Director David Dobkin is lucky to have Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. starring in his new trial drama, "The Judge." Their Oscar-caliber performances -- including Downey's first outstanding performance since his Oscar-nominated effort in "Chaplin" more than two decades ago -- give this familiar family-centric tale of small town justice new life.
"The Judge" looks at what happens when a proud, veteran judge (Duvall) in a small Indiana town is charged with a major crime. His smug and arrogant estranged son, Hank Palmer (Downey), reluctantly agrees to take on the case, certain his father will make for an impossible client.
At the same time the father and son clash over legal approaches, they try to mend their relationship. Hank also faces waves of family guilt and a relationship that he walked out on without explanation decades ago.
There's been a lot of talk about Downey being back on his acting game since the 2008 release of "Iron Man." There's no question that he's gotten the most out of the comic-book-inspired Tony Stark. But those big-budget movies leave little room for Downey to show any depth and range. "The Judge" finally gives him a chance to play a multi-dimensional character.
Downey's work fits perfectly with Duvall's performance, which harkens back to his Oscar-nominated work in "The Great Santini." On the bench, the judge's no-nonsense and ethically unwavering philosophies have made him a commanding figure when it comes to local justice. It's also been a big part of what's made him distant and cold to his sons.
The screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is carefully structured to bring father and son together. They put the characters on an emotional and judicial collision course that leaves both men battered and bruised. The pacing is just right so that any changes they experience feel carried by the forgiveness that often comes with the passing of time.
As long as the two Roberts are on screen, "The Judge" is powerful. It clearly suffers when they are not together. Dobkin was smart enough to keep his actors together -- plus add in strong work by Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong -- to make "The Judge" an acting master class. It proves that good actors can make even a mediocre script and direction come to life.