ensemble farce boasts a solid pacing and an excellent ensemble (Whoopi Goldberg, Cathy Moriarty, Kevin Kline), and Downey is among the flick's most amusing diversions.
Natural Born Killers (1994) -- Love it or hate it, there's little denying that Oliver Stone's controversial indictment of American media takes a turn for the fun every time Downey's powerfully obnoxious "Wayne Gale" takes the stage. Sort of an overbearing Australian combo of Robert Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera, Downey keeps the movie funny ... at the very point it could be overwhelmingly bleak. Plus that over-the-top accent (which the actor also employs in Tropic Thunder) is just hilarious.
Restoration (1995) -- This type of period piece is not always my cup of tea, but Michael Hoffman's unjustly forgotten Restoration is a very entertaining little flick. Here Downey stars as a Victorian era physician who ingratiates himself with the court of King Charles II -- only to experience rewards, punishment, and (of course) redemption. (The movie's called "Restoration," after all.) In a movie featuring Sam Neill, Hugh Grant, Meg Ryan, David Thewlis, and Ian McDiarmid, Downey's lead performance is still one of the biggest assets.
Wonder Boys (2000) -- An excellent film from stem to stern, but Downey's memorable performance as sexually-ambiguous book editor Terry Crabtree has to be one of the biggest highlights. Quick and caustic, he shares some really fantastic scenes with Michael Dougas ... damn I really need to see this movie again. I can't believe I don't even own the DVD.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) -- I said I wouldn't pick any "too obvious" ones, but this film bears mentioning over and over again. From his opening narration on, Downey fans know they're in for a good time with this movie, and Shane Black's fantastic screenplay gives Downey (and co-star Val Kilmer) tons of cute little quips, retorts, and wise-assery. It also helps that the movie is both a neo-noir mystery thriller, a deconstruction of film noir tools, and a very R-rated sitcom that co-stars the lovely Michelle Monaghan. Ugh, another movie I need to watch again soon.
--So as I put this list together I kicked myself for not including Downey performances like Back to School (1986), 1969 (1988), Chances Are (1989), Home for the Holidays (1995), Bowfinger (1999), Good Night and Good Luck (2005) or Zodiac (2007) -- but I was limited to only seven, and that's what the comments section is for. So please do share your thoughts on the work of the Downey. Probably not the last time I'll say it, but his recent successes make me very happy indeed. The guy's not just a survivor of some really awful (and self-constructed) miseries -- there are lots of brave souls out there -- but he's just too damn talented to end up as another Hollywood cautionary tale. We have enough of those stories, and not enough actors like Robert Downey Jr.