Robert Downey Jr. was born to play a lawyer. The fast-talking, quick-witted actor has always had a knack for the dramatic, whether it be in real life or on the screen, Downey, like most high profile lawyers, commands your undivided attention. Robert Duvall is an legendary actor that brings a sense of dignity to each role he tackles. The Judge is the perfect outlet for two such personalities to collide, and both actors are up to the task.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a highly skilled Chicago defense attorney who specializes in getting white-collar criminals off the hook. He’s a man who seems to be in control of every aspect of his life, but looks can be deceiving. Hank is in a troubled marriage destined for divorce which will impact his 7-year-old daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), who means the world to him. Just when Hank thought life couldn’t throw any more at his complicated life, he receives news of his mother’s passing. Forced to return to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, Hank must come face to face with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), an old-timer with great moral conviction and who is not fond of his son’s career path.
Hank is reunited with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a former high school baseball star and current town lifer looking to make a living as a tire salesman, and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), a mentally challenged man with aspirations to be a filmmaker. The fond reunion is halted once Hank and Judge Palmer are forced to share space with each other. The bad blood between the two men has not subsided with time and not even the death of the matriarch of this family could mend this rift. Time spent in Carlinville is akin to spending time in prison for Hank and he is none the happier to depart after the services, but leaving may be easier said than done.
As Hank boards a plane back to Chicago, he receives a call from his brother Glen to postpone his flight home. Judge Palmer has been retained by local police and accused of hit-and-run murder. While considered a complete misunderstanding, the plot begins to thicken when the victim, Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), turns out to be a criminal from the judge’s past for whom he had particular reason to despise. Judge Palmer, a recovering alcoholic, appears to have no memory of the night Blackwell was killed and leads authorities to charge the elderly judge with murder. Hank, knowing his father will need the best defense possible, decides to stick around, but Judge Palmer, still holding resentment towards, what he deems, his sons unethical practices, declines and chooses to be represented by a local attorney (Dax Shepard). Judge Palmer is convinced that the truth is his only need for defense and is in no need of the circus theatrics a big city lawyer.
When notoriously tough prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is brought in to try the case against the judge, Hank begins to question his father’s decision and forces himself onto the defense team. Hank and Judge Palmer must find a way to end their feud against each other and find out what happened that fateful night. As the case begins to unravel, will Hank be able to convince the court that his father is innocent of murder, or will the truth that surfaces cast doubt of the once revered servant of justice?
The chemistry between Downey and Duvall is truly captivating. Watching these two season actors work against each other is an absolute pleasure in every sense of the word. Robert Duvall turns in one of his finest performances in recent memory. The 83-year-old actor’s portrayal of a man broken and facing the biggest challenges of his life, is heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. This is a truly memorable performance from this cherished actor. Robert Downey Jr. roles with the punches and stands toe to toe with Duvall in every scene. Downey, in his first dramatic role since 2009’s The Soloist, seems very comfortable and allows his witty delivery and charm to guide him through this wonderful performance. The supporting cast, lead by the amazing Vincent D’Onofrio, helps add layers to this complex emotional landscape of the Palmer family story. Vera Farmiga, the romantic element and, albeit cliche one, she brings a playfulness that is a welcome entry into the back story of Downey’s character. Billy Bob Thornton creates a formidable opponent to Downey’s Hank Palmer without turning him into your typical villainous prosecutor.
Director David Dobkin (Fred Claus) does not try and recreate the wheel of family drama and this works to his advantage in this case. Give credit to the writing of the film by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque who bring a nice blend of humor and emotional elements to the project. The story is, at times, extremely cliche’, but the film works mainly due to the work of the actors involved. Overall, The Judge is a really enjoyable film and will entertain from beginning to end.
3 1/2 out of 5
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