It’s been a while since we’ve seen Robert Downey Jr. as anything other than Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. But in The Judge, he plays the closest thing to a real human being he’s tackled in ages. The film is a throwback to the rousing, middle-of-the-road courtroom dramas that flourished during the Grisham box office gold rush of the mid-’90s. Back then, movies like The Firm and A Time to Kill turned self-righteousness and witness-stand theatrics into the kinds of crowd-pleasers that made you think. How quaint. How old-fashioned. How extinct.
I don’t expect The Judge to usher in a new era of legal thrillers, but I’m happy to see Downey leave the Marvel universe and Baker Street behind. As hotshot Chicago attorney Hank Palmer, Downey is his usual onscreen type — the whip-smart wiseass who’s cynical and selfish…until he’s not. When his mother dies, he returns to his rural Indiana hometown and is forced to stay and defend his estranged, holier-than-thou father (Robert Duvall), a respected local judge, after he’s arrested for the hit-and-run murder of an ex-con he once put away. What makes the film more than just a dusty Grisham retread is that the case (as compelling as it is) is merely the backdrop for a more emotionally engaging story about fathers and sons played, like a duet, by two virtuoso actors who give the film not only all they have but probably more than it requires. B