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The Judge

With all the recent hoopla surrounding “The Avengers” and the “Iron Man” franchise, it might be easy to forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a damn fine actor even when outside of that iconic suit. Even when his films fail to live up to expectations (2009’s “The Soloist” being a perfect example), he shines. His latest, “The Judge,” may be his single best performance yet. Working opposite the always fantastic Robert Duvall, he gives the rawest, most emotional performance of his storied career. However, like “The Soloist,” the film he resides in is less than the sum of its parts. An occasionally sloppy script and baffling directorial decisions keep this from going very far, but if you enjoy seeing two great actors at the top of their game, you can’t go wrong here.

Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a soon-to-be-divorced lawyer whose cases consist entirely of defending the guilty and getting them off for whatever crime they may have committed. Naturally, he’s not a courthouse favorite, nor has he made his father, the titular Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), particularly proud, despite his talents. One day, he gets a call that his mother has died, so he heads back to his hometown in Indiana. A cynical man, he has clearly outgrown the small minded nature of this otherwise friendly town, a place where everyone knows each other and drivers wave as they pass each other on the road.

He hasn’t been home in years and as soon as he arrives, the hostility that kept him away resurfaces. His brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), do their best to diffuse the situation, though the latter has a harder time dealing with it due to mental illness, but his father keeps pushing. Eventually, the judge heads out to the grocery store, for both practical reasons and to get away from his disappointing son, but arrives home with no memory of what happened. Unfortunately, there’s blood on his car and a body on a road he was spotted on, the victim a violent criminal he gave a second chance to many years ago. Did he purposely run this man down to make up for his past mistake or was this a simple accident? Regardless of the answer, Hank decides to stick around and defend his father.

“The Judge” suffers not from an uninteresting premise. Although it heads in obvious directions and the eventual answer to the above question is likely to be answered by the audience far before the characters onscreen, the foundation that the narrative is built upon is sturdy. Unfortunately, it’s the execution that cripples the film. Directed by David Dobkin, a man most known for his goofball comedies like “Wedding Crashers,” “The Change-Up” and “Fred Claus,” the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a lighthearted dramedy about family, a message movie about moving on and forgiving others or something else entirely? It’s never very clear, as the tone shifts from here to there and back around again.

Mixing tones is not an inherently bad thing, but Dobkin simply doesn’t have a clean grasp on any of them. As one critic friend whispered in my ear during our screening, “The Judge” occasionally plays like a Lifetime movie, complete with sappy music and cheesy dialogue, and he wasn’t wrong. The music, oddly, ramps up and down seemingly based entirely on those dialogue cues. The music doesn’t enhance what’s being said or depicted, but rather exists as a manipulative force to make it seem like what’s being said has some type of emotional impact. Its lyrical selections are heavy-handed and its other selections sound so similar to the drum heavy nature of those silly crime dramas on television that it’s laughable. Visually, “The Judge” is no better, also moving uncomfortably from tone to tone, but if there’s any consolation to be had, it’s that these moments as described above are infrequent.

The saving grace, again, are the fantastic performances from the stellar cast. Aside from some notable exceptions, like Leighton Meester in a small, inconsequential role—an actress that has starred primarily in nonsense teen dramas and B-movie quality thrillers and doesn't quite have the chops to keep up with her co-stars—everyone here is great and elevates the substandard material into something more than it would be otherwise. The dialogue isn’t great, but it’s delivered with such gusto that you buy into it. It’s easy to understand the motivations and emotions driving Hank and his father, from a basic level of conflicting morals to more serious, unresolved family issues from their pasts that are revealed as the film goes on, and it’s due almost entirely to the actors in the roles.

Stilll, at nearly two and half hours, it’s understandable if certain moviegoers decide to pass on “The Judge” given its many faults, including a wholly unnecessary and uncomfortable side story involving the mystery paternity of Meester’s character, but this is not a bad movie. It is merely an underwhelming one. What had the potential to be one of the best of the year instead ends up as a mildly entertaining diversion; inconsequential, but nevertheless memorable. There will be better movies in the coming months as the awards season ramps up, but you could do worse than “The Judge.”

The Judge receives 3/5



CBS Films is turning out to be one of the most unreliable production companies around. Founded in 2007, CBS Films has had a slow start with the release of only three movies, but when your best is basically a made-for-TV movie, and a bad one at that, there is some cause for concern. After Extraordinary Measures and the excruciating The Back-up Plan, one would think they could take a step forward with the hard R rated, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson led Faster, but such is not the case.

Johnson plays a man known only as Driver who is about to be released from prison after serving 10 years. His first order of business: kill those responsible for the death of his brother years before. But to do so, he’ll have to avoid a killer called Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and a junkie cop named…Cop (Billy Bob Thornton). The characters are so one-dimensional that they aren’t even given proper names.

Dwayne Johnson is built for this type of role. He has the makings of the next big action star, but he has relegated himself in recent years to nonsense kiddy fare, like Tooth Fairy and last year’s Race to Witch Mountain. In theory, this is exactly what he should be doing, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t allow him to shine. Johnson, through roles in films like The Other Guys and Get Smart, has shown that he can bring the charm along with his impressive physique, but Faster keeps him from saying much of anything at all. He is quiet for the majority of the movie, limited to scowls and blank stares.

That demeanor is suitable in this genre, but the action is so bland, so boring and so weak that it isn’t of much use. Driver has five names on his hit list, but each encounter is more boring than the last. Three of his victims he simply walks up to and shoots in the head. The fourth turns out to be already dead. And the fifth he forgives, but not before having a good cry first. What a tough guy.

The action hits its creative peak during a car chase where Driver is swerving his way through traffic backwards and even that isn’t all that exciting. Faster is played out. It’s derivative and predictable, with a final twist that can be seen coming from the moment the film begins, and it doesn’t have enough material to cover its short 95 minute runtime. Instead of focusing on Driver, it dwells on idiotic side plots where Cop wants to set his life back on track, get off the dope and move back in with his family. It even gives Killer a personality, showing him at his weakest, struggling with his assassin lifestyle and wanting a simpler life, wishing to get married and start a family. Who cares? Faster is as impotent a revenge picture as has ever been produced.

Where’s the excitement? Where’s the vigor? Where’s the fun? You’ll find none of that here. It’s difficult to mess up a movie with as simple a premise as this. All you need is guns, blood and maybe an explosion or two, but Faster misses the target by a mile.

Faster receives 1/5