With more than 50 movies listed in his filmography, Iron Man 3 star Robert Downey, Jr. has obviously had his share of ups and downs, but we’d argue that the positives outnumber the negatives; in fact, the lowest-rated film on the top 10 we assembled for this week’s Total Recall boasts an 83 percent Tomatometer rating. With so many well-reviewed films jostling for a spot, there are bound to be some surprising omissions, as well as a few obscure inclusions — so what say we get down to business and find out what they are by taking a look at the cream of the crop, shall we?
We’ve all watched enough of the Biography Channel to know that Hollywood comebacks aren’t exactly rare, but Robert Downey, Jr.’s is surely the first to include a role performed in blackface. Downey’s industry-spoofing appearance as Kirk Lazarus, the Australian method actor who undergoes a pigment-dying procedure to play a black soldier, was the perfect way to cap off a resurgence that would have seemed all but impossible at the turn of the century. Audiences responded to Tropic Thunder‘s acid mix of action and satire, sending it over the $100 million mark, and critics resisted the opportunity to make C. Thomas Howell jokes, delivering high marks for the movie — which Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer referred to as “raunchy, raucuous, and riotously funny” — and Downey’s performance in particular, which, in a fabulously ironic turn of events, earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
He’s done a number of projects over the last 15 years, but to many people, David Fincher will always be best remembered for the splash he made with 1995’s serial killer thriller Seven — so when word got out that Fincher was directing an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s memoir about the years he spent trying to track down the Zodiac Killer, it seemed like a perfect fit, and it came as no surprise that a long list of highly regarded thespians — including Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloe Sevigny, Mark Ruffalo, Philip Baker Hall, and, of course, Robert Downey, Jr. — signed on for what were often little more than extended cameos. As the liquor-loving reporter Paul Avery, Downey has one of Zodiac‘s larger roles, acting as a sort of besotted, bitterly cynical Jiminy Cricket to Gyllenhaal’s curiously, dangerously driven cartoonist-turned-investigator. Zodiac failed to meet expectations at the box office, but critics were almost unanimous in their appreciation, sending it to 89 percent on the Tomatometer on the strength of reviews from the likes of the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris, who called it “a long work of completely sustained suspense and dark humor.”
It’s often remembered as the decade of action heroes with impossible physiques, but the 1980s were also a golden era for another type of character: the quirky, anti-establishment wiseacre, a part which Robert Downey, Jr. happened to play extremely well. Case in point: 1986’s Back to School, in which Downey, as campus weirdo Derek Lutz, gave audiences an early example of the easy charm and deadpan wit that he’d bring to The Pick-Up Artist and Johnny Be Good the following year. (He’d also show off his dramatic chops in Less Than Zero, but that’s another story.) Though it was far from his first film, and really only a supporting role, Back to School gave the former SNL cast member his first major hit — both at the box office and among critics like the New York Times’ Nina Darnton, who called it “a good-natured potpourri of gags, funny bits, populist sentiment and anti-intellectualism.”
Downey spent the early aughts working his way back from the brink of career suicide, and though the comeback trail was sometimes bumpy (2003’s Gothika, 2006’s The Shaggy Dog), this period produced some of his most interesting work — including 2003’s The Singing Detective, 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, and a supporting role in George Clooney’s cinematic paean to Edward R. Murrow’s courageous battle against McCarthyism, Good Night and Good Luck. As CBS reporter Joseph Wershba, Downey was given the opportunity to sink his teeth into a script with the sort of dramatic heft that brings out the best in an actor — and in the process, he got to share screen time with a stellar cast that included Clooney, Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, and David Strathairn, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Murrow. A dialogue-heavy drama filmed in black and white, Good Night never had bright commercial prospects, but it was a hit with critics like Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote that the film “stands tall, solid, impressive and expressive, joining not only the best films about journalism, but also those about real Americans.”
$582 million in worldwide grosses later, it’s easy to forget that when Downey was announced as Jon Favreau’s choice for the man who would be Tony Stark, reactions ran the gamut from bemused acceptance to outright hostility (and fans suggesting everyone from Billy Zane to The Young and the Restless‘ Eric Braeden as superior alternatives). Of course, that was before the world got to watch Iron Man — and see how Downey had matured from offbeat character actor (and tabloid-friendly star of middling romantic comedies) into someone who could not only help us suspend disbelief while he flew around in a metal suit for two hours, but make us care about his character in the process. The Dark Knight ended up getting more attention that summer, but at 93 percent on the Tomatometer, Iron Man was an unqualified success with audiences and critics — and Downey received some of the best reviews of his career from scribes such as Roger Ebert, who wrote, “at the end of the day it’s Robert Downey Jr. who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies.”
Sort of the comic book movie equivalent of Ocean’s Eleven, this star-studded superhero extravaganza put a $1.5 billion capstone on the impressively constructed Phase One of Marvel’s cinematic universe — all while wrangling enough screentime (and salary budget) for the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and (of course) Downey. That unwieldy cast created a bit of a conundrum for director/co-writer Joss Whedon, but because none of the Avengers were responsible for carrying the entire movie, they were each freed up to do what they do best; in Downey’s case, this meant plenty of well-timed quips and adding a human element to some impressively rendered CGI action. It all came together better than it probably had any right to, all because, as Kirk Baird put it for the Toledo Blade, “Whedon has delivered that rare action-packed, special-effects spectacle that is relentless in its eagerness to please and successful beyond its goal.”
For most kids, dropping out of high school is a gateway to parental disapproval and a series of unrewarding jobs — but when your dad is a renowned avant garde filmmaker who has been featuring you in his movies since you were five, the ordinary rules don’t always apply. Such was the case for Robert Downey, Jr. after he dropped out in 1982, two years after making an appearance in his dad’s ill-fated, MAD Magazine-branded spoof Up the Academy: instead of moving into his parents’ basement and getting a job delivering pizza, he moved to New York and scored a small role in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. Though it wasn’t a major part, and the movie wasn’t a hit, it helped set up Downey’s 1980s hot streak — and Baby earned positive notices from critics like Film Freak Central’s Walter Chaw, who deemed it “a peculiarly absorbing and sticky film.”
The early 1990s were an odd time for Downey — despite earning an Academy Award nomination for his passion project, 1992’s Chaplin, he spent most of his time popping up in lightweight fare like Air America, Soapdish, and Heart and Souls. He still knew how to pick a script, though, as evidenced by 1993’s Short Cuts, Robert Altman’s critically lauded ensemble drama, in which he appeared alongside an impressively long list of actors (Andie MacDowell, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Jack Lemmon) and acting musicians (Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis). Downey’s scenes as Lili Taylor’s sadist husband were just a small square of Short Cuts‘ sprawling patchwork quilt of a storyline, but they were still an integral part of a film lauded by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers as “triumphantly fierce, funny, moving and innovative” — and they offered a glimpse of the more idiosyncratic work he’d do later in the decade.
Downey’s first major forays into dramatic territory were greeted with mixed critical results; neither 1987’s Less Than Zero nor 1988’s 1969 lived up to expectations, and for a time, it looked like he’d end up consigned to movies like The Pick-Up Artist and Chances Are indefinitely. With 1989’s True Believer, however, Downey finally had his chance to flex his dramatic muscles in a critical winner; though he played second banana to James Woods, Downey’s idealistic legal clerk was integral to the film, both in terms of advancing the plot and providing fuel for character development. The late 1980s were full of legal thrillers, and True Believer wasn’t one of the more commercially successful entries in the genre, but it earned plenty of critical respect from writers such as Time’s Richard Schickel, who praised Woods’ “angry energy” as “clarifying as well as terrifying,” saying “the effect is to focus our attention where it belongs, not on a suspense story but on the mysteries of human behavior.”
1995’s Restoration was neither a commercial hit nor one of Downey’s best-reviewed films — but it did introduce him to Sir Ian McKellen, and their on-set friendship led to Downey’s involvement in Richard III, the collaboration between McKellen and director Richard Loncraine that transplanted Shakespeare’s play into a fascist nightmare version of 1930s England. McKellen and Loncraine’s script took some liberties with the source material, both with the updated setting and its streamlined cast of characters; Downey appears as Earl Rivers, an amalgamation of three roles from the play. His scenes as the character he described as “kind of like the Roger Clinton of the royal family” were few, but they gave Downey a break from forgettable stuff like Danger Zone and One Night Stand, as well as a bit of the reflected critical glow from writeups by critics like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who praised Richard III for combining “a shrewd understanding of Shakespeare with a healthy, low-brow approach to cinema.”
In case you were wondering, here are Downey’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:
1. Marvel’s The Avengers — 96%
2. Iron Man — 91%
3. Short Cuts — 86%
4. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang — 83%
5. Sherlock Holmes — 81%
6. Richard III — 81%
7. Iron Man 2 — 81%
8. Natural Born Killers — 80%
9. Chaplin — 80%
10. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — 78%