Hank & the Judge: Duo, P-PP Moral/Emotional, Pro (Classic Buddy Heroes)
The Judge: Single, N-P Moral/Emotional, Ant (Enlightened Lone Villain)
Scott, it looks like we’re about to judge the merits of The Judge.
All rise, the court is now in session. Greg, you may begin the opening argument.
We meet Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) who is a highly-paid Chicago lawyer – the kind who defends guilty people who have a lot of money. He’s doing pretty well in this capacity when he gets a phone call – his mother has died and now he must return home to Indiana to bury his mother and support his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) who runs a used car dealership and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) who is an autistic savant with a penchant for 8mm film. He must also face his father: Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). The problem is, the Judge doesn’t think much of his son Hank, so the two have a frosty reunion.
Hank and the Judge have a long embattled history, and so there are tense moments between the two men during the few days that Hank is in Indiana. Just before leaving to return home to Chicago, Hank notices that the right-front bumper of the Judge’s car is dented. Thinking nothing of it, Hank goes to the airport but then receives an alarming message from his brother: The Judge has been accused of killing a man in a hit-and-run crime and the victim’s blood has been found on the Judge’s car. Hank returns and becomes his dad’s legal counsel, and juicy revelations abound during the legal proceedings.
The Judge is a by-the-numbers Hollywood drama. We meet our hero (Hank) in his ordinary world when “something happens” (his mother dies) he transitions into his special world (his dad’s accident) where he has a problem to solve (saving his father) and learns a lesson (love people as they are). There’s an old girlfriend to rekindle a relationship with. There’s a mildly retarded brother to ask the naive questions. There’s the nemesis in the form of a prosecuting attorney who is out for blood. With few exceptions, there are no surprises.
There may be no surprises, Greg, but The Judge offers a workmanlike buddy story about two men who start out despising each other, mostly because they don’t know each other. Naturally, the story requires them to spend time together, allowing them to see each other’s humanity and depth. The healing of father-son rifts is a common theme in the movies. If Hollywood is right, there aren’t too many of us men out there who like our fathers. But movies like this give us hope of atonement.
The story is all quite formulaic, but for me The Judge works on the strength of the performances of two heavyweight actors of our time, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. These two mega-talents are a treat to watch. There is emotional chemistry and interactive sizzle in every one of their scenes together. Downey, Jr., in particular, dives into every one of his movie roles with a relentless intensity. His Type A personality serves him very well here in his role as a brilliant, workaholic attorney. Duvall’s performance is more subdued but he has us riveted to his every word. Not many star-studded pairings work in the movies, but this one, for me, is a grand slam.
Hank is a flawed hero. He is egotistical and has a hidden internal pain: he has an unknown history with his father. It’s clear that the two men have an unspoken anger that is exposed only bit-by-bit through the story. It’s this mystery that makes the story interesting. As Hank tries to defend his father, we see him slowly grow closer to Judge and we begin to understand why the Judge is so hard on Hank. The growth that Hank undergoes as he comes to grips with his past is what makes this a memorable movie.
You’re right, Greg. In any good buddy hero story, we should see each buddy become transformed. Hank grows in his appreciation for his father, not just at a personal level but also at a professional level. We see the softening of Hank’s heart along with an awakening of his larger call in life to follow in his dad’s footsteps by serving as a Judge himself. As for the Judge, we catch his transformation in mid-stream. The Judge has been battling a life-threatening cancer that has heightened his sensitivity to his legacy. There is a humbling here, wrought by age and disease, that is touching to watch.
The villains in The Judge are interesting and varied. Hank’s opponent in the courtroom is prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who isn’t a bad man but he is a skilled professional intent on bringing down the Judge. Another oppositional force is the town’s law enforcement personnel that pressures, interrogates, and arrests the Judge. Again, they aren’t so much villainous as they are providing the impetus for Hank and the Judge to grow closer together. Also, Greg, you alluded to Hank’s inner demons that he must overcome to grow and prevail in this movie. One could say that The Judge has the themes of both Men versus Men and Men versus Selves.
I think you’re right, Dickham is the obvious villain character. He has been beaten by Hank in the courtroom and he wants to win this case to get back at Hank. The Judge isn’t quite a villain, but he is an oppositional character. He doesn’t want Hank’s help and nearly gets the chair because he didn’t allow Hank to lead the case. This makes the Judge an oppositional character – he is getting in the way of Hank’s main goal – to free his father.
The supporting characters in this film are so classic that a parody of Oscar winning film trailers could have been made from The Judge. There’s the older brother, naive mentally challenged younger brother, old flame from high school, and adorable daughter. There’s some decent backstory there but it all comes from the same palette of movies gone by.
The Judge takes us on a journey of healing between a father and a son. The story may be formulaic but we grow to like and admire these characters, even with their many flaws. Moreover, the superb performances in this film carry the day and remind us why Robert Downey, Jr., is the highest paid Hollywood actor today. His counterpart, Robert Duvall, does more than hold his own against the dynamic Downey, Jr. Duvall exudes a quiet strength and depth of wisdom, delivering exactly what his role requires. The Judge is a fine film well worth watching. I’m happy to award it 4 Reels out of 5.
Our two buddy heroes, Hank and the Judge, are a terrific pairing that traverse their way from embittered enemies to admiration and even love. Their chemistry together has ample snap, crackle, and pop. Most importantly, Hank and the Judge undergo two personal transformations that involve a growing humility, compassion, and understanding. The performances here are dynamic and memorable. I give these two heroes 4 Heroes out of 5.
The villains are not terribly important in this film other than to serve as the mechanism for our two buddy heroes to work and grow together. I’m not disappointed with the villain characters in this movie, but I also won’t walk away from this film with any improved understanding or appreciation for these characters. They do what they do and that’s all this film requires of them. Consequently, I can only give a villain rating of 2 out of 5 here.
The Judge is a nice film which offers no new territory to traverse. It’s a classic story of atonement with the father. On the plus side everyone in the cast delivered a good performance and I left the theater feeling that I got my money’s worth. Still, I don’t see it winning any awards. I give The Judge 3 out of 5 Reels.
The hero is cut from a familiar cloth and played well by Robert Downey, Jr. He starts out as a pretty lousy human being with little to endear himself to us. But as we learn more about him and the reasons he left his home town we begin to realize that there is more to the story than we were at first given. I give Hank 3 out of 5 Heroes.
I have to agree with you, Scott, on the villains. There aren’t a lot of oppositional characters. For the most part, the Judge himself is the biggest oppositional character as he tries to handle his own case and gets in Hank’s way. While he was superbly played by Robert Duvall, I can only give him 3 out of 5 Villains.