To the excitement of movie fans, Robert Downey Jr. finally doffs his protective Iron Man suit and mega-successful Tony Stark character for his most vulnerable film role in years. As high-priced Chicago defense attorney Hank Palmer, Downey completely dominates the big-screen and courtroom in this emotionally charged legal drama. He flawlessly transitions this strong-willed, egotistical lawyer between bouts of anger, compassion, arrogance and humility.
Called back to his hometown after the unexpected death of his mother, Downey faces two very formidable foes–his estranged father (played naturally by Robert Duvall)–the small town judge whom Downey must defend against a hit-and-run murder charge, and, the big city prosecutor brought in from upstate to get that conviction (a perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton). Although Thornton steals every scene he’s in without much difficulty, this movie comes down to Downey vs. Duvall–and the application of the law.
The long-standing tension between a father and son goes back to Downey’s poor choices and troubled youth under Duvall’s stern household. The film unflinchingly looks back at the punishment dealt out by Duvall to his son growing up and compares it to those consequences he ordered since that time from the bench. Sparks once again fly between them as Downey attempts to get two sticky statements from Duvall’s character—approval from his father on Downey’s own legal career accomplishments and answers from his client, Judge Palmer, on his whereabouts the night of the murder.
“The Judge” makes a compelling argument on how our legal system often maneuvers within the gray area of the law. Where circumstances must get factored into the enforcement of the law using the system’s best judgment of one’s intent. Likewise, frustrations and guilt over punishments strike comparisons between a father’s firm discipline and a judge’s stiff sentence. Both actions require conviction and fortitude yet remain difficult to surmise it’s overall effectiveness until years later.
The only objection I raised during the movie was to the unnecessary and forced subplots director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”, 2005) throws at the audience. Rather than delve deeper into the relationship and scorched past between the father and son, Dobkin spends precious screen time on an irrelevant and meaningless side story on Downey’s old high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter.
This film is very watchable and flourishes when Downey and Duvall battle it out during their scenes together. Both provide fireworks and realism not only to the father-son family dynamics but also to the film’s courtroom. The short appearances by Billy Bob Thornton are highly flammable sequences in which both Thornton and Downey forcibly stake their legal positions. Thornton intuitively takes mere words on a movie script and, with only a glaring look, turns them into a combustible spark when mixed opposite Downey. “The Judge” is more than just a legal drama though. It’s a story about acceptance, compassion and one’s reputation.
“The Judge” is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes.
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