By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At the beginning of his latest film "The Judge," Robert Downey Jr. could be mistaken for playing the arrogant yet charming Tony Stark, the billionaire alter-ego of superhero Iron Man.
But soon the braggadocious armor sheds away and the film centers on a fractured relationship and generational disconnect between a father, played by veteran actor Robert Duvall, and his misunderstood son.
"The Judge," out in U.S. theaters on Friday and distributed by Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros., sees two Hollywood stalwarts face off in an intimate drama that takes place in and out of the courtroom.
Downey, 49, plays Hank Palmer, a charismatic lawyer who enjoys bending the rule book and earns big bucks in the city, while Duvall, 83, plays a town judge in rural Indiana who is revered for his honesty and integrity.
When the Palmer family matriarch dies, Hank grudgingly returns home and tries to reconnect with his stubborn father as they become entangled in a murder mystery.
"I just love the divide that's between Joe Palmer and Hank Palmer, that there's been 20 years of misunderstanding," Downey said. "Hank just wants to be understood, but he really has to come to understand this great man."
Downey channels the confident persona he inhabits in Marvel's "Iron Man" franchise and as the fictional British detective in the "Sherlock Holmes" films, but slowly strips away the arrogance to reveal Hank's vulnerability.
"They're these two men from different generations who have come to some sort of peace with each other," Downey said.
As Hank is pulled back to small town life, he evaluates his relationships with his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), a former high school athlete, and his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), who documents his family's journey with a Super 8 video camera.
Hank also finds himself facing two very different lawyers in the courtroom - the friendly C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), who deals antiques on the side, and Dwight Dickham, the straight-talking prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton).
"I'm usually being prosecuted," Thornton, who plays a lawyer for the first time in his career, said with a laugh.
"It was hard to overcome the fact that I was prosecuting Duvall, who I'm very close to. So I had to just forget about that being him."
"The Judge" is the first film from Team Downey, the production company started by Downey and his wife, Susan.
It sees Downey take on a more serious role to the action and comedy fare he has inhabited in recent years. While Downey's wife said the actor didn't make the decision to take on drama intentionally, she praised his nuanced performance.
"I think that Robert, the subtlety of what he's brought to Hank, and the raw experience that you go from seeing the guy we recognize from other movies in the beginning and watch that being stripped away and seeing the journey he goes on, I feel like sometimes that's undervalued," Susan Downey said.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Leslie Adler)