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5 favorite Robert Downey Jr. performances

I'm just gonna put it out there: I'm not a fan of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies. I wasn't fond of the first one from 2009 and the follow-up opening this weekend, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," is even worse.
/ Source: The Associated Press

I'm just gonna put it out there: I'm not a fan of Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies. I wasn't fond of the first one from 2009 and the follow-up opening this weekend, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," is even worse.

But I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr., who stars as the intrepid detective. So I decided to turn a negative into a positive and use this opportunity to celebrate this hugely gifted actor's best work. Here are my five favorite performances of his; it was hard to narrow the list down, and the results may shock you:

— "Iron Man" (2008): The original "Iron Man," that is, not the inferior sequel. Downey might have seemed like an unusual choice at the time to play a comic-book superhero but it's difficult to imagine any other actor in the role; he's so quick-witted and he makes such inspired decisions with dialogue that, at times, might have seemed corny otherwise. Throughout his eclectic career, he's always been capable of both great charisma and vulnerability, and both are beautifully on display in what was (at this point) the biggest movie of his life. He turns Tony Stark into a riveting personality, both in his initial arrogance and through his process of struggle, self-discovery and reinvention. And the fact that Downey is a man who's lived a life, suffered some hardships and battled some personal demons of his own provides Stark with both substance and relatability.

— "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" (2005): Writer-director Shane Black's rat-a-tat neo-noir is a perfect fit for Downey's deadpan verbal prowess. As Harry, a thief-turned-actor who's up for a part as a detective, Downey bounces beautifully off Val Kilmer as the private eye who trains him for his screen test. This is an ideal role for Downey: a damaged figure whose dark sense of humor keeps him together. Harry, as our narrator — "My name is Harry Lockhart, I'll be your narrator," he congenially announces at the film's start — is fully aware of the conventions of the hard-boiled detective tale he inhabits, and he's aware that we're aware of them, too. And he has such a good time playing with them, it's impossible not get swept up in the movie's manic energy.

— "Tropic Thunder" (2008): He's the dude playin' the dude disguised as another dude — and in the process, he earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Downey demonstrated huge amounts of chutzpah and managed the tricky feat of finding just the right tone as Kirk Lazarus, a super-serious Australian Method actor who's so dedicated to his craft, he undergoes skin-pigmentation surgery to play a black soldier in a Vietnam War drama. This might have seemed tasteless and potentially offensive, but Downey is intelligent enough to bring nuanced bravado and even some surprising sympathy to the role. (He also delivers the film's funniest and most insightful speech about the strategy it takes to play mentally impaired characters.) And considering Downey's propensity for digging deep for his own roles — including his Oscar-nominated work in "Chaplin"— it's a sly in-joke to have him poke fun at himself.

— "Zodiac" (2007): David Fincher's sprawling serial killer drama is intense, dense and detailed in its obsession with procedure. That's why Downey's presence here is so crucial. He significantly lightens things up and brings a much-needed sense of comic relief — albeit with dark humor — as self-destructive San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, who covered the Zodiac killings in the 1970s. Fincher is a master of creating a deeply creepy mood, but as the bearded, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Avery, Downey has enough confidence and personality to shatter it — or at least make some serious dents in it — again and again. This is especially true in the contrast he creates in his scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal as the paper's eager-beaver editorial cartoonist who insists on staying on the case after everyone else has given up.

— "Two Girls and a Guy" (1997): I might have put "Wonder Boys" or "Less Than Zero" in this spot, but I've always really liked this movie. It has the compact immediacy of a play on film, with the majority of the action taking place in just a few rooms in Downey's Manhattan apartment. That's where the two women he's been dating simultaneously — unbeknownst to each other — confront him over a long, tense and funny afternoon. Downey's so charming, though, you can easily imagine why both Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner would want to date him — and why they're both willing to stick around and hash things out once they've discovered each other. Downey bobs and weaves, coddles and cajoles, but also shows a softer side, and writer-director James Toback's film is full of power plays and surprises.


Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: