Bright Lights Film Journal

The Downey Spirals

It’s perhaps fitting to find Robert Downey Jr. sailing through a hot-selling end-of-decade Sherlock Holmes action movie, since he’s been the chameleonic superboy of the last twenty years, bouncing from brat pack notoriety to rehab to jail and into our hearts. Remember the late 1990s were not so good to Mr. Downey, Jr., drugs, arrests, sleeping in the wrong beds. But since he got out of the clink in 2000, the world’s been blessed with a Downey purer, softer, better. He’s been to hell and back and lived to tell the tale in his every methody gesture and multi-textual line riffing. If, like me, you recently found yourself ticketless outside a sold-out show, you may want to do as I’ve been doing, and check in in with Downey’s best films of the last five years:

TROPIC THUNDER (2008): Hilarious as a “dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” The film gets away with putting him in blackface and letting him ham it up as a tough-as-nails grizzled soldier in the bushes of a fake Vietnam, via real African Americans expressing their displeasure and a subtext about the way actors use method as a mask with which to hide from the identity’s responsibilities

IRON MAN (2008): Once he got his armor on, Stark got to be a bit of a CGI bore. They never really made you feel Downey was actually anywhere near the Iron Man action. Instead he looked like he was kicking it at home in an airconditioned video helmet while his avatar stomped around shooting Arabs who no doubt couldn’t dent him with a ten foot pole. Before then, though, Downey chomps it as the speed-freak inventor he played so well in…

ZODIAC (2007): (pictured above). Downey makes drinking coffee and smoking in a press room into something shockingly poetic. You understand why Donnie Darko follows him around like a puppy.  Downey seems like a actually time traveled back to the early 1970s to get his vibe just right.

A SCANNER DARKLY (2006): Playing a motor-mouthed drug addict forever sweating and fidgeting in a mix of paranoid back-stabbing and fucked-up horsing around with a stoner Woody Harrelson. Downey’s presence actually overwhelms the film, with undercover narc Keanu Reeves just unable to stand up to that kind of force. But it’s worth seeing! Winona Ryder was meant to be rotoscoped!

KISS KISS BANG BANG! (2005): (pictured below) Downey’s superb as a fourth-wall thief who gets a mix of Chandler and acerbic La La-land sleaze shoved in his face like a cream pie, and he makes a great team with Val Kilmer as a burly gay detective! It’s very clever, this movie. A little too clever, maybe. It practically laughs at its own jokes, presuming they’re too inside for you, and it’s hard to forgive the film for thinking it can heal all the damaged girls in L.A. just by bitch-slapping an old man in his death bed. But it helps. The self-aware L.A. self-loathing thing is something Downey’s been about since the day, man, since NATURAL BORN KILLERS, so it’s forgivable if KISS doesn’t tone down its narcissism like the later TROPIC THUNDER did/does.

As crazy as Hollywood itself, Downey’s the trailblazer of tweak. If caffeine is the food of rehab, drink on! I would not change him for all the t-sticks in China. More than all the rest, Downey embodies not mere method chameleonizing or dilated mirror gazing, but actual genuine personal evolution. Not only has he come a long way from the handcuffs of 2000, he comes a long way in every movie… changing and vibrating and ever-receptive to the vibrations of the spider web…. of tinsel… all around him. Watson! The diet coke!