The New Action Heroes
Five years ago, conventional wisdom held that Robert Downey Jr was all washed up. Sure, he was a fine actor - some said the best of his generation - but he had blown too many chances and burned too many bridges. What studio would risk bankrolling a congenital drug abuser in a multi-million dollar production, and who would insure the project if it happened?
Well, there's hope for Pete Doherty yet. After 16 films in five years, Downey is clean and sober, back at his best, and headlining the biggest movies of his career: this week's Iron Man (in which he plays industrialist-turned-superhero Tony Stark) and Tropic Thunder (a Ben Stiller-directed comedy to be released in September, in which Downey plays the method actor star of a war movie that gets all too real).
Iron Man, especially, is poised to reframe his career, from sometimes-inspired character actor to heavy-hitting leading man. With a budget estimated in the $180 million ball park, this is a very big movie. The Marvel comic book hero may not share the recognition factor among the general public that Batman, Spider-man or Superman enjoy, but that could be to the movie's advantage. There won't be too many preconceptions to overshadow what's on screen. And judging by industry tracking, and the buzz the trailer has generated, the public seems hungry for a new blockbuster hero.
And Downey really does seem to be offering something different. It's an integral part of superhero mythology that weedy guys are transformed into invulnerable warriors - something to do with adolescent boys longing for manhood, I expect - but at 43 Downey is no kid, and his smartsy, cynical bad lad image is more reminiscent of the kind of actors usually cast as the villain in these sort of films: think Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor, or Alfred Molina's Doc Ock.
Intriguingly, this summer's other superheroes are cut from a similar cloth. On paper, muscular man's man Eric Bana seems a far more obvious choice for The Hulk than thin, intellectual Edward Norton, who has inherited the role in the sort-of sequel. (In a neat bit of corporate synergy, Downey's Tony Stark has a cameo in this second Marvel production.)
Then there's Christian Bale, back as Batman in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight. He may be ten years' younger than Downey, but like the others, Bale has established his credentials as an actor first, a movie star second. Even now (with Terminator 4 in pre-production) you wouldn't really associate him with the words "action star".
So what gives? Iron Man director Jon Favreau pitched Downey to Marvel executives by referencing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean - a leftfield piece of casting that was intended to bring credibility to a movie inspired by a theme park ride.
Up to that point, Depp had no box office clout to speak of; he was a cult pin up with a taste for art house directors, but not a mainstream attraction. You could say the same about Downey and Norton and Bale - each of them has fans, critical esteem, and a significant body of work behind them, but Bale's only (modest) hit was Reign Of Fire. Norton fares well as part of a package (with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron in The Italian Job, for example) but hasn't demonstrated much appeal when he's flying solo. Workaholic Downey has made 50 movies and not a blockbuster in the lot.
The truth is that in a blockbuster movie, the branding and the special effects are probably more important to a film's box-office chances. If you're paying up to half of your budget to the CGI guys, you think twice before shelling out another $20 million or so - and possibly a significant share of the gross - to a megastar like Tom Cruise or Will Smith. I don't know how much they paid Downey for Iron Man, but I'll bet he was a bargain in comparison.
There's a flip side to this. With big budget movies more and more resembling cartoons not only in the way they look but in how they're made, it helps to have real actors standing in front of your blue screen to bring the scenes to life. Favreau - who is also an actor (Swingers) - obviously appreciates this more than anyone, and the Iron Man cast is loaded with talent: Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow, for starters (plus cameos by Samuel L Jackson and Hilary Swank).
For Downey, who is currently playing a schizophrenic musician for Atonement director Joe Wright, this puts the seal on a remarkable comeback. And if Harrison Ford can still be Indiana Jones at 65, chances are we'll be seeing a lot more of Downey in the future.
Tom Charity Tom.email@example.com
The Best of Robert Downey Jr
Less Than Zero (1987)
After his share of mediocre brat pack comedies, Downey caught the eye with his performance as dissolute Julian Wells in this version of the Bret Easton Ellis novel.
Downey earned his (so far) sole Oscar nomination playing Charlie in Richard Attenborough's biopic.
One Night Stand (1997)
Two Girls And A Guy (1997)
Downey is caught between a rock and a hard place in this sexy chamber piece by frequent collaborator James Toback.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Another terrific supporting performance, this time as Michael Douglas's gay book editor.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
This lead role in Shane Black's well liked private eye comedy thriller was supposed to make him a star. But the audience didn't show.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Downey's flamboyant investigative journalist Paul Avery may be the best thing in David Fincher's meticulous true crime drama.
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