A passion project for its star and producer Robert Downey Jr., The Judge is a suitably star-studded and performance-driven affair, following big city lawyer Hank Palmer, as he reluctantly returns to his small-town roots for his mother’s funeral. There he discovers his estranged father, veteran court judge Hank senior, is facing a murder charge, after allegedly hitting an ex-con with his Cadillac. Hank junior opts to stay and defend his old man, but soon secrets are unearthed and long-standing grudges resurface.
The Judge treads incredibly familiar territory, pitting the urban hotshot against Middle American homespun values, family against career, father against son, and refuses to pull any punches during its lengthy two-and-a-half hours. But despite the well-worn narrative and reluctance to surprise its audience, The Judge remains engrossing thanks to a raft of strong, well-meaning performances from some of the best actors working in Hollywood today.
Robert Duvall’s turn as the stubborn, obstinate defendant is a late-career highlight, while Billy Bob Thornton proves more than a match for Downey in the courtroom as the slippery, silk-tongued prosecutor. Outside of the courthouse, Vera Farmiga balances warmth with sass as Hank’s former flame, and Vincent D’Onofrio lends sturdy support as the older brother with an axe to grind. Nevertheless, The Judge rest firmly on Downey Jr’s shoulders, and it is his trademark combination of charisma and snark that keep us hooked from the opening arguments till the final verdict.
This review first appeared in Cathay Pacific’s Discovery Magazine, February 2015