There are certain moments in cinema that stand out as being truly iconic. Sometimes it’s a line of dialogue that goes on to become a revered quote – other times it’s a scene, or a song or even the opening credits (see: Star Wars).
However, sometimes an iconic moment in cinema is achieved with nothing more than the presence of the actors onscreen – a moment where the context, history and personality the actors bring to the table transcends the actual movie itself. Moments where life supersedes art, yet still moves us in the way great art does.
This summer’s action movie throwback, The Expendables, is trying to cash in on the thrill of seeing some of action’s greatest badasses – Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Statham, Li, Lundgren – trading fists, knives and bullets. For me, no scene in cinema has sizzled hotter than seeing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro talk cops and robbers in that now-famous diner scene from Heat. Sometimes, when the right screen icons come face-to-face in a scene, the moment turns electric.
Despite what you ultimately thought of Iron Man 2, the film did have one such “electric moment,” shared between acting powerhouses and recent comeback kids, Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr.
THE WINDING ROADS OF DOWNEY AND ROURKE
In the 80s, both Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. hit the acting scene and were quickly dubbed two of the best young actors of their generation. Rourke arrived first, gaining notice with a small role in Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film 1941; he then (literally) blew up into the big time after portraying an arsonist in the 1981 erotic thriller Body Heat, alongside William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.
Rourke went on to make his mark with roles in Diner (1982), Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 followup to The Outsiders), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), amongst other films. However, it was Rourke’s steamy onscreen seduction of Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) that catapulted him from being a rising talent to a full-blown ’80s leading man heartthrob. And so began his downward spiral.
Robert Downey Jr. was born in New York as the son of two performers. He got his start in the ’70s by acting in his father’s films, while receiving the type of prestigious NYC acting schooling you would almost expect of someone with his background. When he hit his twenties Downey Jr. broke out on his own, spending a brief year as a member of SNL (1985-86), gaining acclaim during the “Brat Pack” era starring as the bully in John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985), and then teaming with 80s teen icon Molly Ringwald in The Pick-up Artist (1987).
By the time Rourke starred in Alan Parker’s voodoo mystery thriller Angel Heart (1987) alongside Robert De Niro, he was already on the outs with his acting career. At odds with his heartthrob image, Rourke started to take on grittier roles in films like Barfly (1987) and Homeboy (1988), a movie he wrote and starred in, which centered on his other passion…boxing.
Critics started to take real notice of Robert Downey Jr. when he gave a stirring performance as a drug addict rich kid in the adaptation of author Brent Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1987). Ironically enough, Downey’s character in Zero would embody the very downward spiral that the actor would eventually be sucked into. He soon got roles in bigger films, like Air America with Mel Gibson (1990) and the ensemble film Soapdish (1990) alongside Sally Field, Whoopi Goldberg and other big names in the business.
As the ’80s crossed over into the ’90s Mickey Rourke stepped back from acting and resumed his career as an amateur boxer. While he had a fairly good record (undefeated in eight fights, six wins, two KO’s and two draws), the physical toll of the sport put a serious strain on Rourke’s health. During this same tumultuous time, Rourke had run-ins with the law for everything from domestic abuse to DUI’s, trading his leading man image for that of a reckless and volatile bad boy.
It was in 1992 that Downey officially became a sensation in the acting world, thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin in the biopic Chaplin. After that soaring height, many roles were tossed Downey’s way, including Natural Born Killers (1994), Richard III (1995), and Restoration (1995). It was during this highpoint of his blossoming career that Downey fell into the substance abuse problems that have plagued so many actors raised in the limelight.
In 1996, Downey was the subject of big controversy after being arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded Magnum .357 while speeding down Sunset Boulevard. From 1996-1999 the actor was arrested multiple times for drug-related offenses, while still managing to put impressive work up on the screen – The Gingerbread Man (1998), U.S. Marshals (1998) and In Dreams (1999). Downey ended the ’90s with a high-profile trial, which ended with him being sentenced to a three-year term at a prison/rehab clinic.
As Downey was ending the Millennium facing prison, Mickey Rourke was slowly making his way back into acting. Some of his roles were under-appreciated (the 1996 film Bullet that Rourke wrote and starred in with Tupac Shakur); other roles were flops (Another 9 1/2 Weeks, Double Team, Point Blank) and others showed glimpses of the Mickey Rourke who had shown so much promise in the 80s (John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66).